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The Digital Self: Confessions of a terrified telecommuter


Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has, as you may have heard, officially killed telecommuting for Yahoo employees as part of her strategy to bring the aging Internet giant back into fighting condition. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” reads the HR memo that officially reshackled Yahoo’s remote employees. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” It’s a bold move – perhaps even a good one for the company, which has struggled to keep up with the likes of Google and Facebook. But if you work remotely, as I do, there’s only one real reaction to this news: pants-soiling fear.

Thanks to Yahoo’s latest corporate directive, employers across the country now have an example to point to as evidence that allowing workers to do their jobs from outside the confines of an office is bad for business. And as a myriad of Mayer’s supporters have pointed out, there is ample evidence that face-to-face interactions remain the best way for a team to collaborate, regardless of the communications tools made possible by the Internet. That’s bad news for anyone who makes a living from home, who may be looking at the possibility of more companies following in Yahoo’s footsteps.

On the other side, opponents of Yahoo’s telecommuting ban, especially working mothers who often rely on telecommuting to keep their families afloat, cite study after study showing that remote workers are actually more productive than their cubicled counterparts, take fewer sick days, and are generally happier employees.

Working from home has taught me the art of self-discipline.

From my experience, both sides of this issue are right to some extent: In-person meetings are better than any Skype chat you can have. And not having to commute, leave work for the kids, or worry about what your hair looks like in the morning are all major perks that help keep employees happy. True as these arguments may be, however, they still fail to convey the reality of working remotely.

For the past two years, I have made a living writing and reporting for Digital Trends (mostly) from my home office in upstate New York. And every day has been both a blessing and mildly terrifying – not because I was afraid of losing my job, but because proving myself from afar brings its own set of challenges.

For starters, I am constantly afraid to leave my desk for fear of missing an instant message from someone who needs to talk to me. Sure, I could always put my status to “away,” but I do that too many times, and how does that look? Like I’m off screwing around, that’s how. So even though I may be at home, with all the conveniences, I rarely take time to even microwave a hot dog for lunch, let alone go out for a bite.

It can also be difficult to prove how much work you’ve really accomplished during the day. As a journalist, I have the benefit of highly deadline-based work; every time I turn in a story, my editors (bosses) can see that I’ve been carrying my weight. It becomes far more complicated, however, when working on longer projects with lots of time spent with less quantifiable value, like research, interviews, and dreaded transcriptions that seem to take a lifetime to finish. Projects that don’t pan out after spending hours or days doing legwork … well, those make me want to just crawl in hole and never come out.

The third, most commonly cited, downside to telecommuting is that it is next to impossible to stop working. My days begin the moment the alarm on my iPhone pulls me out of slumber, and slaps me in the face with the morning’s news. Sure, I’m working from bed – but that also means I’m working from the moment I wake up. As for ending the work day, well, that never really happens. Once I’ve eaten dinner, taken the dog out, and done a few chores, I inevitably find myself back in front of my computer, working the night away.

My life as I currently enjoy it would not be possible without the ability to telecommute

Those are all significant downsides, to be sure. And others may have even more complaints. But the fact is, working remotely is still an incredible experience. Aside from the obvious benefits – being able to live outside a major city, not having to commute, not paying for someone to walk my dog every day – working from home has taught me the art of self-discipline.

When there’s an Xbox staring you in the face, saying “Play me! Play me!” you have to learn how to stay on-task. When there’s nobody staring down your neck, you are completely on your own to complete the job at hand – a fact that is both terrifying and massively rewarding when you get the hang of it. As a result, I have indeed found that my days spent working from home are the most productive.

Because of this, telecommuting might not be right for everyone. When I tell other people, including my parents, that I work remotely, the most common response I get is, “I just couldn’t do it. I’d never get anything done.” For those people, working remotely should not be an option. But for me, it’s not only more comfortable, it’s more efficient.

My life as I currently enjoy it would not be possible without the ability to telecommute, nor would the lives of the increasing number of U.S. workers who do their jobs from somewhere else. Perhaps that’s why Yahoo’s decision to ban the arrangement is so disappointing to so many people – we’ve made lives for ourselves thanks to telecommuting; and Yahoo has, inadvertently, made those lives far more difficult to live.

In the end, I only hope that Mayer’s decision to do away with remote workers is seen by other employers as a move that made sense for her business, not all businesses; or at the very least, for some workers, but not all workers. For decades, we’ve been hearing that the Internet would free us from the confines of the past, including cubicles and gridlocked traffic. The shackles have started to fall off. Let’s do what we can – by proving to employers that telecommuting can work, and by trusting remote employees that do a good job – to keep from clicking the locks once again.

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