My bed. The couch. A coffee shop. Back home, in the comfy chair. The kitchen table. The couch again. Settling on where I'm going to work remotely for the day looks a lot like a dog aimlessly nesting in circles before laying down in the same place it started.
There are plenty of “wowowow office-less freedom” parts of the workday when literally anything can be your cubicle. I answer emails laying down and nobody knows. I feel no guilt about reheating something garlicky or fishy or garlicky AND fishy for lunch. I’ve even written full articles without any pants on and HR didn’t show up immediately. However, the conversation around work-life balance changes completely when literally anything can be your cubicle.
Whenever I tell people I work remotely, I’m met with lots of oohs and ahhs. Like, it must be so nice to work from home! And, there are so many benefits to working remotely! And who can resist the classic, I wish I could work in my pajamas all day, haha! I laugh politely and pretend I haven’t had a full day or several where I didn’t brush my teeth or change my pants let alone leave my house. (My record is three days in a row.)
If the recent influx in co-working spaces weren’t indication enough, I have lots of office-less “coworkers.” (Those quotations marks are doing some heavy lifting. I’m lucky if I interact with one living creature who isn’t my dog on any given day. Yelling “THANK YOU” to my mail carrier as he walks down my driveway counts as an office-wide meeting for me.) A 2016 Gallup poll reported 43 percent of Americans work remotely at least some of the time. That’s a steady increase from 2012 when 39 percent of Americans reported working remotely. It’s not just freelancers like myself either.
Big corporations like Apple and Disney have increased work-from-home opportunities to improve mental health among employees, in addition to helping the company save money. As some studies report, working remotely can save employees money, too. One study found that people who worked remotely saved an average of $444 on gas and spent 50 percent less on lunches. I like to take all those hypothetical savings and invest them in a frothy cappuccino or bakery scone the size of my head.
When everything can be your office, your work hours can be...whenever.
The reality, though, is a lot less glamorous than that: a McDonald’s parking lot to get free Wi-Fi. In the car on a road trip, using my phone as a hotspot. At an airport bar during a layover. My phone in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. When everything can be your office, your work hours can be...whenever. If I’m seated in one spot for more than an hour, I will probably start to think about work.
I wish that wasn’t true. There are so many other, better things I could be thinking about, like the Prince parody Twitter account or how dogs have been to space. In a culture that glorifies being busy and treats over-working like an opportunity for a fun ad campaign, taking a break from work can feel defeatist. And as much as I wish it were true, thinking about how I should be working isn’t in itself productive.
Clarissa Silva, Behavioral Scientist/Relationship Coach and Creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method, spoke to Bustle via email about the guilt of not working when you could be, particularly the kind that affects people who work remotely. “We sometimes create artificial burdens on us that makes us feel guilty about not being more productive since we have the option of controlling our schedules, time, and resources,” Silva says. Those internal burdens, which may in part be “artificial,” certainly have real consequences.
One of the biggest struggles among those who work remotely, as Harvard Business Review points out, is burnout. As one study on work-life balance among remote workers states, “employees respond to the ability to work flexibly by exerting additional effort, in order to return benefit to their employer.” Basically, remote workers may start to feel indebted to their employer and end up having less work-life balance when they start working remotely. In turn, working remotely as a way to improve mental health and establish work-life balance has the potential to become completely counterproductive.
The problem is not just the devaluation of effort, it's often guilt of misused time.
“Performance guilt is about self-worth, too,” Silva tells Bustle. “You aren't just trying to compete with others or the market, you're competing with your own definition of where you should be at that point of the project, your life or your purpose.”
Silva also points out that people tend to overlook or discount their own productivity. “They work really hard, sometimes are self-taught in many aspects of marketing or business, but only value their efforts that helped them get to the end goal,” Silva states. “Since they are dismissing the sweat it took to get there, it becomes easier to never unplug. But the problem with that is not just the devaluation of effort, it's often guilt of misused time. If you examine what aspects of your work is more demanding of your time, it's usually that tasks that hinder you and makes you feel guilty.”
So, where do we go from here? Silva has a simple place to start: “Unplug.” She continues, “Research has shown that you are more productive when you are able to walk away from the tasks that you think you could spend more time doing.”
Of course, that's often easier said than done.
All of the pictures I’ve included are all the places I’ve worked on this one piece. JUST THIS ONE. Part of the problem is I've convinced myself, "Maybe if I move to a different spot I'll be more productive/creative/good at everything???" Another part is my inability to shut off.
Maybe tomorrow my desk with be an actual desk. More likely, I will commit the horrific sin of writing from my bed. I'll worry about that tomorrow. For now, I'm going to actually close my laptop.