Working From Home? You’re Not Alone (Pun Intended)
Does working from home make you lonely or anti-social?
Posted Sep 08, 2010
Working as a college professor for the first dozen years of my post-graduate school life, I was always around people. Teaching a full load of courses to college students every semester, I used to say, "I talk for a living." Then I would come home to my husband and children and more talking. Life was full of what I now call "Face-to-Face" or F2F communication.
Back in those days, I remember one fine afternoon, sitting on the quad with a circle of honors students. We were discussing Csikszentmihalyi's Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. The author made the point that people generally dislike or fear being alone and that this condition stemmed from a time when being alone meant greater vulnerability to harm. An animal that strays from the pack puts herself at greater risk of attack. I remember being aghast at the notion that nobody likes being alone. "I love being alone," I assured my students. "What I fear is that I will NOT be left alone...at least for a little while."
As a media psychologist, it seemed very fitting when I changed jobs to join a program where technology was used in instruction and communication. Fielding Graduate University's media psychology doctoral program uses what's called a blended educational model. This means we combine face-to-face elements with distance education elements such as class meetings that use audio and video chat, document and program sharing. Students and faculty, in pairs or small groups, can view the same documents, data, Internet site or computer program and can work on projects simultaneously, from locations across the country. The blended model has me traveling roughly every other month to meet for anywhere from a long weekend to two weeks with graduate students and other colleagues.
When I first came to work for Fielding, my colleague Kjell Rudestam1 described the ebb and flow of life at Fielding as "intense bursts of togetherness" interspersed with periods when faculty returned to their home offices around the country. Kjell was right. My rhythm of life changed from daily stints in the F2F classrooms to working from home using multiple forms of media to connect with people. This was indeed punctuated by these "intense bursts of togetherness" which involve everything from all-day meetings to seminars to parties and group dinners in Santa Barbara and elsewhere around the country. Interestingly, I find that regular F2F sessions, interspersed with video chats and phone calls results in a strong feeling of connection.
Working from Home Is More Common than You Might Think When it comes to working from home part time, I'm certainly not alone (Word play is irresistible, isn't it?). In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "On the days that they worked, 24 percent of employed persons did some or all of their work at home2."
Much has been made of the shift towards working from home, coupled with an increased reliance on a variety of media technologies for communication. In 2009, Time Magazine announced, "The last years of cubicle life3," as part of its cover story on the Future of Work4. "...the need to actually show up at an office that consists of an anonymous hallway and a farm of cubicles or closed doors is just going to fade away. It's too expensive, and it's too slow. (Godin, 2009, ¶4)
The Grooming Optional Club
As a social psychologist who studies media, you might guess I'd be pretty intensely interested in what the effects of working from home are and will be in the future. I've noticed a number of changes in my own work life. A rather funny change one notices right away is a rather drastic shift in self presentation, also known as personal grooming. While in the past I have had a love-hate relationship with "dressing for success," (I could easily write a blog on the evils of pantyhose or high heels) working from home certainly involves experimentation with new lows in self care. For instance, I've wondered whether it's entirely advisable to live life in yoga pants or pajamas. On the other hand, isn't it sort of a dream come true?
My cousin Janis, founder of the social networking site for women SocialJane.com, also works from home. In a column, she recently confessed, "I hold conference calls, prepare power points, and analyze the monthly budget all in the comfort of my pajamas ... with un-brushed teeth5." Another work-from-home colleague (I won't "out" her, but she also writes a blog for Psych Today) said that she feels bad if she spends the whole day in exercise pants and doesn't actually exercise.
Of course, there are a lot of other ways life is different for those working from home other than fashion and grooming. For instance, bosses have been concerned about productivity, though reports suggest workers may actually be more productive when working from home6.
Does Working From Home Ruin Your Social Life?
Perhaps the greatest concerns for those who work at home are the social concerns. Will my colleagues who work out of the office be jealous and will our relationships suffer? Actually, research tends towards "yes" on those questions6. But there appear to be social benefits from working at home as well. These include generally feeling happier, being less stressed, feeling more autonomous and even a lessened sense of work-family conflict6.
However, those who work from home may need to be more thoughtful about making and keeping social connections. For instance, in her article "Improve your social life: Work from home5," Janis Kupferer suggests scheduling lunches with friends, doing leisure activities that involve social interaction, and even getting out of the home office to work in public social spaces like Internet cafes and coffee houses.
I have personally experienced some of what the experts cited above have said. For instance, I find regularly scheduled lunches (or movies, afternoon coffees, etc.) with friends help fill my need for social interactions. Working from home takes away all those random conversations with colleagues in the hall and forces you to be more deliberate and planned about being social.
Working from home may also change the nature of your interactions, moving you towards choosing the people you really like to spend time with and pursuing those relationships purposefully. In other words, one side effect of working at home may be having fewer relationships, but relationships that are different in texture - perhaps deeper, richer and more deliberate. Consequently, that would also mean fewer of those shallow relationships that revolve around small talk at the copy machine or office meeting.
Home and Family
I have also found that my family life has grown richer simply because I am more physically present and able to switch between work and family needs. For instance, I can pick my kids up from school every afternoon rather than sending them to after-school care. I can easily stay at home with a sick child and care for him or her while working. Now, this flexibility also has its price. For instance, my children popped in with requests at least a dozen times while I was writing this very blog entry. (One of those was a request to make a baking soda and vinegar-powered volcano in the back yard, which was awesome.)
Well, that's all for now. I have a V.I.P. waiting for me in my office. It's my son, Jason. On the agenda for this evening: he wants to choose middle names for the dogs and show me a scene from West Side Story on the computer. I have to say, it's a lot more fun than your typical office agenda.
References and Notes
1Kjell and Fielding's Judith Shoenholtz-Read are the co-editors of the Handbook of Online Learning (Sage, 2010). Kjell and Fielding's Rae Newton are the co-editors of Surviving your Dissertation (Sage, 2007). Needless to say, I'm not the only one who finds Kjell's perspective helpful.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics (June 22, 2010) American Time Use Survey, available at: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm
3Godin, S. (May 14, 2009) The last days of cubicle life, Time, available at: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/printout/0,29239,1898024_1898...
4Time magazine cover story, "The future of work," (May 14, 2009), available at: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1898024_18980...
5Kupferer, Janis (September 3, 2010). "Improve your social life: Work from home," available at: http://www.socialjane.com/articles/12-tips-for-connecting/113-want-to-im...
6Korener, B. (Sept. 22, 2008). Home sweet office: Telecommute good for business, employees, planet, available at:
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