It’s been over 24 hours since I talked to anyone, except myself. That happens a lot when I work from home. Entire days can go by without a sound. (I could probably make a lot of money if I could find a way to sell the silence to parents of toddlers.) The new economy has more people working from home, either by choice or necessity. Even folks who aren’t working from home may be working from coffeehouses, coworks, libraries, or their cars. The era of the cubicle isn’t completely gone, but it is fading. New strategies, mindsets, manners, and logistics mean new opportunities and new challenges. Working from home also means getting the laundry done.
My first job at Boeing had me in a sea of desks. In 1980, cubicles weren’t as common as heavy metal desk by heavy metal desk, lead engineers sitting beside recent college grads sitting beside tech aides, everyone with the same kind of desk, everyone within an arm’s reach of at least two people. Privacy was created by co-workers discreetly ignoring other people’s phone calls. It also meant community and a real need to get along with other people.
I was lucky. My desk was boxed in by diversity: men from Sweden, China, Texas, Spain, Iran, South Africa, and a woman from Iran and an empty desk. Political debates weren’t Democrat versus Republican. Debates were between a socialist, a communist, a libertarian, an anarchist, a capitalist, a pragmatist, and a revolutionary. The capitalist and the revolutionary were both from Iran and tried not to sit beside each other. This was 1980. Check your Iranian history. Through it all, the man from China had the most enigmatic expression. Whatever we discussed was interesting but momentary compared to thousands of years of history in his country. The debates weren’t nearly as good as the food. Potlucks were amazing, and if I had a culinary blog I’d go into the details. But, oh, baklava!
I worked in the middle of an unofficial, accidentally bureaucratically created support network. It wasn’t perfect, but it was memorable and I learned a lot. It was also chaotic and an insight into the reality that everyone is fighting a personal battle unique to them.
That was in the era of careers based on one job, held for decades, hopefully bearable.
The modern era is based on accelerated change, constant re-organizations or mergers, obsessive pursuit of increased efficiency and profit, and less regard for the individual. If it costs less to have people work from anywhere else, great, there’s less money spent on facilities and utilities. Until there’s a backlash because some manager recognizes a drop in efficiency or feels the need to control adults even if it means treating them like children.
My modern era is based on the greatest work fluidity I’ve experienced. Instead of one job, I frequently work on as many as nine in a day. (Ah, and if only I got paid for all of them, but that’s another story.) A workweek itinerary may be as simple as staying home and combing my hair (really) before a video call. My itinerary may also be something more familiar to traveling salesmen, linking up locations and leaving time for the connecting commutes while also carting around everything for different clients while also making sure to pack a lunch and maybe a dinner. Driving around and eating out can make expenses match revenues, which leaves nothing to pay for living expenses.
There are great benefits to working from home. The commute is as short as possible (but work is never far away). I can roll out of bed (er, futon couch) and check email, news, and schedule before getting to the kitchen. Working at home may have its advantages but the greatest frugal benefits are things like spending less on gas, spending less time driving around and setting up temporary workspaces, spending less on clothes, and definitely spending less on food. Home cooking is best, is cheapest, especially when the cheap foods like roasts and beans can be set to simmer for hours. Hello a few extra pounds. (Few? Ha!)
Working from home can be isolating. Some aspects are great. Burp, fart, or sneeze if you need to. Some aspects aren’t so great. Working alone means working without a support network, unless your social media circles are robust. Working alone also means having less of a need for a formal, or even business casual, wardrobe. It is nice to work in sweats (though sometimes it is handier to work in bib overalls because of all the pockets), but dressing up does happen occasionally.
One intermediate solution is the trend in coworking. I’ve written about it before. A shifting collection of similarly nomadic workers jointly rent a space and try to find that balance between total structure and total freedom. Langley’s cowork space shut down a few months ago, but a new version has arisen. The local writers’ association (Whidbey Island Writers Association – which has a new name that I continue to forget but has the acronym NILA) has opened a space for its writers. Once a week (Wednesdays) a few of us use an old schoolroom. Laptops and caffeine cups. Casual dress, but not too casual. Relaxed environment, but keep in mind that others are working too, but keep in mind that total silence would be spooky. An opportunity to occasionally do a real world search by asking everyone for a good synonym, advice about what should be done for free versus fee, and HELP when a computer glitch startles and threatens.
As one of the co-organizers (Lori Kane, author of Reimagination Station) describes, working in a coworks is a great reminder to maintain at least a minimum set of sensibilities (heavily paraphrased). Talking to yourself is okay, but don’t do it too often. Noticing that everyone else is working is an inspiration to keep working. Noticing a spontaneous bit of chatter is a reminder that we all need a break occasionally.
Now that the for-profit coworks closed and the non-profit cowriting space has opened, I can see how such collaborative spaces can replace many seas of desks with lakes of laptops. I can also see how much the business model has to mature, at least outside the urban areas. Within the last few days a new business model has come to mind that may be worth trying, but more about that later as conditions and serendipity permit.
I worked from home today. It is a Saturday. There were no rules blocking my ability to work. (Yep, that happened.) There was a wind storm, so I took a break as the worst blew by. I might break my silence by calling a friend who also works from home, frequently on Saturday nights, because that’s part of the new economy as well. If not, another quiet evening and day may go by. In the meantime, I write in silence in comfort, and am glad that, amidst everything else that happened today, I got the laundry done.
Always nice to see your take on the ups and downs of we home based workers.