Working From Home Office Dramas

Ever since I transitioned entirely from being a college professor to a freelance writer, I have enjoyed a very particular work environment.

Steve and the boys would leave the home at around 7:00, and barring some emergency, I would have until 3:00 — seven full hours a day — to work, get home chores done, take an exercise class, throw in a load of laundry, make phone calls to take care of some paperwork for Ian.

At first, it was weird to spend so much time by myself, but I gradually got used to it. The TV was always on in the background to keep me company. I had you punks popping up in my comment section and email. My BFFs called regularly. I would chat with the other work from home parents on the block. I was alone, but never lonely.

Over time, a very specific routine formed. Having the benefit of a split level home with its separate zones for differing activities, the entire downstairs, which was originally designed as the zone for children, became my zone for work. The walk down the stairs through a neglected extra family room to my office signaled to my brain that it was time to get shit done.

When I was in the midst of great thoughts, I would work for hours without looking up from the screen, sometimes startled when three or four hours had passed. When I was in between great thoughts, I would do various mindless activities, like reading cheap novels or playing some supremely dumb video games. But I was thinking while doing those activities, so after a two hours of games that make my children shudder with scorn, I would get some revelation and figure out some nice phrasing for the nutgraf of an article.

In March 2020, a horde of family members entered my peaceful world. At first, it was too chaotic to even think about getting work done. Steve’s job and the kids’ school and mental health were, of course, the priority. While I love my work, the low pay of a freelance writer means that my career was not a family priority. I did a couple of articles this spring and certainly did lots of blogging, but managing chaos was my primarily job.

Steve moved into my office. After three or four shuffles of desks and filing cabinets, we had an arrangement of furniture that gave him some elbow room and an angle where his workers wouldn’t see me in my sweats during Zoom calls.

But that didn’t solve the big problem. The big problem is that he drinks water VERY loudly. Gulp, gulp, gulp. And it interrupts me when I’m thinking. He also has a job that involves short intense periods of thought, rather than long creative rambling periods of thought. So, he does his stuff, then gets up to get another glass of water or does a lap around the house. And every time that he walks past my desk, he pisses me off.

Sometimes he looks up from his desk and sees me playing one of the dumb video games, and assumes — wrongly – that I am not working and asks me what we are making for dinner or whether he need to go to the store for more milk. UGH! INTERRUPTED THOUGHT! World War III!

Now, we could have figured out how to deal with this problem. Earplugs would have worked. But the biggest problems happened last Thursday. We had dueling Zoom calls. That day I had two phone interviews, a Zoom call, and a webinar. He had four performance reviews with workers. It was a zoo.

So, now we’re having a trial separation. I have moved my computer up to Jonah’s bedroom. It’s a temporary move, because like all writers, I am rather superstitious about changes to my work routine. Can I write in another space? I am not sure. Also, Jonah will come home around Thanksgiving. Earlier, if the virus rates spike in his area of Jersey. When that happens, I will have to move a desk into our bedroom.

Still, things are going pretty well so far, so I think we are moving towards a permanent office space divorce.

I am fantasizing about turning our basement, which is now a furniture graveyard and storage for camping equipment, into a maze of little offices with sound proofed walls. I believe that Steve will never go back to his city office. The boys may have virtual jobs, too. We might need to seriously rethink how our home functions in the next year or two.

We are living through massive changes in society, economy, political life. All this is not temporary. What is happening now? It is forever.

For us, at this particular moment, it is working out. Sure, we have this office space divorce, but, as a whole, having Steve and the boys home has been awesome. More on that later.

19 thoughts on “Working From Home Office Dramas

  1. You’re not alone–I work in the basement, teaching community college English via webcam; my wife works in the dining room teaching her community college detnal hygiene classes online, and our daughter is completing her OSHA certifications for a career change caused by losing her job at the start of the pandemic upstairs in her bedroom. We had to upgrade our Internet service to fiber optic because I needed more bandwidth for students to join my classes.

    We’vce also ordered a standup desk from IKEA so we can do our classes from the basement standing up, and get out of the dining room (that room, in a different house, is where my wife ended up doing all her research work during her residency). It’s worked out so far, but it is one of the things that has confirmed our decisions to retire from teaching in December (my wife) and this summer (me). We’re lucky that we’ll be 70 or thereabouts by then.

    Good luck–imagine if you were like some of my students, who share one computer for fhree or four siblings, as well as parents, in the same apartment. Or those who have to drive to campus to access wifi from our parking lot.

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  2. I love this piece. It seems like it might have a place somewhere?

    I have similar feelings with everyone home all the time, sans the feeling of structure you got from your spaces. I had the whole house to myself and I like having the whole house to myself. I’d set up my mini photo studio on the dining room table for flowers (I’m generally not allowed to have flowers in shared spaces because everyone says they are allergic). I’d nap on the sofa. And, I’d work in my office knowing no one would disturb me. My office now has post-its that say “maybe”, “come in”, and “go away”. I don’t use it effectively but I was getting very disturbed by the assumption that I was available to talk whenever.

    Really don’t you need the backyard shed office I’ve been fantasizing for you?

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  3. One kiddo is here doing school from home and he now has the whole basement space like you describe, a couch, several bean bags, two desks (he uses one for zooming classes the other for working). I went down there the other day saw him lying on the couch reading and thought, hmh, I don’t have a couch in my office!

    So, I decided to get him to work on moving all his stuff from the desk in my office (which had desks for both the kids, in addition to my workspace) to his basement den.

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  4. Yeah, part of the challenge for those of us with younger kids is needing to supervise what they’re working on (or making sure they’re not getting sucked into the black hole of gaming, instead of doing schoolwork). So you need to have a space where you can be alert to them (and preferably have them in your eyeline).
    That’s really challenging when you’re trying to concentrate on your own work…. And particularly as a big chunk of mine, at the moment, is testing newly developed software, and working with the developers to iron out the bugs.

    We have a set up where I have my own (tiny, single-person) office, and Mr 12 works at his desk in the dining room (no way is he having a computer set up in his bedroom). The office is on the other side of the house – so no chance of sightlines. I was having to work on sound (is that ominous quiet a sign I need to get up and see what he’s doing; has he remembered the zoom class at 10; is he moving on from English – so I’ll need to proof-read – and send him back to fix punctuation and spelling). As you can imagine that was really distracting.

    We had a discussion about it – and he really had no idea that I was finding it difficult (impossible) to work effectively (But I’m not bugging you, I’m nowhere near you, how can I be distracting). I explained about how splitting attention meant that my (paid) job was only getting 50% of what I would usually give.
    And that I needed to make sure that (for his own health) he wasn’t spending 14 hours a day sitting in front of a computer, and that he was continuing to learn effectively (or as effectively as possible) online (not just doing the minimum possible)

    So we came to an agreement, that he would walk with me from 7.30-8.30; concentrate on his schoolwork from 9-12, and be free to game from 12.30 (lunch) until 3. We’d schedule baking from 3-4, and he could game again from then until dinner time.
    (Thankfully his school had relatively few scheduled zoom classes). I scheduled ‘interruptable’ work up until 12 – and did concentrated work from 12.30-3 – and worked again from 8.30 until late to make up the time.

    Luckily both his school and my work were highly flexible about ‘when’ tasks are achieved.

    But I was seriously grateful when he went back to school.

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    1. I really hear you on the supervision. I had to move my high schooler out into the living room for a few weeks while he adjusted. Right now he’s in school 2x a week and my youngest is there each day but if we go to homeschooling I’ll have to try to negotiate reduced work hours (which won’t be hard; I’ll be lucky if there are hours.) I’ve worked at night and my husband certainly is time shifting too. Pandemics suck.

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  5. I love this piece too.

    When the shutdown came, I didn’t have any home office space, because we moved my mother-in-law in with us 3 years ago and in order to give her a two-room suite I had eliminated my home office. I’d gotten rid of my desk. My work was very on-the-ground plus I had an office at work, and my writing and occasional consulting was something that I did from the dining room table during quiet times, or Starbucks with the occasional conference call in our rec room.

    My perceptive husband noticed me cruising Kijiji — during the Stage One shutdown I admit — for an antique desk (link below) and he and my son picked it up from the seller’s driveway with masks on (for the first time). I love it. It is in the living room and I must admit I’ve yelled at my kids to be quiet even so. It’s a constant negotiation. But I’ve completed four – FOUR – courses from this desk towards my UX/UI design certificate, I’ve run my workplace’s transition to online classes from here, and I’ve written 19,000 words since March 17 on my fantasy trilogy. I think I’ll be done the first book by December.

    And yet…we just got moved back to Stage Two and I’m sad because I really need a weekend retreat to just think, because my desk *is* in the living room. There isn’t mental space. My husband occupies the home office and it’s needed; he’s coordinating a team in multiple timezones around the world. But here I am, mom, right in the middle of everything.

    My kids are not in university so when I have to shut a door, I’m in my 1960s bungalow bedroom, no room for a desk really unless I get rid of some bookcases…or renovate the rec room. But we’re doing all our martial arts and fitness classes there so…?? Covid dilemmas. I agree that future real estate choices are going to be informed by this experience. Because the houses in our area, if you *don’t* have a mother in law living with you, have generous basements, they are selling like hotcakes.

    Here’s a shot of the space: https://www.instagram.com/p/CDouEZNB0Nm/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

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  6. I hated working at home. It felt like being in school again, or maybe in prison. I think if I were a free lance writer I would go and do my work, or a lot of it anyway, in the library. (Or if I was really successful, rent office space.) Maybe I would find it bearable if I had a separate office, only for work, on another floor, but none of that is really feasible in a NYC apartment.

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    1. I am somewhat with y81 on the hating working from home. I don’t entirely hate it – it IS nice to be able to get some work done around the house in short bits here and there. But I do miss interacting with other people. While I do think we can all be productive working from home, something gets lost. There’s no interactions in the halls, exchange of ideas, etc. One of my colleagues is a genius at this – management by walking around. He got more out of random exchanges in the hall than most people get out of hours of meetings. I think in some fields and occupations, there will be more flexibility in working from home, but in others, there will be a push to get back in the office. It will be interesting to see how this pans out and how much of a change this really does have on how we work.

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  7. Steve used to have a three-hour daily commute. 15 hours per week. So, now he has an entire waking day in his life per week. This is huge. With that time, he is running. He is volunteering at the local historical society. Helping me out with after-school activities for Ian. Sleeping.

    It is such a major gamer changer for him, that I think working from home will extended his life expectancy by ten years.

    It’s been great for me to have an extra set of hands here at home.

    If everyone works from home, then freelancers like me won’t be at a disadvantage compared to full time people who go into an office for writing careers. We’re all in the same boat.

    Having Jonah home for those six months meant that we all have much stronger connections than every before. We haven’t spent that much time with Jonah since he was a baby. He has always been in school, camps, after-school activities. By the time he was in high school, he was home only after 6 or 7 every night. And, back then, he barely spoke to us when he was around. I mean, he was plenty happy to go back to college, but we all have an entirely different relationship because of those 6 months together at home.

    For us, and I know we’re in a privileged group, this shutdown was great for our health, family-life, savings account, and careers.

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  8. I LOVE Zoom school meetings, as opposed to “leave the house after dinner, sit listening for an hour and then drive home in the dark.”

    It will be nice to hobnob with other parents again, but in the meantime, I’m really enjoying being able to do school meetings at home in my comfy chair.

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  9. I loved this. Perfectly captures the pandemic experience of closer family bonding but ugh, annoying new coworkers with their odd habits!

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  10. I believe that Steve will never go back to his city office. The boys may have virtual jobs, too.

    I think that a lot of these predictions about the death of cities and offices are subject to immediacy bias and therefore overstated.

    It’s true that a lot of people are fleeing New York right now but that just opens up the city (as in the 70s when everyone was fleeing New York) to a lot of people whose ambition it is to live in New York. There are still thousands and thousands of college kids from Iowa whose sole ambition is to move to New York and they will still be coming, and taking advantage of the cheaper real estate. One can say that they won’t come because there is nothing to do and no jobs but that is where the immediacy bias comes in. Next year or the year after there will be bars and restaurants for the kids to hang out in, without fail. Similarly, there will still be jobs (even in-person jobs) for them. For instance, many tech companies who are sending their workers home now are taking advantage of the vacant space to increase their New York footprint.

    Similarly, I think the idea that everyone is permanently working from home is overstated, for several reasons. First, not everyone can. I, for instance, will be in my office for as long as I am with my current employer due to the fact that I am working with proprietary data that cannot (should not) be accessed remotely. The big biotech hubs in New York and elsewhere will always require in-person work. (You can’t do lab work from home.) The high speed trading in the financial industry cannot optimally be done from home.

    Furthermore, as the virus passes (remember, immediacy bias) many people will get tired of accommodating the work from home tradeoffs. In particular, for young people working from home sucks. Many of them crave the social aspects of the office and also need/want the face to face contacts to build their networks and their careers. They also are living in cheesebox apartments and don’t have the same nice home office space that the rest of us have. Some will want to continue to work from home, but as an *option* rather than a requirement. I think that companies who can provide the option of an office will have a recruiting advantage when it is safe to mingle again.

    When some people are back in the office and some are still at home there will also be a return of the perception that the people at home will be the first on the block when a recession hits and there are layoffs. Will this be less of a legitimate fear than before lots of people were working from home? Probably, but it will still exist and so people who think that they were already on the bubble will want to be having as much face time as they can get.

    Incidentally, there was one thing that struck me when you were first describing Steve’s WFH arrangements. Namely, you were complaining that he wasn’t furnished his own computer equipment and was using a deprecated system that was previously an old gaming machine to log into his bank’s serve. This to me indicated one of two things:

    1. His team is working on irrelevant projects with data and documents that are not in the least valuable.
    2. Through not caring about the security of the machines that their employees are using they are putting themselves at risk for serious data breaches that will make the ones we have previously seen look trivial.

    I doubt it is (1). My money is on (2) and that is the reason I am not allowed to WFH. Namely, our IT department wants to be in control of the machines that our data is accessed from and how it is accessed. Working from home on your own equipment puts all this at risk.

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    1. I agree that there always be young people who want to move to the City. But higher crime levels, if they are permanent, will discourage high-income older couples from raising families there, and destroying the public schools as De Blasio is trying to do will discourage middle-income families. Lots of businesses, including many divisions of the big financial services firms, could scatter their employees into pods housed in various suburban office parks, and many working parents would be just as happy working that way. Happier, really, with both a shorter commute and lower taxes. So I think NYC is in big trouble.

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  11. Steve’s documents are extremely valuable. All his work is done and stored and everything on the company mainframe. His computer at home is just a vehicle for jumping into the mainframe. There are elaborate security systems in place. IDK. Nobody seems very concerned. But maybe they should be. No clue.

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  12. I know at least one pretty introverted young person who likes working from home. His work is all on a computer, and his social network is online (gamers and his family and his wife). His work from home setup is 4+ years old (it was part of the job from the beginning). Would he be the first fired? probably not, because his work has measurable metrics & it was set up to be non-office work form the beginning. And, it’s not creative work (meaning the kind of work where you get stuck and need insight to move forward). For him, I’d guess his opportunities for advancement would be limited and also, potentially, his opportunity for retraining if the specific need disappeared.

    But, for many young people work is where they build their social network. We’ve already talked about how 3rd places are providing fewer social connections (bowling leagues, bars where everyone knows your name, churches, . . . ). If we loose work, too? Tough for introverts who don’t have social networks already.

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  13. The Atlantic has a long (but as far as I can tell data free) article subtitled “The conditions of teleworking combined with increased child-care demands are a perfect storm for bias against working mothers.” (which cites Joan William’s “Ideal worker” concept, so look, we’re seeing her everywhere). Skimming, it seems premised on the idea that if people can tell your a mother they’ll downgrade you at work, and in telework, people can see your mothering responsibilities.

    In theory, working at home might allow more balance (like Steve is getting compared to his commute), but I’m hearing a lot of twittering about the effects on mothers (and, most women are or will be mothers).

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  14. “In theory, working at home might allow more balance (like Steve is getting compared to his commute), but I’m hearing a lot of twittering about the effects on mothers (and, most women are or will be mothers).”

    I think the difference is if you are working from home, with good child-care operating (in-person ECE, school, good quality holiday programmes and after-school care) – or if you are all just sheltering from home and trying to work and manage kids simultaneously.

    The first is viable (from an employers perspective) – we find that employees can be equally (or in some cases more) productive working remotely, than working in the office – for *some* tasks. Some jobs/tasks just doesn’t translate easily or effectively (or at all) into remote working – and those people either have to be in the office, or they lose their jobs.

    If it’s the second scenario, then, if you are the Mum kid-wrangling as well as working, you have to be offering your employer something outstanding, for you to still be employable. And your work-days will be very extended – and that may be an issue for family life and your own mental health.

    I do think that it’s a significant concern for many Mums – and it doesn’t have to be blatant discrimination – it’s just that you don’t get the job (X fits better with the team) or aren’t considered for the promotion (Y demonstrates greater commitment), or are the first to be laid off (Z is more productive)

    And, while Steve has gained 3 hours a day (which is a win for anyone!) – Laura’s job has pretty much been sacrificed to keep the kids (particularly Ian) sane and continuing to learn during lockdown.
    I see this exact scenario playing out in a whole raft of my friends. Where Dad’s job is the more important from the family income perspective (and Mum’s has already been part-sacrificed in order to keep the family running) – Dad sees the wins from working from home, and Mum continues to take the employment hit (as her home duties increase) [NB: it’s reversed for one of my friends where Mum’s job is the big money, and Dad has been the parent in charge at home]

    Of course, once the schools, etc are operating again (as we are here in NZ) it smooths itself out a lot (and you just have to cope with the annoying work habits of your spouse 😉 But we’re lucky – I don’t see the scenario we have here being replicated widely anywhere else.

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  15. My family has two parents working full-time from home, and two young children, in a 2 bedroom apartment. With very limited childcare, it was been an enormous struggle. Once childcare started being manageable again, it became easier, but still very hard. Nevertheless, the time savings from not commuting have been substantial. We are exhausted, but I’m not sure we’re not happier than we were a year ago. At least at the end of the day now I’m tired more from playing with my children and less from commuting 2+ hours daily. I know we’re both strategizing for how we can work from home as much as possible once things get back to ‘normal’. I guess that means we’re happier.

    That, in general, makes me more pessimistic about the future of NYC and less so about the suburbs. We’re moving to one of those NJ towns with good schools, and a long commute to the city. Literally everyone I work with says they would like things to change so they could work from home 2-3 days a week and only come in for client meetings once we’re allowed to go back to the office – which is sounding like it will be next summer at least. A long commute is a lot more tolerable 2 days a week than it is 5. One of the biggest tradeoffs of moving to the suburbs is the long commute, and if that gets cut by 60% it’s a lot more tolerable. And while we’re WFH it sure is nice to have more space.

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