In the modern marketplace, technology has allowed for a less traditional approach to workspace. Thanks to internet speeds, mobile technology, webmeeting applications, and virtual conference areas, we are no longer bound by boardrooms and cubicles. Telecommuting is the perk… and yes, the curse… of the modern professional.
For those who have known me the whole of my professional life, it comes as no surprise that I have seen the opportunities and trials of non-traditional workspace. In days gone by, I actually field tested some of the earliest incarnations of smart phone technology at remote access sites for internet providers and mobile communication services. I am an unashamed and unabashed geek. At the time, I was totally excited by the prospect of being untethered to office walls and windowless workspaces to access servers from wherever I could catch a decent signal. It felt like Star Trek, and I couldn’t be more pleased to be part of that away team.
As my career path shifted, I entered my current field and as an emergency service worker, my office was mobile. It was often my vehicle. The ethical considerations of confidentiality and security for privileged health information were forever in the forefront of my mind. The technology was improving, but I still spent a good deal of my efforts and time safeguarding actual paperwork and worrying about what I would do if the worst should occur, and I happened to be in an accident that would leave my work unguarded. Other downside of my previous roles involved the definition of “business hours.” Being on call, sometimes 24 hours per day and without recognition of holidays or paid time off led to a little something I call “boundary blurring.” Yes, my job was my life. Part of it was just the nature of the beast. Pagers that went off at all hours and employers that called me whether I was scheduled for a shift or not were just part and parcel of the gig. Crisis intervention, intensive inpatient residential, and critical incident work do not know a 9 to 5 schedule. Besides that, another part of problem was my own work ethic and difficulty establishing a personal life boundary as well as hesitancy in being assertive with bosses that tended to lack respect for life outside the office and the need for personal time.
Sadly, this resulted in what usually happens when the work-life balance is ignored. I became completely crispy. I developed burnout and compassion fatigue accompanied by some not terribly healthy relationship neglect issues. It actually got so bad that for a time, I considered leaving my chosen career all together. This is a common risk for people in the helping professions and for those who work in the first responder fields. However, it has also become a risk for anyone who has a telecommute position.
When I took a position with my current employer, one of the “perks” of the job (according to my colleagues and supervisor) was being able to work from home anywhere from a couple of days per week to full time telecommuting. For many of my coworkers, this was a blessing and a treat. They saved gas, and did not have to brave traffic and weather to sit in a somewhat colorless office space 40 or more hours per week. I was the holdout. I staunchly refused to use my opportunity to WAH (work at home). They thought I was nuts, but I knew myself better. I needed the physical, geographic boundary between office and home. I knew the dangers of the workplace invading my home space. I didn’t trust myself to impose the psychological barrier if the physical wasn’t there as a reminder. So, I continued to leave my office at the office, and my home was free from the work influence and accoutrements of the office life.
Over time, I started feeling braver about my ability to separate myself from the job at the end of the workday. That, and some health issues that presented themselves, resulted in a choice to take advantage of my opportunity to WAH on occasion. I was not telecommuting full time, and I would be found frequently on the couch with my laptop and one or more phones to take clinical reviews, conference calls, and trainings. It wasn’t particularly professional, nor was it very healthy from an entirely orthopedic standpoint. My back and neck would ache after trying to work in that configuration for a day. The additional downside was that my old boundary issues started creeping back into my approach. It was too easy to sign onto my laptop early and get in some work before traditional business hours, or worse, the end of day would come and go and I would always find “just one more thing” that I could do.
That is the danger of telecommuting. You don’t worry about drive times and do not have coworkers leaving for the day to prompt you to pack up your own kit and go home. Being at home already, telecommuters often find themselves working longer hours than traditional office workers. It is just too easy to keep going in the comfort of your own abode. So… I put myself back on office duty. I tend to be a bit of a workaholic as it is. I might work over at the office, but with the prompts of others packing up to go home and saying their farewells, it was a cue for me to wrap things up for the day and head home myself.
I took a promotion with my company (oh, and believe me, I struggled with that decision). The promotion came with a different office and some new staff to manage. We had our own space and everyone worked from that location. There was camaraderie. The work we was and still is meaningful (most of the time), and our group had a good fit with each other. As a manager, I was required to be in the office where my staff were based the majority of the time. There were, as usual with any new program, a lot of long hours, but having the geographic boundary between work and home was good to keep some level of balance. But things change…
The work we did gained a good deal of attention, and the decision was made to expand the program. With that expansion, there came transition. My staff became full time telecommuters. That’s right. They all went home to work. Again, with the program expansion, there were some long hours put in by myself and my colleagues. I found myself in a darkened office alone until 7:00PM or later many nights. As you might imagine, this was not well received by my family. Aside from the actual lack of time, there were some concerns for my safety being alone at the office after dark. Eventually, I allowed myself to be convinced of the folly of staying at an empty office, and I packed up my cubicle and brought my workspace home.
As it happens, it hasn’t been so bad. In fact, it has been much better and more positive than I had originally experienced or feared. However, the more positive experience has been due to some very conscious decisions on my part.
The first was my home office. While I am by no means the champion of housecleaning, I am pretty obsessive about my workspace. I have been teased by coworkers that I decorate my office with a slide rule, but it is true that my office tends to be a good deal neater and uncluttered than the other parts of my life (yes, take that however you may). Most of my day is filled to the brim with multitasking and a lot of technology. So, my workspace tends to be as organized as I can make it, but I keep some comforts and personal mementos around just to soften what could possibly lead to a depersonalized and cold atmosphere. Instead of working from the couch, which previously led to the boundary deterioration as well as a need for chiropractic services; I set up my home office in the spare bedroom that we had been using as a makeshift library (mainly because we have a book addiction). With the help of my spouse, I set up the network and laid out the design much as I had my cubicle at the office. The benefit of this arrangement is that it is organized, neat, and has appropriate space for locking away information for compliance and ethical consideration. Unlike the old cubicle, this space is warmer in style and more personal to me, and the chair is definitely more comfortable. Lastly, at the end of the workday, I can shut the door on it. That is a very important part of the telecommuting culture. It is absolutely necessary to have a space that I can physically leave (even if it is just departing the room and walk downstairs).
Another decision that I made was to change my schedule. Prior to moving my office home, I chose to run and work out at the end of the work day on the way home from the office. It was a good transition and helped me rid my body of some of the physical components of work related stress. Another reason was that the gym was on the way home and too far from the office to make it convenient to go at any other point during the day. The problem that arose was late in the day meetings that interfered with my usual workout time and time zone differentials for some of my staff who may have end-of-the-day questions. However, it became apparent that with my gym being about 5 minutes from my house, I could actually take my lunch to go to the gym. It was miraculous. Suddenly, I could have my run, workout, come home and shower, and I could be back at work in the time most people take for lunch. It broke up the day. It got me off my derrière. It made me a better employee and (though you’d have to ask my team) a better supervisor.
So, what is the downside? Well, there is the whole fashion issue. I’ve fallen into the habit of wearing workout gear the majority of the time. Yes, you guessed it. I am the queen of yoga pants. Now, I have not yet fallen to the depths of wearing them in public (except to the gym), but I have to maintain a very strict watch that I don’t start slipping. I do get up every day and put on different clothing than I slept in, and I consider that a good sign. Another possible danger: I am an introvert. Without the necessity for getting out of the house to go to the office, it is entirely possible that I would never leave. Between working from home and the prevalence of businesses that will deliver food, I could potentially become a hermit. However, my gym time has come in handy for getting me out of the house every day and regular social activity and off site work functions provide enough opportunity to make sure I do get out now and then.
Do I still tend to be a workaholic and sacrifice personal time to the job? Of course, but the truth is that I would likely do that even if I still had an office space outside my home. I try to be mindful of time and boundaries, though, and for the health and wellbeing of all my friends and family, I promise not to wear my yoga pants out anywhere but the gym.