In the phrase "Work From Home" the important word isn't "Home"

Sam Hart

2007-11-30 18:28:21

I have had a lengthy association with the "Work From Home" (or WFH) concept. As early as 2000, when I was at Intel, I wanted to WFH full time. At that time, I was working on a project that Intel couldn't have sold, but which was a tool that could make their internal testing much easier. This tool was something that my managers and I thought would be a perfect Free-Software/Open-Source project, and it seemed to be an ideal candidate for me working remotely. The concept of hosting a FLOSS project was rather alien to Intel higher-ups at the time, and it was decided to let the project die rather than FLOSS it and let competitors use it.

After Intel, I managed to make every aspect of my job at the U of A Physics Dept. able to be done remotely (Linux boxen were easy, of course, but the Win32 ones had a combination of Cygwin w/ SSH and VNC). This meant that I could WFH there, even though I very rarely did.

Then, at Progeny, we actually migrated to a mixture of WFH and working at the office for the last year of Progeny's existence. This worked better for some than others... but I'll get to that in a moment.

Finally, I landed at the Linux Foundation where I got to WFH full time. I have to say that I love WFH full time, and I tend to be a lot more efficient at my work when I'm WFH than when I have to drive into an office daily. However, there is one real problem with WFH. This problem is one of perception and attitude, and it's something that can be overcome. But in order to really be efficient at WFH you need to acknowledge this problem and rectify it.

I actually first noticed this problem while at Progeny. When we went to a more virtual environment a lot of the employees started working from home more and more. I know I certainly did- not having to drive 45 minutes to and from work every day shaved an hour and a half off of my daily commute. Add to this the fact that not dealing with all the idiot drivers had a tendency to make me a much more pleasant person to be around. And since 99% of the work we were doing at Progeny could be done anywhere you had a Linux boxen or two with sufficient disk space and a broadband connection, there was little reason to go to some central location just to get your work done.

The problem was that several coworkers of mine tended to WFH with the emphasis on "Home" instead of "Work". One had two or three small children (all under the age of 4) and a wife that wanted to start a career of her own. When he was working from home, she expected him to babysit these kids while she was off trying to build her career. Now, I'm not being sexist or anything here, I think it's great she was trying to start a career of her own. The problem was, she didn't really have that career yet... she was trying to build it. Meanwhile, her husband not only had a career but had a job... A job with coworkers depending on him. Expecting him to babysit these kids while trying to work isn't treating his job with any respect. And it makes it impossible to really do your work as if you were actually sitting somewhere in an office.

Another coworker had communication problems. He had no home phone, a broken cell phone, didn't read or respond to his email, was dead in our IRC channel, and was boycotting our Jabber server. Thus, there was no way to get a hold of him when he was working from home! He may have been terribly productive at home (he wasn't, but that's neither here nor there), but without any communicating with the others on his team there was no way of coordinating efforts. Invariably critical blockers to work projects would fall on his shoulders and they'd languish for days, weeks and even months, unless someone would physically drive over to his house, knock on his door, and ask him what was up.

The next time I noticed the problem with WFH was while I was at the Linux Foundation, except it was kind of an inverse of the above. I found that, even though I had a home office and everything set up for me to work there, I didn't feel like I was working. I'd take lunches where I'd go and eat in front of the TV or maybe play a quick game, and then I'd feel guilt about that. Sometimes I'd sleep in and feel guilt about that too. Basically, I felt as if I wasn't working when I was WFH, so I tended to overcompensate by working more. I'd work 9... 10... 12 hours or more to make up for the feeling that I was getting away with something nefarious. I'd stay up until 4am, and then get back up again at 7am, all the time working because I felt like I was somehow cheating the system. Eventually, I had to face the facts that I was actually getting work done... a lot of work done... and the guilt I was feeling had nothing to do with me not working, but had everything to do with the way I was focusing on the home part in "work from home".

The most recent time this problem hit me was today. I had stepped away from my computer to do something and came back to find my wife had logged me out of Gmail (which also logged me out of Google Calendar and Google Docs, both of which I use at work), and had somehow managed to fill my desktop with a dozen random browser windows. It took me a good 15 minutes to restore my workspace to what it was before I left. If you were in an office, would you just walk up to someone's computer, log them out of things, and check your email? No, you wouldn't (unless you were an ass). But if you emphasize the home part in "work from home", you wouldn't see any problem with this behavior.

Sam's advice for properly working from home

The principle problem in every one of the cases above is that the emphasis is on the fact that you're home, not the fact that you're working. When you're working from home, you need to put the emphasis on work. Treat it as you would any other job. If you think something is inappropriate, do the "Would I do this at work if I was in an office?" litmus test.

For some specifics, use the following guidelines:

Working from home

In the end, I still strongly think WFH is one of the best ways to work. There are so many benefits- everything from using less gas, spending less time driving, wasting less time with your commute, less redundancy of technology, etc.- that they easily overcome the downsides to WFH.

But, in order to make your home work environment more conducive to actually working, you will need to stop the "working from home" thoughts, and replace them with "working from home" ones.