Working at Home Isn’t The Day at the Beach Office Mates Imagine

John Higgins’s workday is filled with constant interruptions. That’s because the packaging-company executive usually works from a home office, where his “co-workers” include his wife, Kelly, his four-year-old son, Jack, and his five-month-old black Labrador, Plato.

One recent morning, the pup got hold of a roll of toilet paper and minced it into many, many pieces. Mr. Higgins, who is his own workplace janitorial service, had to clean up the mess.

But that wasn’t the last diversion during our 40-minute phone conversation. Mr. Higgins was interrupted a total of four times if you count the time he heard his son’s voice coming closer and feared the boy would barge in, as he usually does, with his latest action figure. “Uh-oh, here we go,” said Mr. Higgins in a hushed tone. “Here he comes.” (False alarm: The boy went into the garage.)

His wife did come in several times, though, first to chat, then to ask who was on the phone, and then again because Mr. Higgins was supposed to be watching Plato, who had subsequently shredded a bag of sheet moss. Ms. Higgins was apparently as unhappy about her husband not supervising the dog as she was the day before when he had to stop stringing Christmas lights because a client phoned.

“My wife thinks I’m retired,” Mr. Higgins, 44 years old, complained.

Many people seem to think that jobs that can be done at home aren’t real jobs. Never mind that home-office dwellers are their own cafeteria staff, shipping-and-receiving clerks and janitors. They never get credit for cutting an employer’s costs, or saving commuting time to do more work. Instead, managers believe that if they aren’t there to witness someone working, it can’t be happening. They envision homebound workers getting away with something, like lounging in their bathrobes and watching “General Hospital.”

It’s as if they believe that the people working under their noses don’t waste a tremendous amount of time talking about last night’s college basketball game, making bids on eBay, or reading only like-minded blogs while on company time. The misconceptions are yet another indication that vacuous symbols of productivity, rather than productivity itself, are all that really count.

But the greater irony for home-office workers is that their homebound colleagues don’t always welcome them either. Would Ms. Higgins, for example, prefer to have her husband working at home or the office?

“Definitely not here,” she says, laughing.

Chris Goldschmidt’s marketing-consultant job has been so devalued since working at home that he gets new responsibilities that aren’t in his job description. His neighbor, for example, once figured that because he was home, he could take her to the airport. Even worse, the whole time he was driving her, “She’d be on the phone to other people,” he says.

His family doesn’t show much more respect. “Just now my mother called wanting to know if we were going to draw names for Christmas presents,” he says, noting that she would never call him at a corporate office with that kind of question. His wife’s cousin even hinted to her how strange it is that her husband works from home. “If you work out of the house,” says Mr. Goldschmidt, “I won’t say it’s morally suspect, but it’s darn near close.”

Conditions at home can be more dungeon than castle, and in contrast to turf wars at the office, you can’t escape the enemy at night. Contract manager Bill Hall started working from home in mid-August, setting up shop in his basement, which has two small casement windows stingy with light. His son, a high-school senior, gets frustrated that he can’t blast his music or the enemies in his videogames the way he used to. And while Mr. Hall squeezes in tasks like doing the laundry, loading the dishwasher and reorganizing the refrigerator, that 110% effort isn’t always appreciated.

“The kitchen has been my area for so long that I don’t want him playing around up there,” says his wife, Patty Feher. She cites some of the same afflictions the rest of us suffer working at an office building: encroachments on privacy and lunch theft. “There’s a leftover you’re planning on having for lunch, and he’s already had it,” she says.

And even though pets often make better colleagues than humans, no boss walks all over you more than a cat. Tom Seaton, chief creative officer at the interactive media company Bandalong Entertainment, had his laptop completely messed up recently when his cat, Jesse, hit buttons indiscriminately as she slept on it.

Because his day starts at 7 a.m. and continues until the wee hours, Mr. Seaton also often finds himself stuck in a rut at home, forgoing human contact and good hygiene. “For me to get out of my boxers by noon is a good thing,” he says.

Meanwhile, his two mutts, Hannah and Max, variously stare at him, demand a little belly rubbing, or engage, just like your office colleagues, in belly-aching. “You have to type with one hand and pay attention while they’re whining,” he says.

Jared Sandberg – CUBICLE CULTURE

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