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February 1, 2009
Originally published in All Together Now

Telecommuting may let you answer email in your underwear, but is the home office all it’s cracked up to be?

home office 101 desk

“Honey, I’m home!”

Somehow, that cheery salutation of the ’60s sitcom—which often signaled that the fun was about to begin (and the martini shakers about to rhumba)—doesn’t have the same ring when the worker hasn’t left the premises all day, and may still, in fact, be clad in that morning’s dishabille.

My home-office stint began about a dozen years 
ago, when telecommuting was still a bit of a novelty. Two days a week I was permitted to bring home stacks of editing and writing, along with optimistic intentions 
of hunkering down in a room that contained a desk, a Mac, my entire wardrobe, and a Pilates machine. It seemed logical that this semiweekly reprieve from 
an annoying commute—and the design department’s musical tastes—should inspire me to even greater heights of productivity, if not artistry.

I’d love to say that I was a model employee, that I rarely abused my freedom by indulging in grappa tastings on the nights before my home days, doing Pilates when I should have been pawing through spreadsheets, or perusing magazines instead of some tract about soil amendments or Sissinghurst. The (then state-of-the-art) dial-up modem meant the phone might ring busy for ages and that emails could sit unread for a spell without my seeming like a total slacker. I also mastered the art of sounding perky before I’d had a sip of coffee or slipped a foot out of bed, which might involve extricating myself from another warm body. Like many who toil at home, I tended to have extremely clean dishes and laundry—which have traditionally provided a viable alternative to work that still, somehow, feels like work.

As technology has become more sophisticated, so has the employer’s ability to keep telecommuters on a longer, but more restraining, leash. The United States Chamber of Commerce estimates that nearly one in six U.S. workers—roughly 20 million people—now works from home at least one day a week, and that the self-employed segment has grown from 6.4 percent to 7.4 percent of the American workforce in the past five years. However, some companies are getting cold feet, despite the vastly reduced overhead and boost to the bottom line such arrangements provide.

Hewlett-Packard, the folks who pioneered the flexible work arrangement some 40 years ago, recently canceled telecommuting for a majority of its IT employees, predicting that bringing them together in the office will make them swifter and smarter. I’m not surprised. There’s something about the group dynamic and camaraderie of the workplace that can’t be replicated from the walk-in closet cum office. And it’s hard to mentor someone by remote control. However, when it comes to wasting time, it may be a draw. My friends who work in traditional offices seem to send out plenty of snarky snippets from Gawker, video clips from YouTube, and lovingly crafted deconstructions of the previous night’s Project Runway. And we all know that solo lunches don’t tend to drag on nearly as long as collegial gossipfests. 

These days, writing and editing at home as a freelancer rather than an employee, in a house that contains a dedicated office, I have a built-in incentive to labor if not more smartly, at least more swiftly. Where the workday used to kind of fizzle out, be it at five in the afternoon or ten at night, now it ends more with a bang than a whimper. There’s something about two four-year-olds shrieking, “Mommy, we’re home!” that tends to curtail many endeavors, although not, perhaps, the frenzied shaking of martinis.

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