Why Wasting Time Might Be Exactly What Telecommuting Is All About

Photo by John Liu

I don't know if procrastination is the hot topic these days or if my self-employed, home-office lifestyle has triggered a high percentage of customized procrastination feeds, but it seems like everywhere I look I find an article about conquering it. God knows, I can use those articles. In fact, I click on them as a way of avoiding work all the time. (Wait -- what's wrong with this picture?)

Yet in the end I get my work done, meeting every deadline, and, according to my clients, doing a darn good job of it. And truth be told, during "busy season" (which for me runs from mid-January all the way through mid-July) wasting time loses a lot of its appeal. During that time of year, I dive into my work the minute I can in the morning, working straight through long days and often straight through the weekends, as well. So I suppose it all evens out, in the end.

When I do feel the urge to procrastinate, it's easy enough to do. I'm self-employed, with a home office, so no one is looking over my shoulder. Yet I'm pretty sure that just because I have a home office doesn't mean I necessarily waste any more time than folks who work in a "real" office. I do, however, occasionally "waste it" differently.

In fact, although I jokingly refer to wasting time, I don't actually waste too much of it. If I can't or won't focus on the project at hand, I try first to do some other work -- turn to another project, answer emails, catch up on some clerical work or work-related social media. But sometimes, I use the time to focus instead on the life side of work-life. I put up a load of laundry. I empty the dishwasher. I pay some bills. When my daughter comes home from school, I stop to check in on her day and discuss the homework ahead. If I think I've earned a longer break -- or can simply tell myself I have the time to take one -- I take a walk. Go to the gym. Run an errand.

For most of us, working at home is not the same as working in an office building. If it were, why would anyone want to do it? At work, when we can't face the next stage of that project or feel terrorized by an empty page, we might sneak a peek at Facebook or play a round of Candy Crush. We might talk to a co-worker. We might even do some online shopping , make a doctor's appointment, or text a friend.

But when we work at home, we have more options. These are the very options that appear to terrify so many managers -- so much so, that they try to turn home offices into mini-office buildings, insisting, essentially, that nothing be done at home during work hours that couldn't be done at "the office." Yet often these are the very options that help inject a little more balance into our lives -- the options that make working from home so desirable.

Remember Bewitched? For those who either didn't catch the popular sitcom when it first aired way-back-when or discovered it in re-runs, here's the gist: Elizabeth Montgomery plays Samantha, a real-life witch married to Darren, a boring advertising executive. Early in their marriage, when the truth about Sam's identity comes out, Darren makes her promise never to practice witchcraft. What this means in '60s television terms is that Samantha, a "housewife," has to do all the housework drudgery like any other housewife would -- when we know for a fact that she has only to wiggle her nose to get the entire house pristine in a minute. We are expected to believe that she cheerfully scrubs and vacuums her way through each day, because she's an obedient wife and because that's the way it's done.

Even as a young child I recognized that there was something fundamentally ridiculous about this expectation. Yet it often seems like the expectations for at-home workers are like Darren's expectations for Samantha. They may be working in a non-traditional setting, but their work style needs to perfectly mimic traditional work. They are office workers, and need to behave at all times like they are in an office building -- even if their unique situation allows them some unique opportunities to work differently. (Some employers even use software to monitor their workers remotely.)

(Another example that springs to mind are the "power suits" that appeared in the '70s and '80s, when women were first moving in force into professional jobs. The suits were often hideous attempts to clothe women as much like men as possible, seemingly based on the assumption that certain kinds of work could only be done in certain kind of "masculine" clothes.)

Interestingly, this demand that home offices be turned into little more than remote cubicles, with all the rules of cubicle work still in play, frequently doesn't apply in reverse. How many employers complain when employees log in to do work at night, on weekends or -- sad, but true -- while on vacation? Why is it ok when the boundaries of work spill over into personal time, but not when the boundaries of life spill over into work time?

Sure, working from home saves commuting time (from the employee's perspective) and may save real estate costs (from the employer's). But can't we take an honest look at the other work-life advantages it confers -- the ways it allows us to blur the boundaries of work and life during the workday?

No one should be taking care of a child or other dependent while working from home. And I certainly don't condone heading out for a game of tennis or a movie on company time. But if working from home means one can be at one's desk earlier in the morning or later in the evening, it also ought to mean one can stop to do some picking up around the house, or walk the dog, or mow the lawn. Shouldn't it? Isn't better work-life integration the whole point of working from home?

The pity is, from what I read and hear, many home-workers are so busy trying to reassure their managers and teammates that they're working that they go crazy ensuring they are in constant communication with the office -- until this ongoing communication probably becomes a waste of time, in itself.

It's the new face time, and it's not only wasted time, it's wasted opportunity. Women no longer try to look as much like men as possible at the workplace -- it's time we made this way of thinking about home-workers just as old-fashioned as a power suit.

Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com.