The Challenges of Working From Home

In the April issue of Inc. Magazine they did a great feature story about virtual companies, actually going as far as turning Inc. “virtual” for the production of the April issue.  The entire article is a great read and touches upon many of the aspects of running a remote company, but I found the reactions of some of the Inc. staff who were working from home to be particularly interesting. Here are a few quotes from the article:

…”The hardest aspect was just getting my family to accept that while I am now physically at home, I am not really available,” says Rick Schine, a senior editor. “There were moments of sheer joy — like overhearing my son practice his piano downstairs — but there were also unexpected tensions.”

…”In a strange way, I felt more tied to my computer than I felt before,” says Kasey Wehrum, an Inc. writer. “I was spending all day in my tiny apartment, not talking to anyone. I felt weird.” He had expected to use his lunch hour during the virtual month to go to the gym or take care of chores. Instead, he rarely took a lunch break at all.

…”I got my work done, but I really didn’t interact with that many people virtually,” says Lindsay Silberman, a reporter who joined Inc. just two months before our experiment began. “Not seeing people every day really hindered my ability to bond with everyone else.”

…Cutting down the volume of communication also makes it easier to do certain kinds of work. I was much more productive as a writer at home, where I found myself able to stay focused for long stretches of time, often becoming so engrossed that I would work late into the night, forgetting to stop. On the other hand, when I wasn’t writing, I felt isolated; my mood swung wildly from extreme satisfaction one minute to dire self-doubt the next. These feelings are common among remote workers and require regular, deliberate attention from virtual CEOs.

…But most Inc. employees said that, although an office in the abstract sounds like a rather depressing place to spend the majority of one’s adult life — easy to mock, difficult to love — they had nonetheless found room in their hearts for this peculiar institution. “I liked the freedoms that working from home presented, but I felt like my life became less dynamic,” wrote Travis Ruse, our photo director and the guy who conceived of the pictures in this article. “My job really became just about my job. I missed the distractions and surprises that my co-workers bring to the day. Part of working is the social aspect of doing something collaboratively. I missed that very much.”

We run a quasi-virtual company. On Monday’s when we’re all in the warehouse we resemble a very traditional company in the sense that we are all physically present, we have team meetings, and we make money by packing and shipping physical goods. As I noted in my post about my typical week, the rest of the week we don’t see each other and everyone works very independently. We have various methods of communication that we use, which closely resemble how a completely virtual company might work.

It’s an interesting balance, however it’s one that I don’t think about too often. Then I read an article like that and I realize just how different we are than most companies.

The weird thing is, I don’t feel any of those things from the quotes…but I used to.

Read the archives from 2006 and 2007 and you’ll find plenty of those types of statements.  After I read the article, I found myself contemplating what has changed.  I narrowed it down to two options: 1) we’re more successful so there’s less stress, or 2) I’m just more used to it.  I’d love to say that #1 was a factor, but I don’t think it was.  In their case, they all already worked for a successful magazine.  It wasn’t so much about their work, but everything else that work used to entail: getting ready in the morning, commuting, water cooler talk, going out to lunch, meetings, etc.  If you do that for 5/10/20 years, that becomes your “normal”.  For me, it was my normal too.  When I left my job, I had a hard time transitioning.  Everyone I know who has made the same transition has had the same trouble.

Thing is, it’s really just a matter of time before working at home becomes your new “normal”, and once that happens, the thought of putting on biz-casual clothes and driving to an office every day sounds just as horrible as the thought of working from home in an isolated environment used to sound.  Inevitably, if you’re to be successful, you create a physical work environment that effectively separates work and life.

Then there’s the social aspect.  For me, this was the hardest part, but even that can be overcome with a little work.  Get involved in a few things that get you out of the house, work at coffee shops or the library, and make sure to make yourself get out and spend time with friends and family.  It’s really not any harder to meet and interact with people, you just have to take a different approach. If anything, I’ve come to truly value all of the good relationships I do have and put more effort into cultivating those.  Rarely would I just contact a friend out of the blue and try to arrange lunch or coffee, but I do that routinely now.  Same goes for your work interaction – it’s different, but different doesn’t always mean worse.  You have to make the most out of the time you do have together (our Mondays and team dinners out) and learn to communicate effectively via other mediums.

This lifestyle definitely isn’t for everyone, but I think a lot of people immediately write it off because they’ve tried it for a few days or weeks and determined that they missed their work environment too much.  Or, they’re so focused on starting their company that they don’t bother to devote any attention to how this major transition will impact their life.  If this is something you ultimately want to do, you have to be willing to put the time and effort into developing a completely new work-life balance.  And if you do that, it can be freaking awesome.

15 comments on The Challenges of Working From Home

  1. Amber Shah says:

    You’re right that working from home isn’t for everyone, but then again, I absolutely love it. I am way more productive than when I go into the office and am overall a happier person. I find that when I am in the office, I spend very little time actually conversing with people anyways, and most of that time is wasteful and can be cut out. I love skipping the commute, having access to my kitchen for lunch, being able to walk out into my garden with my dogs for a break (instead of hanging out in a lame coffee break room). And, shall I say it again? I am literally MORE productive at work.

    I don’t think that having people who have worked in an office for so long, who clearly have a bond with their co-workers based on face-time work from home for a month is a valid test at all. It’s like having someone quit caffeine, going from 2 coffee cups a day down to nothing for a month. In the long run, most people will feel much better if they did this, but that doesn’t mean they will feel good that first month cold-turkey.

  2. Dale Ting says:

    Adam, I yearn for a location-free type job… especially every time I sit in traffic in the morning when commuting to work. Why do we all hafta go to work at the same time? And working at coffee shops is awesome.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Oh man, I used to get so frustrated when I sat in traffic and my 20 minute commute turned into 45!

  3. Rob says:

    I read that article the other week too and I totally agree on the point about inc not being used to working in that way – although we go and do our actual shoots on location, that is a very small part of my working hours. (nevertheless, we each cover about 20k+ miles a year going on location!).

    I’ve never worked in an office. I had a warehouse job for a bit in school but this is really the only way of working I’ve ever known. I’m completely used to my work space and home spaces being integrated and although I occasionally work late into the night I don’t usually have a problem flicking between modes.

    A post on nev’s blog prompted me to look up coworking and “jellys”. I had a look around and it turned out there was a brand new coworking space that had literally opened the previous week in Cardiff, S.Wales, where I live (that’s right, I live in the UK but not England!). It’s a very cool space in a previously unused office in a local TV studio with lots of cool people and I’ve been a few times and worked very well while there. However, it’s a 20 minute+ commute, in bad traffic closer to 45 and it’s not free. If I were going stir-crazy then I’ll probably spend time there occasionally but as all of my files, folders and paperwork are here and I am very used to and comfortable with my work environment I don’t think I’ll be going there very often.

    I think the way you work is a good mix of social contact and freedom – in a way we’re similar – I get to do the whole dressing up smart/in a suit and meeting clients etc. but I also have the freedom of working how and when I want the rest of the time. I just wish I didn’t have to travel quite so much!!

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Coworking intrigues me too. There are some people trying to start one here in Albany, but nothing actually exists closer than NYC that I know of. I think I’d be curious to try it, but like you said, it doesn’t really make sense unless you go stir crazy or your business is based upon networking with other local business owners.

      You have an interesting business because you work from home a lot but you travel a ton too. How much time per week do you spend at shoots? Do you go to every shoot? Are most of them on nights/weekends? How does that impact your work hours? (my turn to ask all of the questions :))

  4. Joshua Holt says:

    Another great post Adam. It coincided with my consultant roommate who has decided he’d like to find a permanent job in an office (doing the same thing he is now) for the social aspect. To each their own!

    I think a popular option for people who feel that they would go stir-crazy working from home is to rent a desk inside another company. If you rent a desk, you get overhead support from the larger company and also get the chance to socialize with the other people in the office while still retaining the flexibility of your own schedule. I did this for about four months in a London office and thought it was fantastic. It’s also a great networking opportunity and a chance to be around other creative people.

    It’s also great for a small startup because they can recoup some of their expenses for rent/internet/electricity by renting a few of their unused desks. That makes it win-win in my book.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      That’s a great point Joshua. I know a few solo-entrepreneurs who do that. Especially if you can find something close to cut down on the commute (or ideally make it a walking/biking commute).

  5. Great point Adam. Essentially, it’s all a matter of perspective. I’ve *never* known anything but working virtually. And it’s funny, but I’m only just coming to realize how ridiculously rare that is. Most freelancers, business owners, etc come from a background that allows them to compare how working from home is different. I never had that. This is *my* “normal”.

    It just seemed like a natural extension for me, seeing as how I did small, side-projects on the computer in high school. Once I hit college and thereafter, I just kept doing those projects, except I figured out what centralized business goals they were attached to, and switched from school and a part-time hobby to a full-time business. In all honesty, I can’t say that it ever even occurred to me to seek a traditional job, vs. just continuing to do what I was already doing. And now, when I think back, the way I do my work is no different than when I was 15, for better or worse. It’s just the norm.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      I think you and Nev are the only people I know who have never taken a job. It’s awesome to hear your perspective. It’s really really really unique and rare.

      Your point about working the same as you do when you were 15 made me think of something. Working from home is much more like how you work in high school/college than it is how you work in an office environment, which is just one more reason I think it’s advantageous to start a business in school like you did…assuming you think this is the lifestyle you might want. It’s a much more natural adjustment than working for 10 years and then doing it.

  6. Tim says:

    Much like going on a vacation, working from home for a shortish period of time only gives you a glimpse of what it is really like. Most people don’t understand you still have to work, they think you just loaf about the house and get paid. I know a lot of people who lack the discipline to work when left to their own devices they would tool around on the net, play video games, eat and never get any work done, with that said it’s not hard to identify these people, they are the ones who just skim through life, hang out at the water cooler and take LOTS of bathroom breaks. The social aspect is odd at first but you get used to, or at least I have, I haven’t had an “office” to go to in nearly 3 years now and while I could adapt back into that regiment I wouldn’t want to. I make the most of my social excursions, I engage in interesting conversations, do activities I enjoy with friends and family and even while working I’m constantly on the phone and IM’ing business contacts. The work system I’ve discovered that works best for me involves the “chunking” we have discussed in previous posts, depending on the task 2-5 hours “chunks” of time with a lengthy siesta in between. Using this system I can easily work 12 hours/day and it doesn’t seem like it. Going out for long lunches, breaking up the day with a little Wii or going for a walk in the mid-afternoon make the chunks seem like they are minutes passing rather then hours. Speaking of which it’s 2:25 in the afternoon and a beautiful day so I’m going for a walk 🙂

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Speaking of nice days, I just went out for an hour long bike ride right smack in the middle of the day today. Love the flexibility. I think I’d go nuts without it. I can make that hour of work up tonight when it’s dark and cold(er) out.

  7. Rob says:

    Ask away, maybe it’ll shut me up for a bit! 😉

    A very small proportion of my time is spent at shoots. A shoot is typically evening, 5pm-1am, sometimes as late as 3am. They’re usually on the weekend, though during the week as well in peak seasons (end of semesters). We do about 100 a year but that’s growing all the time and we hope to hit 150 this year. I personally attend about 60% of our shoots, maybe a bit more. My business parter attends a similar amount but we rarely work together – we usually work with 1 or 2 members of staff each (we now have 36 people with whom we work – a mixture of freelancers, part-timers and contractors). On the larger events we could have as many as 10-12 staff. We also have a number of staff whom we trust to run things with no supervision; they do a great job and it’s because of our brilliant people and training that we’re able to do things like run multiple events simultaneously in separate locations – currently the record is five.

    During off-season I usually work about 9-6 most weekdays and take the weekends off unless there’s a shoot. During peak season it’s back-to-back 18 hour days, usually for a couple of weeks without a day off, so there’s a great variation in how we work depending on what is going on.

    Like Nev and Anthony I also have never really had a “proper” job. I did some weekends in a warehouse when I was 16 (christmas temp) if that counts, but that’s all. The way I work is totally normal to me and although many of my friends do the 9-5, I find the idea totally alien. Other than coworking, I’ve never actually been in an office.

    We started the company while at university and the way I work now is very similar to how we did then, so it seemed a natural progression.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Awesome insight. Thanks Rob. I’m impressed by how well you’re able to co-ordinate everything. 5 events at once is nuts! Your peak season reminds me of our Christmas season…total chaos all day long 🙂

  8. Rob says:

    Yup – my job is pretty much marketing & logistics, with a little photography thrown in!

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