Some studies have found that working from home leads to greater productivity and higher morale. Others suggest that those benefits are at best temporary, and that prolonged time spent working from home actually saps one’s productivity and, eventually, will to live. But whatever the reality, as the gig economy grows and more companies look to save on office space, working from home is officially a thing, and thus it falls to us to learn to do it. And do it well. And possibly do it while not wearing pants.
As someone who has spent roughly a third of his career working from home, and who is literally not wearing pants while writing this column, I’m firmly in camp yes on the matter. Nearly two years into my latest stretch in the hole, my productivity is steady and my mood is fairly upbeat. I’ve been liberated from obligatory morning showers, tedious commutes, terrible open-plan-office silences and sad mugs of K-Cup coffee. It’s harder for people to waste my time with endless in-person meetings. I have a great deal of control in terms of how I allocate my work hours. It’s a good deal.
That’s not to say it doesn’t take some getting used to. It does. When I started as a freelancer, a friend gave me a single piece of advice: lunches. He meant go out and have them, with other humans. And he’s right. Working from home can be isolating. If you’re not careful, a few months will slide past and you’ll suddenly discover you’re having a hard time looking people in the eye. So: lunches. With other humans.
That advice has served me well, but, having done this for years now, I’m willing to take it even further, and enshrine it into a kind of unifying theory. This may seem like a paradox, or at least a validation of the fears of old-school managers who equate “working remotely” with “watching Game of Thrones at 2 p.m. with the laptop open,” but for me the key to success in working from home is…not working.
Bear with me. In 2013, researchers found that the optimal ratio of work to rest was 52 minutes on and 17 minutes off. Whether that’s precisely true, we do know the brain needs regular periods of rest to remain sharp. So if you’re in an office, what does that downtime look like? It probably doesn’t look like anything, because you’re petrified of being seen doing nothing. If you do take some time, you’re most likely just surfing the web or chatting online, because the open-plan office has effectively extinguished casual conversation. But those activities keep your brain engaged and processing new stimuli. Which means it’s not resting. Which means you’re not resting, which means you just wasted a break.
Now, say you work from home. You need a break, you can do some laundry. You can drive to the store, prep dinner, do the dishes. Any home abounds with menial tasks that only partly engage your mental faculties and allow your mind to wander. This state is what neuroscientists call the brain’s default mode, and it’s essentially your brain resting and refueling after a prolonged period of active cogitation. When you come back, you’ll come back renewed.
The art of not working requires discipline of a different sort than working. You have to discard the entrenched belief that being present at a desk is the same as being productive. And you have to become intimately acquainted with your mental needs. When it’s time to rest, you need to learn to do so without guilt. As a native New Englander raised with the classic Puritan work ethic, I can attest that this is harder to do than it looks.
But it’s worth it. In the end, you’ll find the work improves, your mood improves and, most notable in an age where we’re increasingly concerned with work-life balance, your weekend improves, because you’ve spent all week checking menial items off your to-do list. This is both the beauty and the secret to working from home. Well, that and the dress code.