I have worked from home part-time (i.e. telecommuting) or full-time for 12 of the past 23 years. I’ve done so as a single guy and as a married guy with homeschooled kids about. I’ve done so as a full-time virtual worker (i.e. no home office), as an employee of an organization where I worked several days in the office and several at home, and as essentially a sole proprietor (not really, but close enough). So I have some experience with the idea.
I did the commute to work from the suburbs to Boston, from suburbs through Boston to the other side, and from suburb to suburb and I have absolutely zero desire to get back in my car every single day and sit in that mess five days per week. This is why I wholly support the new focus by those in both government and the private sector on encouraging more telecommuting.
When I worked for Mass. Citizens for Life, I was required to drive into the office in Charlestown three days per week, which was torture, because I sat in stop-and-go traffic on the way in and on the way out, sometimes taking more than two hours to get home, and it was completely unnecessary. There was nothing in the office that I needed to be there for. For most of my time working there, only one other employee worked in the office and we had completely separate functions. Some days we said hello and goodbye. Most days I didn’t do a single thing that I couldn’t do from home, often more efficiently because I have a better computer at home. And yet, every day I drove in I contributed to traffic congestion and pollution and the consumption of gasoline and took up a spot in the parking lot and so on.1
My boss at the time was very old fashioned and assumed that if you weren’t in the office, you weren’t working and what if someone came to the office and no one was there. First, no one came to the office unannounced. Second, that’s why the office manager was in the office.
But now Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed that the state offer tax incentives of $2,000-per-employee for companies to encourage more telecommuting to reduce the number of cars on the road. I heartily endorse this. Just anecdotally, I noticed every summer that the commute got easier, presumably because 10% of the people were on vacation at any time. Imagine if we get 10% more people to telecommute. Right now, only 4.7% of workers in Massachusetts telecommute full time.2 Nationally, the percentage of workers who telecommute at least part of the time rose from less than 9% in 2007 to 43% in 2017!
One of the worries is that working from home won’t work. Yes, some people are still worried about people goofing off, but (a) there’s plenty of goofing off that goes on in offices and (b) give people goals, treat them like adults, and hold them accountable. But others worry that remote workers are isolated, not socially, but from information.
One of the biggest problems is isolation, Farrer said — not social, but informational. Many companies don’t create specific communication channels or other protocols for teleworkers.
“Most conversations about remote work are very shallow,” she said. “You can work from the beach, hurray!’” As a result, workers can feel disconnected and less valued than people who are physically in the office.
In fact, according to a 2010 study, there is a bias against people who work off-site. They may face worse performance evaluations, fewer promotions, and smaller raises than their coworkers in the office, even if they work just as hard.
These are not insurmountable problems. There are lots of tools available today to help remote teams stay in touch and many companies use them successfully. But there’s also a cultural change required. Colleagues have to get used to the idea of taking extra effort to involve remote co-workers, to keep them informed, to not look down on them for remote working. After all, we’ve always had remote workers in business, like salesman or on-site technicians and others who aren’t in the office every day.
As for distractions at home, it hasn’t been a big problem for me. Sure, occasionally I have to go out and ask the kids not to make too much noise near my office when I’m recording a podcast, but even in our small 1,400 sq. foot house with five homeschooled kids here every day, it’s not a problem. Honestly, I love being around them, having lunch with them, helping them with schoolwork. Six-year-old Lucia is my coffee assistant and when I need a refill, I call her and she comes cheerfully, gets my cup, runs the Keurig, and brings it back. There’s no better work environment honestly.
I like how Hubspot, in that Globe article, does a weekly water cooler video conference, where they have a meeting that just a social gathering for remote employees, helping create the social cohesion of the office that could be missed. When I worked for Phil Lawler at Catholic World News and Catholic World Report magazine from 1996 to 2005, we saw each other in person no more than 3 or 4 times in 9 years, which worked for us. Right now, with SQPN, I see my podcast collaborators over Skype every week and we communicate through Slack, which also works.
And I’m certainly not working less than I used. Many weeks, I work 60 hours or more, many evenings and Saturdays when my collaborators are available. But because I’m home, it doesn’t feel like I’m depriving myself or my family of my presence among them.
The world of work is changing and many jobs in America are of the kind that if you have a computer and a good internet connection, you can get your work done. In some ways, we’re going back to the model of the home craftsman or farmer who lived and worked in the same place and who spent his days among his children and family, which I love much better than all that time I spent away from the people I love the most sitting in a car and an office from before the woke up until right before they went to bed, five days per week.
I hope I never have to go back to an office.
- Taking mass transit was not an option because the number of transfers I’d need to make would have dragged the trip out to hours on each end. Plus I’d have to park at a local MBTA garage or lot, which all fill up by 6:45 or 7 am. ↩
- Interesting to note that our neighboring states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are among the highest percentage of full-time telecommuters, with Rhode Island coming up quickly. Perhaps telecommuting to Massachusetts-based jobs? ↩