Avoiding being a remote hermit

Last week I wrote a little bit about my experience working from home. I mentioned that I sometimes work from a local coworking space to get away from the noise of my kids. What I didn’t say is that I do it to be around people — because I don’t. I like being social, but I don’t feel like I miss anything working from home.

I leave the house more often than I’d probably choose to. I think my record is eight days without leaving the house, but it’s almost always much shorter than that. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking the kids to school in the morning. Other times I actually go do things with my friends. But I can’t say I’ve ever felt the need to work from not-house just to be around people.

Part of that is that I often interact with people over text (e.g. Twitter, instant messaging, etc) anyway. In my jobs, I’ve always been able to be relatively available online, so I’m able to keep in touch when I need interaction. And I often spent time on the phone or in video calls with people, so I got that higher-bandwidth interaction, too.

But I can see how someone freelancing or otherwise not interacting with coworkers regularly can quickly become a recluse. The Trello blog recently ran an article about avoiding becoming a hermit. I read it thinking “yeah, this is good advice but I take a slightly different approach.”

For example, I don’t dress up in “work clothes”. I wear shorts and a t-shirt when it’s warm and add more clothing when it gets colder. But I do have a rule that I won’t wear pajamas unless I’m sick. I don’t need slacks and a collared shirt to feel like I’m at work, but wearing pajamas is basically an invitation to not even bother.

I also don’t watch TV during the work day, with rare exception (hello, NCAA tournament!). But I do listen to podcasts. I frequently notice that I don’t really pay attention to what’s been said; they’re really more like background noise a lot of the time. Except when I need to focus on reading, the podcasts don’t really get in the way. I can even write with a podcast playing most of the time.

Overall, not leaving the house is one of the benefits of working from home for me. Life forces me out of the house enough, and I’m just social enough, that I can still get the human interaction I need. Your mileage may vary.

Working remotely or remotely working?

It’s been almost six years since I became a full-time telecommuter. While I won’t rule out working in an office again, it’s hard to imagine at this point. Offices are a nice place to visit, drink the free coffee and soda, and then leave.

I’ve worked for an entirely remote tech startup. I’ve worked as (as far as I know) the only true remotee in a 100-plus person division of a 130 kiloperson company. Now I work on a different continent from my manager on a project where some of the people I work with aren’t even employees of my company.

Across these different experiences, I’ve had both good and bad. But working remotely has not only been personally beneficial, I think it’s made me a better employee. Oh sure, there are times that I just sit there and stare at my screen blankly. Or I’ll absentmindedly surf the Internet instead of doing work. But I did that when I worked in an office.

But working from home means that when I can’t focus on work, I can step away for a few minutes to do laundry or vacuum or read a book to my kid. These short breaks where I can truly get away mean that I can focus that much better when I get back. I was never able to do that working in an office.

When I was working in marketing at Cycle Computing, I would sometimes mow the lawn during the work day. I didn’t need to be immediately available in case of emergency, and I found that the forced isolation of mowing the lawn made it easy to focus. I could do a lot of writing in my head as I mowed and immediately type it up when I got back inside.

I haven’t found that I need to be more disciplined working from home. I have a room with a door that I use as my office, so I have some physical separation between “work” and “home”. I did a few work-from-home days when I was at Purdue and each time I noticed that I was much more productive on those days because I didn’t get involved in a bunch of conversations that I didn’t need to.

These days, I sometimes leave the confines of the house to work from the coworking space I belong to downtown. The main motivation is that my kids are bigger and louder than they used to be, so days when they’re home, they make it difficult to concentrate. And sometimes it’s nice to have a cup of coffee that I didn’t have to make for myself. And now there’s science to back up my decision to stay out of the office.

Working from home

A couple of months ago, Harvard Business Review ran an article about working from home. The article didn’t say telecommuting is the worst, but it did point out some of the productivity and morale benefits of office interactions. After two years of my own working from home experience, I thought I’d reflect on my own opinions.

The thing that has surprised me the most is how much I miss having a commute home. Whether by bus, bike, or car, my trip home took 15-30 minutes. It was my time to switch from work mode to home mode (and if I were riding the bus, watch some Netflix). My commute home now is the two seconds it takes me to stand up and leave the room. If I’ve had a rough day at work, immediately walking into a 4 year old and a 1 year old (and a wife who has been herding them all day) doesn’t allow for much time to reset.

I do sometimes miss the personal interactions with my coworkers. I have a colleague across town, and I see him in person once every few months. On a normal day, the fact that I can work without someone sitting in my office distracting me is a benefit. When I do need to talk something out, coworkers are a video call away. I really only miss physical presence on days when I’m just not feeling very motivated to work.