Not commuting is driving me crazy

By Anne Fisher, contributor


FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I'm in an awkward situation that reminds me of Oscar Wilde's famous remark about the two tragedies in life. ("One is not getting what you want," he said, "and the other is getting it.")

I'm a graphic designer at a large ad agency, and for years I made the long trek every day from a distant suburb to my office in a major city. I have two school-age children and assorted pets and relatives hanging around, and I was leaving so early in the morning and getting home so late at night that I never saw my family.

After much arguing, wheedling, and cajoling, I finally convinced my boss that -- thanks in large part to all the gee-whiz technology we have now -- I could work at home and be even more productive than I already was. He reluctantly agreed to let me do it.

That was about six months ago and I realized after a few weeks that it was a mistake. My productivity hasn't suffered, but it's driving me crazy to be home all day, putting up with endless distractions. I also miss my colleagues.

The funny thing is, my boss thinks this arrangement is working out so well that he already turned my old office into a second conference room. If I go back to him now and say I want to come back to work at the office, I'm going to feel like an idiot. What should I do? --Harried Homebody

Dear H.H.: If it's any consolation, you're not the only one struggling with this dilemma. "Everybody who doesn't work from home thinks it sounds like heaven, so people are often embarrassed to admit that they find it very difficult," observes anthropologist and urban planner Ziona Strelitz, head of London-based ZZA Responsive Use Environments, a research and consulting firm that designs user-friendly workspaces.

About 42 million people, or roughly one-third of the U.S. workforce, now works from home at least one or two days a week. Some firms encourage employees to do so to save overhead costs, while many employees (you, for instance) telecommute hoping to advance their careers without sacrificing time with their families. Yet in researching a study on work-life balance, Strelitz found that full-time telecommuting isn't always a panacea.

"Large numbers of people want and need an office to go to," she says.

What's so great about going to an office? Lots of things, as you've discovered. First, most workplaces don't feature barking dogs, importunate relatives, or offspring who urgently need a ride to soccer practice just when you've got a deadline looming.

More important, "most employees want a workplace for its stimulus, its implicit messages of professionalism and being 'at work,' " Strelitz notes. "In addition, you get access to a wide range of skills, ideas and personalities. People working together energize each other."

One thing you probably miss is the chance to bounce ideas off colleagues in casual conversation. Strelitz's study found that people who work in an office tend to have influential mentors, and to be offered valuable opportunities that arise from being seen around the place, something people who work from home miss out on.

Full-time telecommuters in this economy may also fear that "out of sight, out of mind" makes their jobs less secure. Whether or not that's true, the worry is an added source of a stress at a time when most people already have more than enough.

Moreover, working alongside others can offer another real benefit -- a sense of camaraderie. In survey after survey, employees give something like "I like the people I work with" as the main reason they are satisfied with their jobs.

Strelitz knows how draining a long commute can be: She used to commute an hour and a half each way between Princeton, N.J., and New York City. But her research suggests that, as you've found out, working at home can be just as exasperating in its own way, since, she says, "multitasking personal and work responsibilities is usually difficult, if not impossible."

So what should you do? First, stop feeling like an idiot: The problems you've encountered are perfectly normal. Second, swallow your pride and tell your boss you want to come back to the fold.

Don't kvetch about how hard it is to get anything done with the kids, cats, and cousins howling at your home-office door. Instead, "emphasize the positive," advises Strelitz. "Telling your boss that you miss the office is actually a great compliment to the company and the work environment there." To cut down some of the strain of commuting, she says, "maybe you could still work at home one or two days a week -- just not all the time."

Considering how hard you had to campaign for the chance to telecommute, your boss will probably be glad to have you back. And your co-workers don't really need that second conference room, do they?

Talkback: Do you work at home, or have you ever tried it? How does telecommuting compare to working in an office? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page

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