I originally published this in November of 2016. Over three years later and, yes, I am still working from home. As so many people I know are being asked/forced to work from home in light of the COVID-19 epidemic, I am sharing it anew.
Today is the seventh anniversary of my being a full-time baseball writer. When NBC hired me I had been practicing law for 11 years, always in downtown offices. Since November 30, 2009, however, I have worked from home. If you’re curious, I wrote about how that all happened a few years ago.
As far as jobs go it’s wonderful. But it is still a job. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, but it is. A job that, like any other work-from-home gig, presents some challenges. How do you work effectively when you are so geographically isolated? How do you work collaboratively when you’re miles and miles away from your coworkers? How do you function like a normal human being when you’re online almost all of the time?
I don’t have any definitive answers to those questions, but I have learned a lot about how to live this weird life and how to work this weird job over the past seven years. Here’s a list of the lessons that most readily spring to mind:
1. Yes, you still have to wake up in the morning.
The first thing people say to me when they hear about my job is how great it must be to not have to wake up early. Sorry, you still have to wake up early. Or, at the very least, keep a schedule. If you don’t, you lose structure and when you lose structure you lose the ability to organize and prioritize the things in your life.
In my case it was a bit harder — baseball games happen in the evening and baseball news can be written any time — but eleven years of office work and several years of child-rearing prepared me for early hours. I’ve kept them because they became second nature. And because, no matter what a person does for a living, the vast majority of your consumers — in my case, readers — keep 9-to-5 hours. By doing the same, you’re better able to connect with them and to keep your own life structured in at least a moderately healthy fashion.
2. Yes, you have to wear pants.
For the first month I worked for NBC I woke up to my alarm, took a shower, shaved and got dressed in clothes in which a person could actually be seen in public and not be embarrassed. There were even khakis involved most days. That routine didn’t last long because, Jesus, really? Still, you don’t want to go too crazy with your newfound freedom.
It’s nice to have the luxury of not shaving for a day or two or, on a cold morning, to stay in pajama pants and that sweatshirt you’ve had since college, but pride and self care is important. While it’s vastly overstated in our society, there is a core of truth to the idea that looking good helps one to feel good. Looking good, for a person who works at home, can be as simple as a pair of jeans that fit well and a clean shirt. Consider it the business suit for the work at home set. Besides: sweatpants and three days of growth keeps one from realizing when one’s waistline is expanding and when a second chin is threatening to reveal itself. Which leads us to . . .
3. Dear God, watch what you eat.
Working at home theoretically gives one more time to exercise and eat healthier but it’s just as easy to blow off exercise and get takeout Chinese now as it was before. The real killer is that working from home entails a lot of sitting at the desk or on the couch. One does not walk a few blocks between the office and the parking garage a couple of times a day and one does not necessarily confine lunch time to lunch time. Food from the pantry is cheaper than food from the deli too, so even if you avoid the worst carryout has to offer, it’s still easy to eat like a glutton without immediately realizing it. In the first year and a half of working from home I gained about 10 pounds and I was already out of shape to begin with. In 2011 I got a treadmill and began to use it regularly, all while trying to structure my eating the same way I structured my schedule. I now weigh about 30 pounds less than I did at my worst. Eventually that extra time worked to my advantage and staying healthy while working from home became easier than it was when I worked in an office. But it took a LOT more discipline to do it.
4. Avoiding rush hour is nice, but working from home makes you a crappy and fearful driver.
For over a decade I was the master of my commute, weaving through traffic while listening to talk radio, possibly eating breakfast and mentally organizing my day. Now I’m rarely if ever in any real traffic — most of my driving is done in the middle of the day and on weekends — so when I am in traffic it’s a far more jarring and arresting experience than it used to be. After a few miles I always regain my mojo, but my stress levels and anxiety about traffic are way higher than they used to be by virtue of being out of practice. Being in better shape makes me feel like I’m in my 20s again but white knuckling it through even moderate traffic makes me feel like my grandfather.
5. Don’t watch TV, read for pleasure or play video games while “working.”
This is related to the waking up and showering stuff. Keep your work time your work time and your play time your play time. This is especially true in the age of Netflix when the next show just starts by itself 20 seconds after the last one ends and you can find yourself having lost three hours without realizing it.
6. You have to take breaks. But make them constructive.
Watching TV, reading novels and playing video games are things you were going to do anyway so doing them during your work day creates a distraction without adding any benefit you weren’t already going to realize later. They’re also inherently pleasurable so it’s hard to stop doing them and return to work. The best workday breaks: grocery shopping, errands and housework. No, they’re not fun, but they’re necessary. They get you away from your computer for a time but are enough of a drag that they won’t keep you away for too long. They are also things that most people have to do after work, not during, so getting them out of the way at 10am or 2pm when things are slow at the “office” is a great way to feel stress free when you knock off for the day and your time truly becomes your time.
7. Talking to living, breathing human beings is important
I hate distractions when I’m working and used to especially hate the people who would hang out in my office doorway wanting to shoot the breeze. Getting rid of those folks from my life seemed like the greatest benefit to working from home. Over time, though, I came to realize that however inane and distracting that doorway conversation was, it served a vital function: keeping me from becoming a hermit/sociopath who has no idea how to interact with people.
Working from home, especially if it’s all online, can be socially isolating and it’s no exaggeration to say that, after a year or so, I began to forget how to converse with people. Family was fine — you never forget how to interact with them — but the social skills required to interact with acquaintances and strangers began to atrophy. I’m still not as good at making time for people as I should be, but meeting a friend or former coworker for lunch, volunteering at my kids’ school or even making smalltalk with the cashier at the grocery store has made the difference between my being a normal, functioning social human being and being a muttering shut-in.
8. Cats are essential
Talking to people is important, but really, cats are way more important. When you don’t have coworkers, you have to bounce your ideas off of someone, and my cats have never shot down an idea I had as a bad one. They’ve very supportive that way. I suppose you could substitute with a dog, but I really don’t recommend it.
9. Vitamin D is even more essential
Those walks between the parking garage and the office did more than just make you move your body. They exposed you to sunlight and fresh air. While you may feel more connected to nature thanks to no longer working in a sealed office tower with recirculated air, the fact is that looking at some trees and getting an occasional breeze through a window is no substitute for actual sunshine on your shoulders. I developed a Vitamin D deficiency in the first winter I worked from home and get noticeable seasonal affective disorder every winter. Take walks outside — OK, maybe this mitigates in favor of dogs over cats — and work next to, not just across the room from an open window. If all else fails get a SAD lamp.
10. Working from home helps men be better men.
I obviously can’t speak for women, but allow me to observe a great benefit of working at home for men. At least for men with families.
While I have a full time job, being at home all day allows me to do a lot of the things a stay-at-home parent typically does. If there is a meeting or a function at the school during the day, I’m more likely to be there than my kids’ mom, who works an office job full time. In my household — consisting of me, my fiancee and the kids — I do the shopping, the laundry most of the cooking and the errands for the same reason.
I can’t speak for men who live in places unlike where I live, but I can tell you that my little corner of suburbia does not know what to make of a guy doing all of those things. When I show up with the snacks for a class project, when I am tying the bun in my daughter’s hair for ballet class or if I find myself taking a midmorning walk in the neighborhood, I am almost always the only man around doing the same thing and it’s almost always a novelty to others.
I’d like to think that my presence at this sort of stuff over the past seven years has changed at least a couple of people’s opinions about what dads can and should be doing and making it less of a novelty as time goes on, but I have no idea. I do know that it caused me to confront a lot of subconscious sexist assumptions I used to have about such things back when I went downtown to the office every day and has rendered the sadly still-persistent notion that there is “men’s work” and “women’s work” laughable. Would that every man be forced to similarly confront such assumptions.
It’s been a pretty great seven years working from home. I hope I get to continue to do it for as long as I am working. If I can, I feel like the lessons I’ve learned will help me do a better job of it and I hope that, if you get the opportunity to work from home, some of them are helpful to you.
If I can’t keep this up, however, can someone give me a ride to work? It’s terrifying out there.