I had coffee with a friend the other day at a swank café by St. James Park in London. I’d known her back in Chicago where we’d both worked as journalists. Now we both live in London where she works for a major international magazine. She arrived a bit late, Blackberry in hand, dressed in a smart tailored suit. “Sorry,” she apologized breathlessly, glancing at her cell as she took her seat. “Meeting ran late.”
As I listened to her describe her job, I felt more than one pang of nostalgia. I think it was her reference to people “scurrying back to their offices” that really got to me. Until recently I, too worked in an office. Now I work from home as a freelance writer, where I can at best manage a saunter from the bathroom to my desk. She also mentioned her Wednesday editorial lunches and how they made her feel part of a team. In my current set up, I’m lucky if I can catch the mailman’s eye and bond with him over the utility bill. On really bad days, visions of cubicles still dance in my head.
It’s only natural that working at home induces a certain discomfort. After all, when you say “I work,” the logical follow-up is “Where?” And when the answer is “home,” it does sound less legitimate. For me, the situation is particularly fraught because I’m self-employed. So when I’m feeling inadequate, I can’t console myself with a regular paycheck or company logo. I always suspect that people think I’m really home doing laundry and reading past issues of the New Yorker while giving myself a manicure and googling my next vacation site.
And there’s something to this. On a slow writing day, it can be tempting to find the match for that errant sock. Or investigate the origin of the yellow bath toy inexplicably sitting on top of my jewelry box…just what is that doing up there?
And so those of us who work at home devise all kinds of tricks in order to make our existence seem…well, more work-like. For instance, I’ve noticed that people in offices never count how much time they actually spend “working.” If they stop to chat in the hallway with a friend, they don’t deduct it from some imaginary tally. But when you’re at home, you count every minute: Should I count the 15 minutes I just spent on that email if it was only half-professional? In my own apartment, I actually keep my personal email on a separate computer so I won’t be tempted to cheat during writing time.
But perhaps the most difficult part about not having an office is the lack of social interaction. I freely admit to being completely enthused by the sheer vitality of office life: the gossip…the politics….the parties. I was devastated when the last company I worked for cancelled “bagel Fridays”—we practically launched a sit-in to protest And I’ve always secretly loved the cheesy management consultants who come in and force you to play these elaborate trust games to facilitate group solidarity. I’m still not sure how I’ll cope this year without a Secret Santa.