Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Joys of Working at Home

My wife and I both work at home. She is a technical writer, and I write books about careers. According to the Center for Clean Air Policy, the number of telecommuters increased from about 3 million in 1993 to 6 million in 2008. That’s only a small slice of the total U.S. workforce of 150 million, but the growth is impressive and is likely to continue, for several reasons.

The shift to a knowledge-based economy is one factor that has encouraged work-at-home arrangements. An increasing number of jobs (such as our writing jobs) don’t depend on access to factory-scale machinery, so they can more easily be done where the worker lives. To be sure, some knowledge-based jobs such as laboratory research still require facilities that few people have in their homes. Workers in some highly collaborative jobs benefit from close contact with co-workers. And health-care jobs require a lot of personal contact with patients, either in an office or in their homes.

However, technology has the potential to make a work-at-home arrangement easier for many of these jobs, too. As computing power has increased, more and more tasks that have traditionally required a physical laboratory can be performed in a virtual laboratory, through a simulation that stay-at-home workers can run from their desks. Computer networking also makes it easier for workers to collaborate remotely. With video contact (such as Skype) and remote desktop access, you and the other worker can feel very much as if you’re in the same room even as you work from your home offices. Telemedicine is being used to bring some health care tasks (mainly diagnosis) to underdeveloped countries, but we may see its use growing here. A relative of mine with heart problems has her vital signs checked remotely from home several times per day. The workers who interpret these signs could also be at home.

Work-at-home arrangements are not just more feasible now; they are also more desirable to employers. One former employer of mine encouraged workers to spend one day per week at home because of traffic increases in the township where the company was located. This policy allowed the company to expand its workforce without a commensurate increase in the number of cars on the township roads. The arrangement also reduced the burdens on company facilities such as janitorial and cafeteria services, not to mention electric power. Of course, these costs were shifted to the workers, but most workers are willing to take on the burden of running a home office for the benefits that the work-at-home arrangement offers.

And that is yet one more reason why the arrangement is growing: Many workers are more satisfied this way. From my own experience, I can list several reasons that the arrangement is so satisfying. The home setting is less stressful than a corporate office. I am rarely interrupted except when I want to be. I have the companionship of my wife, my dog, and my two cats. I can listen to Internet radio as I work (something that many companies forbid because of the drain on bandwidth). I have total control over the lighting, the heating, and many other aspects of the workplace. I can make a lunch better suited to my idiosyncratic tastes than I could find in a corporate cafeteria and fresher than I could have by brown-bagging. (In fact, the temptation to snack is one of the drawbacks of working at home.) With no need to commute, I save time, run up less mileage on my car, and reduce my risk of accidents. I can participate in the truly important meetings by teleconference but avoid the trivial ones.

This last advantage also can be a disadvantage in some circumstances. Working at home means you lose facetime with your co-workers. The bonds of water-cooler gossip are harder to develop from home. When performance appraisal time rolls around, your boss may feel more positive about onsite workers whom he or she sees every day.

Even more serious is the possibility that the job you are doing at home could be done--for less pay--by somebody whose home is in Bangalore, Shanghai, or some other offshore location. The same factors that encourage your employer to have you work off-site apply to these workers as well. So if you are choosing a job on the basis of how readily the work can be done at home, perhaps you should also look for a position that requires occasional on-site work (such as a weekly meeting) or some attribute (such as a security clearance) that an offshore worker is unlikely to possess.

If you have a fairly extroverted personality, work at home can lack the energy input that you would get from personal contact with co-workers. In my case, this means that working at home has made me very responsive to journalists who call to interview me about career-related issues. I enjoy the contact, albeit remote, and I’m happy to talk for as long as they press me with questions.

Workers with small children who are considering at-home work need to be realistic about how well they will be able to divide their attention between their jobs and their children. They probably will need to arrange day-care services just as if they were working in a company office. A toddler can be much more demanding than my cat, who right now is curling up under the desk lamp.

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