Corporate America has a variety of names for them: the mobile employee, the remote employee, the work-at-home employee, the non-traditional office employee, etc. And then there are the names only used behind management's locked doors: the "soon-to-be-shitcanned" employee, the "marked" employee, the "invisible" employee, the "unproductive" employee, etc. Make no mistake about it: In today's workplace, absence does not make the heart grow fonder, it makes it grow suspicious. But I'm getting ahead of my snarky-ass self.
Until a few weeks ago I was an invisible employee at BFC (Big Freakin' Company), where over 50 percent of U.S. knowledge workers -- aka desk jockeys -- work from home. My boss and all of my colleagues are work-at-homers. I was the sole West Coaster; everybody else was either within a couple of hours of Grand Central or in Raleigh, N.C. The time zone difference generally meant I attended many virtual meetings and conference calls in my jammies (or less if I was feeling particularly subversive) and was usually half asleep until 9 a.m. when I generally took a nap and started over. Sounds heavenly, doesn't it?
There's no doubt that working in the boxers or bra and panty set of your choice is a pretty sweet way or working, along with the myriads of reasons that are enumerated for us in hundreds of blogs and articles about the 21st century workforce. The cons are just as plentiful and visible, but they fail to include the one reason why working from home will ultimately destroy the employee, the employee's family, and everyone within a two-mile radius, reducing them all to drooling zombies crawling naked through the effluvia of PCs, all-in-ones, phones, hard drives, cables and AC adapters.
(Warning: It may look to be a matter of semantics, but once you start peeling it back you'll see... everything is just a matter of semantics.)
"Work" at "home" is an oxymoron that carries profound psychological implications. Unlike "family vacation" and "police intelligence" -- cute, oxy-moronic phrases just for fun -- "work at home" generates the kind of cognitive dissonance that can cause a nine-to-fiver's mind to come unglued. Unlike the popular corporate aphorism "work/life balance," which implies that "work" and "life" are two completely different things and a balance must be achieved between the two for sanity to prevail, "work at (or from) home" implies that work and home, as places, are the same thing.
We're used to the idea that there are things that you do at work, and there are things that you do at home: You generally do not go to work in your boxers, listen to Pandora in the office, or have the TV on low in the background. At home you avoid working on spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations and expense reports. In fact, the "home" PC may not be equipped with many of the same applications as "work" PC. (Thanks to The Cloud, it's a moot issue where that app may reside anymore, which further melds work and home.)
Physically speaking, when "work" and "home" are the same thing, you can't go to work. Nor can you come home. It's all just one big gelatinous pot of simmering anxiety. There's no more peck on the cheek or "have a nice day" as the worker leaves the comforts of home to go toil in the salt mines. Nor is there any "Hi honey I'm home!" greeting while loosening the tie and admiring your partner's new lingerie.
Even if your home office is the former in-law unit over the garage, even if you put on a suit and tie just to climb the stairs to your lonely cell, even if you get in your car, drive around the block and park on the street... ultimately there is no amount of artifice you can build to disguise the fact that your bedroom is just a stone's throw away from your office. You'll come to realize that home is not only where the heart is, it is now home to the heartburn, the heart attack, and the heartless behavior of cutthroat corporate politics as well. There's no place left to hide and there's no escape.
What's even more damaging is the elimination of the process of getting from home to work and back again -- yes, the dreaded commute. A commute, one quickly realizes when working from home, is a critical ritual that, despite all the bitching and moaning we hear about it, performs a crucial function: It allows you to be neither at home or at work, but in-between. Whether you're in-between in your car, on the train, the bus, the carpool, and regardless of what you do with your in-between time -- read a trashy novel like Hack (by yours truly), read the paper, listen to some radio idiots insult their listeners with on-air farting contests, listen to Appalachian Spring while gently weeping, practice your surreptitious ogling skills while fiddling with your smart phone -- whatever it might be, the state of in-betweeness is probably the only freedom you'll have the entire day. And if you're carpooling or taking public transit, the commute can be priceless nap time that far outweighs the advantage of having a fully stocked fridge right down the hall from the home office.
But wait, aren't we free when we work from home? Not if you're part of the "always on" culture of instant messaging. I once had a boss that wanted to see that "available" message light on at 7:30 a.m. sharp and stay lit until 6 p.m. Lunch was to be eaten at the desk, and if your "away" message was on more than a half-hour at a stretch you were obviously goofing off. So the idea that the work-at-home employee can get away with midday tennis escapes, a quick nine holes after lunch or even a 10-minute nooner with the cleaning lady (or pool guy) is pure fantasy. It's more likely that you could go to the office and play solitaire during conference calls all day long with complete impunity.
Almost every work-at-home advantage is a potential psychological hornet's nest. For example, consider all that money you'll save on corporate uniforms. Trouble is, when you put on the uniform your brain, in fact your entire body, jumps up and says "oh boy it's time to go to work!" You stop thinking about Pinterest and start thinking about PowerPoint. People that you've considered with amiable curiosity all weekend begin to look suspicious: They could be trying to get you fired. All because you are now dressed for success!
Oh, cynicism is so distasteful! And I do like working from home. I really do! Work from home, work in an office, a cube, the basement, the sewer -- it all works for me so long as I'm getting a check. And I honestly believe corporate America's remarkable willingness to provide employees with all of the benefits of working from home is akin to a spiritual awakening of compassion and lovingkindness, opening like a Lotus flower in boardrooms across the land. Sometimes I think it might have something to do with how much cold hard cash the company saves when they shut down the corporate campus and deploy the employees to the cloud, but that's nothing more than negative thinking (I obviously need to go re-read today's dose of Marc and Angel).
I guess you could say once you start working from home you can't go home again. It's the truth -- I shudder to think of all the inappropriate behavior I would get slapped around for were I to show my face in an office. Meanwhile, I sure am glad I can sit here and get all rueful in my boxers while champin' on a fat Cuban and listening to Bill Frisell when I'm supposed to be working on a report.
Guess I won't torch this place just yet.
Jeb Harrison is a certified Snarkmeister and practicing work-at-home nudist. His novel Hack is celebrating it's first birthday while the next one, American Corporate, is in labor. Please visit "Adventures in Limboland" for the latest developments.