Working from home: Is it sustainable?

Right now, as I write this, I am theoretically ‘working from home’, even though I’m not at home. I’m in Wonthaggi, telecommuting from the study/lounge of the flat that E’s employers have given her while she serves the term of her indenture completes another educational and fulfilling rotation.

I have been advised by various people that Wonthaggi is not a great place to be if you want to do anything, or at least, anything other than farming or surfing. I am looking forward quite eagerly to the challenge of doing anything other than sit in front of this bloody laptop and attempt to work. The phrase stir crazy covers it nicely: this lounge/study is a nicer place in almost any imaginable respect than my office in the city, yet it is also an unspeakably boring place. There’ something intensely perverse about all of this: I don’t generally enjoy chatting with my workmates. What do we have in common besides work? Very little. I don’t enjoy being surrounded by people typing and and talking on the phone or to each other: they disrupt my work and make me twitchy. But, take them all away, and it is literally a matter of seconds before I start to gibber.

This leads me now to question a fundamental life goal that I have long cherished and held dear: The idea that one day I will be able to only work from home.

It’s like I’ve been saving up all this time to buy a car, only to discover that I hate driving. What do I want to do with my career? I know I’m good at system administry, but that road leads to roughly here and then meanders off into management, a future akin to eternity in hell as I see it.

I could have a go at making Trouble into a company, but I fear that I just don’t have the immense metallic gonads necessary to found a real tech startup in this post-dot-com-boom era, nor the large pile of cash that some lucky buggers carried away at the end of that particular free-for-all.

I had many plans, when I was twenty, for what I would have done by the time I was thirty. It never occurred to me that I might need a plan for what to do after I turned thirty. 🙂

8 thoughts on “Working from home: Is it sustainable?

  1. Dude, this is why many people who work from home have a dedicated office space in the house. When you are in a lounge room (even one in someone elses house), your subconcious tells you, “This is where you relax.”
    When you are in a place that is dedicated to work and has all the usual settings of a work space (desk, phone, everything set up properly), your brain is telling u to work.
    Also, when your “Working from Home” you will naturally feel that the pressure is off and you can work whenever you want, instead of making sure you get all you need to do done between 9am and your lunch break.

  2. Thanks Heffa, Sabik, I saw the BoingBoing article, in fact I think it’s what started the wheels turning towards this particular post. Sadly, not only is this not The Valley, but I will probably need to be working some distance out of town in the medium-term future, in order to facilitate E’s rural work obligations. If I want to work with other IT people, I will need to make my own hatfactory, and maybe my own Valley while I’m at it. 🙂

  3. I found that a stint of work-from-home was okay. It wasn’t brilliant but it did work.
    For me, work-from-home required a few tricks:

    * A dedicated room, where I could walk in and feel “at work”, and at the end of the day, walk out and shut the door and switch-off the “job” part of the brain.
    * Minimal distractions. Ignore the phone, wear noise-canceling headphones, listen to music, etc. If you want to read email, blogs or whathaveyou, save it until you have a break, walk out and do that stuff from a different computer. The room I mentioned above was bare, except for the work-desk (which contained computer, printer, CD/CD-ROMs, a couple of work-related books and a steadily increasing pile of random paper/printouts). The room was empty enough to echo.
    * Taking breaks regularly was no problem, only you had to remember to leave the room and context-switch at the door. Same goes for walking in/out at the start/end of the day. I was advised that walking out of the house in the morning and “walking to work” would help as a psychological trick but I never really felt the need to push that hard (other than to occasionally go for a walk, but that’s a pretty typical de-stressor for me most of the time, anyway).
    * I tried to avoid the temptation to treat it as a really casual thing when it comes to working hours (sleep-cycle problems notwithstanding). ie: don’t think that because you’re working from home, you can take a three our lunch-break, or just pop in to work for half an hour between TV shows in the evening.

    Work-from-home’s failure is often unavoidable by the very nature of the work you’re doing. And, some people simply aren’t cut-out to handle that level of solitude…they need to hear people walking around or overhear occasional conversation (the TV in the background at low volume doesn’t count).

    In my case, I mixed WFH with working on-site. The face-to-face stuff (and the occasional phone-call and usual flurry of email) was vital for team stuff, some meetings and to absorb braindumps from cow-orkers. The “usual” solo stuff that makes-up a fair chunk of my work was where I benefited from work-from-home. Tech Writing has the sort of mix where that balance can work nicely.
    eg: how much sys-admin stuff can you do remotely, and how much must be on-site with you pecking at the physical hardware? Sometimes, you simply must talk with someone in person to observe stuff happening, learn new things, explain things (or beat lusers to a pulp with the LART-stick).
    For example, if I was serious about photography than WFH would suck miserably. On the flip-side, a friend of the family has successfully done WFH as a hairdresser for many years (she has the salon in a converted room attached to the family home). Another friend is a published novelist…he found WFH a bit troublesome at times but discovered that things clicked when he took the laptop to his girlfriend’s place (so he moved in with her, which was a win-win if you ask me. 😉 ).

    Overall, it’s not a silver bullet. It can work well for some types of jobs, be impossible for others, and be only a partial solution for most. You’ve still gotta get stuff done each week…and it requires discipline, only a slightly different type of discipline.
    If you try to eat and sleep and work and play all in the same place, you will cease to function as a nice human…establish appropriate physical and mental divisions from the outset.
    You can save time/energy/money/pollution in travelling, work in a comfortable environment, wear whatever clothes you want, avoid most of the office-politics, etc.
    You can’t get out of doing the work, though. 😛

  4. There’s a couple of other things I should add:

    The first:
    My parents’ small business was (they’re now officially retired, after a few years of semi-retirement…but they didn’t do that until they hit their 70s) run from home.
    The garage was the workshop, the family station-wagon doubled as the work vehicle when the van was in for repairs, the back-yard was a general spill-over for random junk, and we never really had a dining-room because, for much of the time, it was more of an office. Customers would knock on the front door, or simply walk around the back of house, expecting to see a shop. Answering the phone at any time of the day or night had to be done in a “work voice” (and long phone-calls were a no-no until call-waiting was invented). Even when I was in Kindergarten, I recall trade/delivery-vans dropping-off random spare parts.
    Consequently, even though I was never part of the business (except on weekends or school holidays, when I was an unofficial “apprentice”), I could never avoid it or “switch-off” from what was around me. Similarly, I probably cause considerable irritation to some people these days by not being fully “switched-on” to the job mindset all the time.
    I think my parents appreciated being able to work and keep an eye on their five kids at the same time, though. 😉

    I’m not saying it was a bad thing, but I wouldn’t do it like that again by choice. The way I did WFH a year or two ago was a lot closer to my ideal of “WFH done right.”

    Doing a Cert IV in Small Business taught me a bunch of useful stuff. Foremost was that the easiest startups to get off the ground are those that require little or no equipment or expense, do not sell tangible goods, are mostly service-based and can be done by a small group of people (as few as one) with the chance of scaling-up cleanly. A lot of I.T. stuff fits the bill perfectly, which is why the cliché of “garage computer guy” exists. 🙂

    The second:
    One contract I did a few years back was a bizarre brand of WFH. For one or two people there, it was WFH, and for the rest of us, it was an office-job crammed into a rental house. Three or four rooms of the house were crammed with desks, computers and sweaty geeks. The bedroom at the back of the house (ye olde walled-in back veranda) was the server-room because it was freezing cold and the floor had a pronounced slope.
    None of this, however, should be an excuse for skimping on functional equipment, furniture or OH&S requirements. *grumble*
    I don’t know how the residents coped with having most of the house be a crammed office…right down to their kitchen being the a meeting-space and tea-room.
    The household dog wandered around, randomly sniffed things and occasionally demanded a pat. You don’t get that (or a semi-autonomous mascot) in most jobs. 🙂

    It gave me the idea, though, that if you wanted to set-up an office-space on the cheap for a small business, you’d probably get a better deal renting a suburban house than an office in the local town/city (after you’d checked your residential lease and local council regulations pertaining to running a small business from a residential zoned property. IIRC, it’s something like Section 51). If you wanted to “do it right”, you’d lock-up at the end of the day and walk/ride back to your real home a few streets away.
    Perhaps that could work as a low-cost start-up Hat Factory?

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