“Though stigma is shared and learned, it is internalized individually.”
I do most of my writing in my home office. It’s as far away from noise and people and life as I can physically get while being able to stay in my ratty t-shirt and sweat pants. It’s comfortable here. It’s quiet enough for me to think—a stark departure from my primary work of chasing my toddler and 6-year-old all day. The quiet feels like a sanctuary. With the keyboard’s keys clacking, the breeze from the windows, the almost-too-hot tea next to my mouse, I’m insulated.
It’s a privilege to do what I love from the comfort of my own home, and I know some people envy me for it. But there’s a dark side of working from home that we rarely hear about, and I’ve fallen prey to it over and over.
I like people, but I’m not the most social person you’ll ever meet. It takes serious emotional effort for me to meet up with someone face to face, or even to talk on the phone. I’ll send text messages and IM people all day long, but when we’re staring at each other over coffee, I realize the extent to which I’ve forgotten how to relate to actual, in-the-flesh humans. I wonder if I’m talking too much or not enough, if I’m making too much eye contact, if I’m not smiling enough… even with dear family and friends. It’s like any social skills I managed to acquire in my life just fly right out the window. I know I’m just rusty. I know that with practice, society would feel more comfortable for me. But not as comfortable as my yoga pants and tea, so here I am. Working alone in my office.
But I’m not alone in my solitude. In fact, a Gallup poll from 2015 showed that “Thirty-seven percent of U.S. workers say they have telecommuted, up slightly from 30% last decade but four times greater than the 9% found in 1995.” So, in ten years the number of people who telecommute increased four-fold. And sure, with technology at our fingertips no matter where we go, why would we confine ourselves to cubicles?
Well, first off, because you’ll actually work more hours from home than you would in an office setting. It’s easier for your employer to increase your workload if you’re available 24/7 to do that work. Even as a freelancer, meaning I only take on work I want, when I want it, I find myself holed up in my office working on weekends and holidays. I often respond to business emails before sunrise. I am distracted with work when I should be focused on my family. There is no clear line between work and play, so I am rarely fully immersed in either.
When we choose virtual communication over the real deal, we often miss out on a great majority of the spectrum of behaviors that make up human communication. Sadly, there is no sarcasm font. Nor is there an I’m-uncomfortable-and-crossing-my-arms font. It’s been said that communication is only seven percent verbal, and while that number may be debatable, there’s no debating that we say a lot with our tone, expression, posture and gaze. When the people you work with know you only by your text, it’s hard to build trusting relationships, business or otherwise.
We need human connection. Real, present interaction. I think we instinctively know this, and that’s why, along with the rise in telecommuting, we’re starting to see the emergence of coworking spaces—offices full of desks that can be rented out by people who would otherwise be working from home. Coworking spaces are an excellent way to reconnect with humanity while maintaining independence.
But not everyone has a coworking space nearby or can afford to rent one. If that’s you, staring at a screen all day in a ratty t-shirt and sweats (oh, wait, that’s me), at least find the time to go for a coffee run. Meet a friend for brunch. Volunteer weekly. Find a way to squeeze some human time into your week.
On the rare occasion that I manage to get out and see the world outside, I’m always amazed at the increase in motivation, inspiration and creativity I experience upon my return. It’s like my brain got a reboot.
It’s easy to hole up in your house day after day when it’s both your home and your office, but in doing that you only shortchange yourself on several different levels. From obesity to blood pressure to your very lifespan, healthy relationships positively affect our health in profound ways, and too often telecommuters are lured into neglecting relationships, and therefore their own health. Don’t wait for it to be a problem, fellow homebody. Throw on some jeans and make time for people. Make time for you.