It’s a weekday, a little after 9 a.m. My breath comes short and my foot starts to tap. I open the door to the second bedroom, close it halfway, open it again. I stretch, my eyes roaming restlessly. I stare at my laptop. Walk to the kitchen to get more coffee, just a half-cup. I check the time, and realize my next meeting starts in five minutes and this is my first time setting up the Webex. Back at my laptop, the internet goes out. I try frantically to reconnect. No dice, I’m going to have to run the conference from my phone. I don’t know how I’m going to share my screen. Halfway to panic, I punch in the meeting code. The meeting starts, the meeting happens, the meeting is over. I put my chat status to away and sag back in my sagging office chair, spent. I stare at the clock. It’s almost 11, but it feels like a thousand years — or a typical morning working from home.
Working from home is rare because I want it to be, and I want it to be rare because it triggers panic. Generalized Anxiety Disorder sounds so… general, when really my fears are a host of specifics, easily prompted by an empty room, needy cat, sink full of dishes. An hour sitting in front of a laptop in my little rented house scatters my thoughts. They crawl over the dusty nightstand, the disorganized shelves of DVDs, the plant in need of a prune. Trying to concentrate between these walls turns normal annoyances into jabbering monsters. All I see is what needs to be done and I’m right there, right now, not doing anything, and now my palms are sweaty and my face is hot and someone’s asking me something and the chat bubbles stare, waiting for a response. I hate working from home, and avoid it if at all possible. The normal stress of 9–5 is a match on my simmering anxiety; not leaving the house adds a slosh of gasoline.
I hate working from home, and avoid it if at all possible.
The work from home day begins at 7. After hitting snooze a few times, I slowly open my eyes. Although I’ve slept in later than normal, I wake up already anxious about the day ahead. I take my time getting ready; after all, my commute is the five steps from our bedroom to the second bedroom. I’m in front of my laptop by 8 or 8:30. By the time I sit down, I’m already fighting creeping dread. My fiancée leaves for his studio around 9. I sit back in my old office chair, long destroyed by the aforementioned needy cat, and try to fight the feeling of the room swallowing me whole. Probably while answering my first email.
I’ve had the option to work from home at almost every job I’ve ever held. I work in tech and it’s a common benefit, dangled like a carrot over job listings. Remote work! Telecommute! Digital nomad, if they really love their buzzwords! Whatever it’s called, most of my co-workers love the option, and it makes sense: heads-down work is much easier when you’re not interrupted every five minutes, distracted by people stopping by your desk and cubicle chatter. I too find it easier to get things done without being forced to multi-task; it makes sense, they’re not wrong, but I will fight tooth and nail to leave the house for work, to walk into outside air. Sometimes that means negative temperatures, pouring rain, thunderstorms — Chicago’s weather is quixotic and trying, but it’s cool. I’ll pull on my snow boots, parka, break out the serious business golf umbrella and drag it on all on a crowded train that smells of the broken promises of capitalism and wet wool, yes please. Vijay can pester me with drop-ins, Caitlin can make her sales calls at an ear-shattering volume, no problem — it’s a small tradeoff to not face the walls closing in, a pittance to not have the racing thoughts that threaten to derail even the simplest task.
Years ago, I worked for a development shop, and we were giving a presentation at a large agency. Before it started, their employees milled outside the conference room, making comfortable co-worker small talk. A dark-haired woman had just had a baby, and was taking advantage of the working from home policy. “I work from home all the time now,” she said, smiling, “My bed is now my desk. I’m really into working from bed.”
People chuckled. My stomach clenched. I resisted the urge to yell “What the hell is wrong with you?!” Why would she dishonor her bed in that way? I couldn’t imagine turning a place of peace into somewhere you respond to questions about requirements. Bed is for sleep and sex and reading (*cough scrolling mindlessly through Instagramcough*) — things you choose to do, not things you have to do. Home is a sanctuary, bed its temple.
Sleeping quarters-as-sensual-grove metaphors notwithstanding, there’s more to my feelings than being cranked a few notches above the median: working from home hints at an to an increasingly blurred line between required and mandatory, one that snakes around the concept of work-life balance and threatens to strangle it.
Working from home hints at an to an increasingly blurred line between required and mandatory, one that snakes around the concept of work-life balance and threatens to strangle it.
Work is work and home is home, and as much as I can help it, never the twain shall meet. Again, I get why some people want work and home to hold hands: long commutes make the option undoubtedly convenient. I don’t live far from my job, and hope to keep it that way. But beyond commuting, it’s also very convenient for employers, who can ensure you start earlier, work longer, and ingrain the company into the parts of your life that should be yours and yours alone. Moving from New Age to conspiracy theory: I’ve worked in tech for most of a decade, and a lot of the benefits (free food, open kegs, company-sponsored social events) simulate the idea of a personal life, a home life, your life — but between someone else’s walls, and ultimately someone else’s terms.
I like to leave at the end of the day. You can’t really leave if you don’t go in. When I work from home, there’s a casino effect: I don’t see people arrive or take off for the day, and without the natural rhythms of other humans I tap away for hours until it’s 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8, because if other people are still online I should probably be too. Their green chat statuses blink like an accusation, a reminder that any activities and people in your off hours can and should be sacrificed on the corporate altar of productivity, all soft and small autonomies forever second to the god of industry. Working from home gives my brain all the flexibility and freedom to hang itself. Working from home makes me forget where I am. My job is my job, sometimes good and sometimes terrible, but it is not grabbing my fiancée’s foot to wake him up. It is not the faces of my friends in the evening light, standing in our postage stamp backyard. It’s not me at my dining room table, trying to turn rattletrap thoughts into comedy gold. There are highs and lows to be found in work, but it’s not where my heart looks for the beautifully quotidian moments made possible through a thousand rent payments. Work is not home, nor should it be.
I can mitigate remote work anxiety, mostly by doing what I’d do if I were actually going into the office. Get up at a reasonable hour, with enough time to think before you’re required to talk to someone (the idea of rolling onto a conference call in pajamas makes my heart seize). Take a shower. Put on makeup. This may sound ridiculous, and I can already hear people saying don’t you loooooove working from home because you get to be a slob? (No. I hate it. It makes me confused and disconnected. I’m super fun at parties. Let’s continue.) Put on real pants, one with a button and a zipper. Put on a real shirt, a t-shirt is fine but a fitted one, no giant, sloppy bedtime shirt with the sweet grizzly bear. Debate socks and shoes, then realize you’re inside the house and there’s only so much you want to give your mental problems today. Eat meals or snacks at relatively normal times. Stare at the bright pink post-it on your bulletin board that reads “You’re done working by 6 p.m.” Stare at it again, it’s right next to that Anaïs Nin quote about fear and blossoming or something. Say it out loud. You won’t keep that promise, but it’s good to try.
All these things help, but there’s no substitute for the soft click of a front door locking behind me, a 20-minute train ride, and a separate place to go for employment. It’s deeply soothing to have a Work Place and a Home Place. I can feel my mind settle as soon as I walk through the doors, a narrowing that allows for concentration. It’s bright and spare and orderly, with coffee and reliable wi-fi. Being I can ask my co-workers questions in person, or hit them up on Slack without fear of it disconnecting. Going to a separate Work Place isn’t a compromise: it’s a clear benefit, an antidote to the trepidation that comes from blending two halves of a life.
My monthly train pass runs $100. Sometimes I buy lunch or coffee, that’s another $60 or $70. For the anxiety salve that is a clean line between work and home, it’s a small price to pay.
Rosamund Lannin reads and writes in Chicago, by way of San Francisco and St. Paul. More at tinyletter.com/rosamund.