Tale of a Temporary Telecommuter

Reflections on the pros and cons of working from home

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to work for a company whose workforce is distributed. That is, a company whose employees work from home (or other office space) and use the internet to do their work and communicate with their colleagues.

Most of the time, the company I work for is staffed by on-site workers. But a recent construction project at our main campus forced a large number of us to work from remote locations. Thus, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to experience the life of a telecommuter for two weeks.

There were a lot of things that I loved about telecommuting. There were a few unexpected drawbacks as well. Overall, it’s an experience that I would love to repeat, and get to know better.

The Pros

  1. I saved time and money by not driving round-trip to the mother ship. My commute normally takes about a half an hour, so I saved an hour per day. That adds up to 260 hours per year. That’s the equivalent of 6 1/2 work weeks, or vacation weeks, depending on how you look at it. Also, it meant one less car on the road causing traffic and polluting the air.
  2. Better mental health. I slept an hour later on the days that I telecommuted. This, combined with the fact that I didn’t experience the stress of the morning commute, meant that I was happier and gave my freshest mental energy to my work.
  3. Better physical health. The natural light in my home office was a nice alternative to the fluorescent fixtures that illuminate the cubicle farm. I worked with my windows open, so I breathed a lot of fresh air. I was not tempted by the array of fattening snacks that well-meaning coworkers frequently leave out in common spaces. I did not breathe photocopier fumes, nor was I subjected to my coworkers’ colognes and fast-food smells.
  4. Silence. I loved that there were no distractions caused by people or machines. No beeping sounds, ringtones, email sounds, or text message sounds. No printer or shredder sounds. No incessant mouse clicks or clackity keyboard sounds. No fantasy football discussions or impromptu meetings taking place just outside my cubicle walls. I imagine that telecommuting employees with children, pets, or stay-at-home partners run the risk of being equally distracted by those influences. But I was completely alone, and I loved it. At one point my back yard was visited by a rafter of wild turkeys, but this provided a welcome afternoon break.
  5. The flow of work felt more natural. It seemed that my efforts were more task-based than time-based. The usual flow is: rush to get to work, work two hours, take a break, work two hours, eat lunch, work two hours, take a walk, work two hours, spend half an hour driving home. Repeat five times, then take two days off. Working from home feels more like: check messages, plan the day’s agenda, make some coffee, begin the first task, work until that task is finished, take a stretch break, begin the next task, respond to a request from a colleague, jog around the back yard for a few minutes, pick some chard from the garden, work some more, etc. The tasks seemed to unfold more organically throughout the day.
  6. I was every bit as available from home as I normally am in the office. In addition to my front-end web development responsibilities, there is a customer service aspect to my job, which I love. People have web- or design-related needs that they often don’t realize until the last minute. They call or email me for help. I solve the problem. They are grateful. I feel needed. It’s tremendously satisfying. Thanks to the work of the company’s IT department, there were systems in place that allowed me to do my job seamlessly from my remote location. I forwarded my office phone number to my home phone, and I could access all the internal resources I needed over a secure VPN connection.
  7. I was productive. I won’t claim that I was more productive than usual, but I would go so far as to say that I was equally productive. I attribute this to being happier, healthier, and less distracted, as noted above.
  8. I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed working in my pajamas and slippers.

The Cons

  1. I missed many of my coworkers. Even the ones who cause some of the aforementioned distractions. I am fortunate to work with great people, and for better or worse, we are like a big family. As effective a communication medium as the web is, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face discussion, with all the nuance and body language it provides. But I think that a meet-up once every week or two would suffice.
  2. I missed riding my motorbike. In the winter when it’s snowing, and when school is in session and traffic is dense, the commute is stressful. But in the summer when the weather is nice, I love to ride my motorcycle to work. I choose a mellow route that meanders over backroads through some beautiful, hilly farmland. It’s a nice meditation, and a nice way to bookend the work day.
  3. Network latency. I worked over a fast cable internet connection, but some unknown link in the chain throttled network speeds to a crawl. I’m not sure whether it’s simply the nature of VPN, or an under-provisioned server, or if it’s an issue with Adobe applications. Photoshop CC took 34 seconds to open a 52MB file off of a network drive, versus 7 seconds to open the same file saved to my local machine’s desktop. I quickly figured out that it was more effective to copy files down to my local machine, work on them there, then copy them back to the network drive when I was done.
  4. Telephone service. Out here in the country where I live, Verizon’s wireless signal is pathetic. Just about every phone call I take gets dropped or scrambled. This wasn’t a huge problem for my work, as I conducted most of my business asynchronously via email. But the handful of people who reached out by phone had to repeat themselves a couple of times.
  5. Time seemed to pass more slowly than usual. It felt a bit like jet lag at first. I attribute this to the absence of the habitual “structure” imposed by the normal work week: waking early, exercising, showering, donning the business-casual attire, commuting, etc. I created a new structure during my two weeks of telecommuting, but it felt unfamiliar, and it took almost the whole two weeks for my circadian rhythms to adjust to it.

In Conclusion

Obviously there are certain types of jobs (doctor, nurse, law enforcer, repair person, manufacturer, laborer) that require a physical presence at a particular work site. But for programmers, designers, writers, and other mostly computer-based professionals, telecommuting—even part of the time—seems like a reasonable and environmentally-responsible option. Kudos to the companies that trust their employees, and explore this modern approach to work.

Springing Forward, Falling Backward

All of this time zone switching is upsetting our circadian rhythms. Let’s pick one time zone and stick with it.

A traffic sign outside of the local fire station flashes a reminder: “Change your clocks, change your smoke detector batteries.” It’s a clever association, but I would argue that only one of these periodic tasks is necessary. Smoke detectors save lives. I’m happy to spend an hour per year installing fresh batteries so that I won’t be awoken at 3:00 in the morning by a periodic chirp from who knows where in the house. But “springing forward” and “falling backward” jars our circadian rhythms. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves?

There are several urban myths purporting to explain why we change our clocks. One has it that shifting clocks forward gives farmers more daylight to work their fields in the summer. Another theory has it that changing clocks back in the fall makes it lighter—and therefore safer—for school children to board buses and walk to school early in the morning. Flashlights, anyone? Yet another story has it that we save energy in the summer by leaving our lights off until later in the evening. This seems to be loosely related to the legend that Benjamin Franklin advocated for people to arise earlier, so that they would make better use of morning light, and consequently burn fewer candles. But I have yet to see any compelling evidence that changing our clocks helps us. A growing body of evidence suggests that it does not.

Checklist of clocks to change
Checklist of clocks to change

How many clocks do you change twice per year? I change seven (not including my iPhone and my computer, which are smart enough to change themselves). I’ve got a watch. An old digital clock radio. The clock in my camera. My microwave oven. My regular oven. A manual wall clock in the kitchen. The clock in my car. Don’t get me wrong—I’m deeply grateful for each of these luxuries. But each of them has its own peculiar way of setting the time, and some of them are less intuitive than others (I’m looking at you, Hyundai).

As silly and monotonous as this chore seems, I’m not opposed to doing the work. I like to tinker with things, so I find messing around with clocks to be enjoyable on a certain level. But I am loath to endure what amounts to bureaucratically imposed jet lag twice per year. We humans are sensitive creatures. Furthermore, we are not the only things that are impacted by this biannual ritual–consider all the time-dependent software that stands to go awry. A few years ago my iPhone’s calendar events got mixed up for days after a time change.

I agree with Tom Emswiler, who argues that we in Massachusetts should defect from our time zone, and join the Atlantic Standard Time Zone (one hour ahead of Eastern Time) year-round. It makes sense—New England is farther east than many other states on the Eastern Seaboard. Among other sound arguments, Emswiler cites a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which found that heart attacks increased for three days in the spring following the start of daylight saving time. That “lost hour” may be fraught with deeper repercussions than the modern productivity-oriented mindset understands or wants to admit.

I realize that time is an abstract, and that nothing is really changing but our “framing” of it. Clouds, trees, fish, and birds (apart from the cuckoo) don’t pay attention to what clocks say. But when society decides that a store opens at 9, employers say that work starts at 8, and a friend wants to meet for lunch at noon, we have little choice but to adopt the new frame when it changes.

But what if we didn’t? What if we stopped trying to change time? We would do well to heed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” In the context of timekeeping, we could be more patient with the short days of winter and the long days of summer, accept the strengths and limitations of each part of the cycle in the particular place where we live, and embrace the ebb and flow of light through the seasons without jolting our biological rhythms in the process.

Apple of My Eye

Sometimes bad things happen to good software.

It is an interesting time to be a customer of Apple computers, devices, and software. The hardware is gorgeous and efficient. The iOS 8 and Mac OS X “Yosemite” operating systems are powerful. Many aspects of the new software interfaces are delightful. I like where things are going with cloud-based services and the vision of seamless syncing among devices. But the transition to this new era of Apple software design is not without its growing pains. Continue reading “Apple of My Eye”

Remembering Hillman Curtis

A tribute to Hillman Curtis, one of the world’s great creative minds who died of cancer in 2012

Hillman Curtis had been one of my personal heroes since the early 2000s. I had discovered one of his short films featuring the music of what would become one of my favorite bands, Mogwai. I promptly went out and bought his 2002 book MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, and it became one of the handful of books that shaped my own creative aspirations over the years.

One of the things that made Hillman such a compelling influence for me is that his career trajectory foreshadowed and in some ways mirrored my own. He had been a student, a creative writer, a musician in a rock band, a graphic designer, a web designer, and ultimately a filmmaker.

What’s the Story?

In his book (MTIV stands for Making the Invisible Visible), one of the things Hillman taught is that success in creative projects usually depends on how clearly we understand and present the central theme of whatever story we are telling (whether it be our own or that of our clients). In his eponymous video, he characterizes his own theme as “Reinvention.”

I would add that it wasn’t reinvention merely for the sake of change. That would have been easy enough to justify: we live in a society mesmerized by “all that is shiny and new.” What struck me about Hillman’s serial self-reinvention was that there was a deep level of continuity to it. Every evolution built upon the successes of the previous incarnation.

Studying creative writing led to writing songs; which in turn led to his going on the road with a band. His band needed posters to advertise its shows, so Hillman stepped up and taught himself that craft. And with computer skills under his belt, it made perfect sense to move his creativity online when the whole Web thing happened. Motion graphics on the Web became a big deal (and a lucrative business opportunity), and Hillman evolved to become a master of Adobe’s (née Macromedia) Flash technology. When Flash became the go-to platform for delivering video over the Web, the path became clear once again, and Hillman had an opportunity to circle back to his writing and filmmaking roots.

On this, the anniversary of his passing, I’m taking a few moments to appreciate his gifts and his influence upon my creative life.

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