Why working at home can suck

I’ve been working from home for three years. I started in 2005, when I left a cube-farm commuter job and joined a small company based about an hour’s drive from my house. The plan was to commute in as needed, perhaps once a week, but work from home most of the time.

I had no idea, absolutely no friggin’ clue, how much it was gonna suck. My typical day went like this:

* get up
* check company IRC, say good morning, make sure nothing’s on fire yet
* lunch, maybe some scrabble or a TV show
* meeting about something. with phone muted, can watch youtube videos
* work some more, but with more interruptions
* dinner, hopefully in proximity to another human
* hack on the side project du jour
* go to sleep

This post is half of a pair of posts on working from home. I’m giving you the bad news first. Here’s the most important thing you should know:

It’s not just a matter of feeling lonely: all kinds of emotions depend on regular, face-to-face human interaction, and you run a serious risk of becoming unproductive, uninspired, and even depressed without it.

Let me reiterate: feeling lonely at work isn’t the only–or even the primary–way that working from home screws you. Well before your soul starts to scream with loneliness — which might never happen if you have family or friends you see regularly — you will suffer from being alone.

The first thing to go is probably motivation. For this you can blame a massive cut in feedback. In an office you get feedback constantly. At the coffee pot in the morning, eye contact shows interest in your latest tasks, or nods express sympathy about difficult colleagues and bosses. When you have a question about something, your coworker’s eyes and facial expressions will tell you, consciously or subconsciously, if you’re sounding smart or stupid. Chances are, you depend on this feedback more than you realize. You need it both for work-specific communication, which is easy to see, and for maintaining your self-image, esteem, and motivation–which is harder to see because the mechanisms are subconscious.

You don’t get rich feedback when communicating over a phone, email, or text chat. No facial expressions; no idea whether a persons eyes are wandering or locked on; maybe some hint of tone of voice. All this feedback is distilled and distilled away when you’re not there to pick it up in person, and this will affect you quickly and constantly if you work remotely.

You might say, ah, the hell with it, I’ll learn to live without that feedback. After all, doesn’t Paul Graham say that people with “unlimited self-generated morale” are almost guaranteed to succeed? Don’t you want to be like that?

Chances are, you could be more determined. But there are very few people — perhaps mostly sociopaths and the autistic — who can pursue a goal indefinitely without feedback. Be aware of the feedback you need, and work on making it possible. And remember that when you’re considering working from home, you’re going to tear away a lot of that feedback.

Charles Y.

Charles has been working as a webmaster since 1998. Since then, he has had his hands in thousands of websites and has helped millions get online through a company he partially owns called Web Host Pro.

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