Fear and Loathing in My Basement

Author’s note: I wrote this article in 2018 and filed it away for another day. And yet as we enter into month eight of working from home (and a long cold winter ahead for those of us living in the northern latitudes) the reflections from my basement seem more timely today than ever. Perhaps the silver lining is that we’ve all found ourselves in this together … and misery loves company.

Working from home sounds like the dream whose promise cries out to us like a siren calling out to sailors of old.  Be more productive.  Grab a snack from the fridge.  Watch old episodes of Curb!

Beware, though.  There’s no truth to any of this.  I’ve worked from home for the last seven years, and I know.  Working from home is a paranoia-inducing, wake-up-at-night-drenched-in-sweat, curse-the-day-I-ever agreed-to-do-this nightmare that will have you grabbing that last Xanax like a junkie in no time.

 

1-800-GOT-JUNK is NOT my phone number

 

The fact that I work from home does not mean I sit around waiting to help family or friends with random tasks like moving out old furniture, sitting online for tickets or dog-sitting during the work day. I work from home.  Work is consuming and should not be confused with unemployment or sustained idleness.   My mother, who lives a few miles down the road, called me on a Tuesday from vacation in Mexico to ask if I’d run down and check on her house.  “I’m getting a package delivered at ten this morning, and I don’t want it to be stolen.”  Tuesday, at ten in the morning. I had calls to take and emails to write.  I have started to believe that my mom secretly loves that I work from home.  Who else would stand ready to rescue her knitting needles from certain abduction no matter the hour?  This confusion between proximity and availability is a real problem for those of us who work from home.  Our friends, family and professional colleagues believe we are always available for the “quick favor.” Conference call at 10 p.m. with a client in China tonight? “Give it to Jacob.” Early call with London? “Jacob can just roll out of bed.”  The son of friend is sick and needs to be picked up from school? “Call Jacob – he works from home.” I have begun to ignore personal calls during work hours (and returning them after work) as a reminder that I do, in fact, work for a living, and that I can’t earn a living unless certain boundaries are respected.  Of course, my mother has taken to snipping, “Jacob never answers his phone during the day.  He must think he’s pretty important.” No, mom; It’s just that I’d rather risk the loss of your knitting needles than my biggest client.

 

Paranoia, Paranoia, Everybody’s Plotting Against Me

 

I’m deeply engaged in our business.  I began my career at my company in 2003, right after the company was launched.  My title is COO, and I enjoy regular discussion and a great working relationship with our CEO.  I have an equity stake in the company, and my fingerprints are literally on every piece of our business.  Still, a week doesn’t go by I don’t convince myself that my business partners are conspiring to push me out.  In the same way that the lessons of college are often learned in the dorm room rather than the classroom, the foundations of successful companies are built in the hallway and cafeteria and not on conference calls with others who have dialed in from home.  Call it FOMA or paranoia, the fear is pernicious and corrosive.  I sometimes wonder if I’d be so passionate about engaging in the watercooler conversation around our dogs-in-the-office policy if I was actually in the office. I don’t want my colleagues to forget about me, and so I find myself furiously dialing and IM’ing about a barking dog who I’ve quite literally never laid eyes on.

 

Life Down Under

 

I work in a windowless basement.  When I start working at 6 am (yes, I work in the west and have to get up at 5:30 to catch my colleagues on the East Coast “first thing” as they straggle into the office at 9 a.m., — but this a rant for a different day).  It’s cold, dark, lifeless.  My only solace is the liquid motivation I find in my quad espresso.  I’ve surveyed scores of work-from-home types.  For some reason we all settle for the least desirable corner in our homes, but it’s not clear why.  Ninety percent of the time we spend in our bedrooms we’re asleep, yet these rooms get the big windows and beautiful views. My friend Blake got a job running sales for a Seattle-based engineering firm.  He was thrilled that it was a remote position and that he could work from home.  No more interminable commute.  No more overpriced sandwiches from Starbucks.  The savings in dry-cleaning would be a ten-thousand dollar raise alone.  But after working out of a windowless basement office for six months, he was back on the hunt for a job that would welcome him into an office with other people – and windows.  Life working as a gopher, the torn indoor-outdoor carpet under your feet, is not all that it is cracked up to be.

 

Clean Dorm, Paper Due; Clean House, Looming Deadline

 

The IRS says that in order to write off a home office you have to meet to two criteria: 1) you must use the office for the convenience of employer, and 2) it must be used exclusively and regularly for business purposes.  On any given April 14th, I am at odds with the U.S. Tax Code, but in this case, the good folks at the IRS might be right.  For me, it is important to use my home office exclusively for work.  It is way too easy to start doing other house chores when you work from home.  But think about it:  Wouldn’t your colleagues look at you strangely if you walked into the office with your unfolded laundry?  These days, I resist the pleadings of my inner multitasker, and I try not to do my bills during one of those tedious hour-long “update calls.”  Science tells us that, actually, multitasking is a myth.  All I know is that I can report that I learn more and participate more fully when I close the Venmo app on my phone and keep the laundry upstairs.  Now I see household chores for what they are — as a way to indulge my worst tendencies to procrastinate.  In college, my dorm room was immaculate the day before a big paper was due – but only ever then.

 

Business on the Top; Pajamas on the Bottom

 

My high school biology teacher insisted we wear suits and ties to exams because he thought we would perform better if we felt more professional.   If this is the case, my career is a wasteland of wrecked potential.  I always try to wake up early, shower, shave and dress like an actual grown-up man (let alone a professional) for a day of work, but the truth is that this has happened exactly three times since I started working from home.  Luckily, most of my work is by phone, but on the rare occasion I have a Skype meeting or need to video conference, I am not too proud to say, I throw on a shirt and jacket even as I continue to wear my ten-year old basketball shorts.  With disturbing regularity, I wake up six minutes before my first call, run to the basement so quickly I nearly fall down the stairs in my pajamas, and begin work in a panic.  While I originally viewed working from home as “efficient,” it has begun to look more like, “comfort with unpreparedness.”  This might seem like a minor quibble, but it has real consequences.  I am way less likely to meet up with friends for happy hour, hit the gym before work, or initiate any type of networking during the week.  I now recognize this tendency to hibernate all around me.  I fly to Chicago and the marketing manager of a client says she can’t meet.  I hear this, know the consequence of what we are doing, and realize that what she is really saying is that she works from home and has simply gotten out of the habit of getting dressed in the morning.

 

Bueller…? Bueller…? Anyone…?

 

Commercials and memes have taken to roasting everybody’s favorite corporate punching bag: the conference call.  Poorly run conference calls are clunky, inefficient and often pointless. Conference call’s worst form is when you dial into a call where most of the participants are in a conference room face-to-face.  Inevitably, the loudest person in the non-virtual room (and by that, I mean the real room, the one with four walls, a whiteboard, and soul-sucking fluorescents above) controls the discussion.  The by-phone participants provide little to no input, not because we have nothing to add, but because, by the time our voices are heard after those insidious VOIP lags and the resultant confusion, the conversation has moved three bullet points down the agenda.  And how many times have I “sat” in on a meeting that is winding down not knowing when to hang up?  The talk turns to weekend plans, kids’ recitals, and the snow report at the local ski hill.  I jump in, “Is it over?  Are we done?” Then the room’s Polycom goes dead.  Guess that means it’s over.

 

When I do find time to visit our corporate headquarters I’m a vagrant looking for a park bench on which to nap.   “I think John’s picking up his kids today. You can use his office this afternoon.”  “Kristin’s out today – you can decamp there.  Just don’t eat anything – she hates that.”

 

Fear and Loathing

It is a strange world out there.  Our outsourcing firm in India bills at rates higher than our vendor in South Dakota.  Huge buildings dominate our large cities, each adorned with the name of a multi-billion dollar global company.  But go to reception and you learn that BigCo only occupies the 14th floor.  Decades-long employees carry business cards and go to the holiday party, but are called, “contractors” so they can be laid off without repercussion.  I am not saying the emperor doesn’t have clothes, I am just saying I pine for the days when the watercooler wasn’t virtual, and I could give a person I worked with a smile, not just a thumbs-up or concerned-face emoji in an IM.  Humans are social beings.  We thrive in groups and atrophy and die when left alone to work in our basements just to turn our corporate master’s real estate costs into a variable expense.   Just saying.

 

Jacob Parks is the chief operating officer of a boutique consultancy serving the F500 companies and is available to give advice, day or night, from his basement where he sits in his boxers, feet up on the hollow-fill door he calls a desk.