Home alone, stir crazy

A week into being self-employed, I wrote about how I’d found the previous three years working from home. It was a chance to debunk some myths and settle a bet with an HR director. The article was published by Management Today.


It’s one o’clock, I’ve been at my laptop for five hours and I’m ready for a break. I need conversation. Across the office, I catch the eye of my only colleague. I walk over, fondly press his hand – well, paw actually – and he delivers my favourite conversational opener: “Got any jelly babies?”

Even if you don’t have a life-size talking Basil Brush to keep you company, if you work from home then you’ll know where I’m coming from. There are times for home-workers when the exam-like intensity of your day leaves you desperate for human contact. Fox contact, even.

But surely home working is every weary commuter’s dream? Well, no. Regular week-long home working can easily become a nightmare. I’m glad to have left it behind. On paper, I was the perfect home worker: disciplined, self-motivated and conscientious. But you also need to be happy working in isolation, able to survive without a daily fix of office chat.

I thought that was me. After three years’ working at home, I knew it was not. It wasn’t so much the gossip I missed; it was the interacting.

I found I’d lost the knack. When you spend 10 hours a day bonding with a laptop in a room on your own, you don’t have a rich fund of stories with which to entertain your friends.

But why should that matter to your employers? You’re probably 25% more productive, they’re saving several grand a year on your desk space, and few of us are ever too sick to crawl across the hall to get to work.

I’ve heard the CIO of a big blue-chip company describe his utopia: a world where we can get information any time, any place, and where the office is redundant. We’ve got the technology cracked. So that leaves us with the hard bit: searching for a way to survive and thrive with almost zero social interaction. Because if employers want creative, problem-solving team players, maybe solitary confinement, although it might boost the balance sheet, isn’t the best answer.

You can have creative thoughts and solve problems on your own, but batting ideas around with colleagues in the same room is often so much better.

Pressures that drag you down when you’re on your own lighten or disappear when you laugh about them with others. Feeling part of a team helps get you through the day.

Occasional forays into the office don’t give you the fix you need. You either hog the floor, delirious at the chance to speak, or wonder what everyone is talking about because you were sitting at home when the topic under discussion last had an airing.

And many organisations find they have managers who are ill-equipped to cope with home workers. Trust is the hurdle, not technology. Yet trust is not the biggest challenge firms face. If home working is to be a success, then they need to be smarter at understanding the long-term effects on people’s health and well-being.

Working on your own, all day, every day, will wear down even the most resilient and spirited individual. Many full-time home-workers say they feel forgotten and undervalued as a result of their isolation. Or could that be paranoia? That’s another home-working hazard.


Image: Rosemary Eatherden