Back in 2014, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who tells us she’s not a feminist (and that feminism has become “a more negative word”), both built herself a nursery in the office and also canceled everyone else’s work-from-home situations, because water cooler discussions are apparently more valuable than the people who live far from a Yahoo office, have disabilities that make commuting difficult, have babies but aren’t CEO, etc.
Richard Branson, a person who I do not normally quote on my website, called the move “a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever.”
I find working from home to be much more productive than working in an office because, honestly, we live in human bodies that are inconvenient, messy, and completely unconscious for a third of our lives. (Please read the science fiction short story, They’re Made Out of Meat.)
I wrote a great deal here about the cognitive dissonance of being an abstract thinker in a disappointingly biological casing. You know you’re going to have to use the bathroom several times per day. Do you really want to live your life such that you share that experience in various small ways with your colleagues? Do you want to be looked at weirdly for stretching or sitting on the floor or wanting to work on a couch? (Ergonomically speaking, the best work position is none of them: it’s moving and shifting your position regularly.) Is it that wrong to want to see a tree every few hours?
I have a lot of reasons why working at home is superior for motivated people.
I’m most productive first thing in the morning, so I use that time for important work — I don’t waste it on commuting or making my hair look pretty. And when I’ve finished writing an article or negotiating a deal, I don’t keep sitting obediently at my desk because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing at 2pm. Instead, I go work out, or I make a cocktail. Or both. There’s no prize for sitting in a chair the most hours straight.
Speaking of using breaks strategically, I also have a pull-up bar, three kettlebells, and some exercise bands in my apartment, as well as fifty flights of stairs to climb in my building (yes, this is very specific). You always read dumb advice to take the stairs at work, which I call dumb because at work I am often carrying things and wearing work shoes that are unsuitable for exercise. Even “practical” work shoes (flats, low-heeled loafers) are completely inappropriate for any kind of serious stair-climbing. When working at home, I can stop and do a couple of pull-ups, or 25 kettlebell swings, or take the elevator to the lobby and walk back up to my apartment. All of these are great solutions to that feeling that too many things are happening and you’re not sure what you should do next.
Also: housework. Which has been and still is disproportionately foisted on women, but which pretty much all adults need to do some of, so let’s treat adults in that way. I like to live in a clean, well-organized, gentlewomanly apartment. I think any surface you eat off of, spit toothpaste into, or let your cat walk on should be cleaned about daily. I do that when my brain is stuck and abstract work is difficult. Almost no one wants to come home from work and do two straight hours of housework. But housework often seems like a welcome reprieve from article writing (and then later, article writing seems like a welcome reprieve from housework).
I also make a lot of soups and stews that take a long time to cook. It’s easy when I’m home (and it ultimately saves time, because I’ve made many meals at once). If I had a 9-to-5, I’d eat a $12 convenience lunch that would hasten my inevitable procession to mortality.
If I had to start every dinner from scratch after sitting in an office all day, I’d eat a lot more Chipotle. Working from home is extremely good for my health. Of course, not everyone shares my cooking habits. But for people doing intellectual work, it’s entirely normal to want to break it up with self-care, household, or other life tasks.
Humans live in meat-bodies run by scattered, unfocused brains. I think you have to work with it. Making people rush to fit a 30-minute workout into their lunch break (and then they come back all sweaty and rushed and eating a wrap sandwich in the elevator on the way back to their desk) is not ideal. And most office workers, of course, move around much less than that; at 5pm, they’re exhausted from inaction (way worse for you than being exhausted from physical motion), and then face old dishes and a litany of small household emergencies.
That said, of course some people are terrible at working at home. I am an especially motivated person. If you hate your boss and don’t believe in your work, I think you will be pretty terrible at working at home.
If you have a lot of things that you want to do, though, sometimes the only way to do them is to run your own schedule, and be clever about it.
My first assistant Haley just happened to publish a magazine when she wasn’t working for me. She was normally in Toronto, but sometimes she’s elsewhere (which is not the sort of thing I need to know about), and sometimes she’s in New York and we may or may not meet up — and also, while it’s nice to have lunch when we can, meeting up isn’t actually any more productive. Once I invited Haley to my apartment, where she sat on my couch, and I said, “So, I thought it would help if you … saw stuff.” And then I looked around my apartment and realized that all the important stuff was in my computer, as it has been since about 1999, and we just went out to lunch.
I asked Haley for a quote about all of this. Take this with a grain of salt, if you want, because Haley works for me and we both lack objectivity in this matter, but I enjoyed this a lot.
Jen: Hi Haley, it’s super-weird to be interviewing you because I email you about 15 times a day, and without my usual Bullish level of punctuation and capitalization. Anyway, I am aware that you also run a magazine, and that you live in Toronto but sometimes you are magically elsewhere, which is fine with me. How do you do it? WHERE do you do it? What do you do all day?
Haley: Hi Jen! Yes, it’s true, I do run a magazine. I am the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal, an independent print publication based in Toronto. WORN is meant to be a completely different kind of fashion magazine — instead of talking about trends or what not to wear, we talk about the histories, personal stories, cultures, and subcultures of fashion.
WORN is 100% a volunteer operation. I don’t get paid, my partners (the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor, respectively) don’t get paid…it’s print media! There’s no money anywhere! JK JK (but also so serious).
This means that everyone at WORN is pulling income in from many different places. Most staff members work at WORN 10 hours a week to balance their full-time jobs or education. We have an office in one of Toronto’s best neighborhoods, Kensington/Chinatown, and I work there with our interns, co-op students, and fellow Wornettes at least 3 days a week. The rest of the time, I work from my home, coffee shops, libraries, etc.
Right now, weirdly enough, I’m in a hotel room in Montreal. I have to say, I can definitely see myself getting used to this sort of gentlewomanly living. The day I flew to Montreal I was feeling sick and took some oil of oregano, which hurt my empty stomach, but I felt like I couldn’t stop working long enough to eat, so I was seriously sitting on my couch shoveling handfuls of dry Cheerios into my mouth with one hand and typing with the other. Right now I’m sitting on a plush queen sized bed with my laptop, wearing a blazer, drinking a pot of super delicious coffee and eating a very flaky croissant. It’s going to be very difficult to go back to couches and Cheerios after this.
When I’m in Toronto, I try to follow a schedule to keep myself on track. I don’t waste my morning-thinking-time on commuting or bathing or anything stupid like that – I’m at my computer at 8am and I always start my day reviewing my to-do list and handling the social media postings for Jen and WORN. Then I work for two hours on projects – either something for Jen that requires a bulk of time, or a time-sensitive WORN project, or recently sometimes I’m working on an article for Hazlitt. I work out at home most days around 10am, then shower/put my face on and get to the WORN office by 12. The streetcar is my reading/Twitter time.
At the office, I try to only do the work that HAS to be done there – filling orders, filing, expenses, printing reports, phone calls, etc. On Tuesdays I go to spinning with my friends which is a good way to get me out of there by 5:30. Otherwise, I’ll aim to be home by 7:30 or 8 to have dinner with my boyfriend. At night I’ll do more work for you or WORN until 10:30 or 11. Then I read and sleep as much as I can.
On weekends it’s the same. I no longer differentiate weekends from work days. The only difference is that my boyfriend is home, so that’s when I’ll go to the WORN office or a coffee shop or a library, because he distracts me with his good looks.
My thing right now is making sure I’m doing the work that needs to get done at the right place. For awhile I was going to the WORN office to write blog posts or answer emails and then I would get home and be like, “Um, didn’t I have to send a package?” I can actually answer emails in any place, at any time, in any province. Packages can only get packed at the office. I also just turned off the push notifications on my emails and text messages, so I only see them on my iPhone when I choose to see them. I turn my phone off when I’m working out and I give it to my boyfriend when we’re out with friends so I’m not tempted to check. I think my brain really needs training to be more present.
My goal is to always know the difference between what is important and what is urgent. Of course I want to answer every email and every phone call, but I also want to get our grant applications in on time. That means being a little unavailable every so often.
I’m also totally devoted to Evernote and my to-do list, which I organize by place and time (i.e. “12pm – 1pm, WORN office, pack orders.”) Recently I saw a suggestion somewhere about organizing your to-do list by technology, like “here’s a list of things that I need Internet for, here’s the list for what can be done without Internet”, which I’m thinking of incorporating as well. Yesterday the Internet in my room was being spotty so I just worked on an article in Microsoft Word, for example.
The best thing about working for Jen is that it can literally be done anywhere. I don’t often do work in my pajamas at 2am, but it HAPPENS, and it’s OKAY. Knowing that I’m in control of where I have to be and when I have to be there is incredibly freeing. Before this, I had a great job, but it required me to be somewhere at a certain place and time, and I couldn’t exactly drop what I was getting paid to do to sneak a phone call or answer a quick email or whatever. I feel much more productive now that I know I’m the one making choices about my day.
Now I am thinking of changing our motto to, “GetBullish virtual headquarters: where bathing is not really top priority.”
Seriously, though, I think it makes a lot more sense to arrange your showering schedule around exercise than around when you need to be sitting at a computer.
Anyhow, here are some links you might find relevant:
Bullish: My To-Do List Revolution
Bullish: How to Be a Productivity Unicorn
Bullish: How to Make Yourself Do Your To-Do List
Bullish: Productivity Tips for People With Short Attention Spans
Bullish: How to Do Many Different Things At Once
Bullish: Every Weird Thing You Do Will Help You
It’s certainly true that I have never managed 11,500 employees, but I have some words for Marissa Mayer. Water cooler conversations aren’t necessarily more valuable than the deep and focused thinking people can do when they’re not constantly interrupted by people on their way back from the water cooler. It really depends on the kind of work you do.
I also think that water cooler-type work relationships tend to bias managers in favor of sociable employees who are more like them. A manager who hangs out with the staff while brewing individual pods of coffee has a lot more opportunities for — for example — subtle, insidious acts of racial bias than a boss who receives work submissions from a variety of contributors and judges those submissions on their merits. You have to try a lot harder to be racist, to sexually harass your employees, etc., when you mostly share GoogleDocs.
So don’t judge people by their physical location and the depth of the ass-imprints on their desk chairs. Judge them by their productivity, and fire the ones who don’t deliver. If someone can be productive while sitting on a beach or while a baby fusses in the background, then keep them around. If they can’t, offer them an office job and a chance to redeem themselves. If they aren’t productive, let them go, no matter how much they’re “team players” and no matter how witty their water-cooler chit-chat is. And if they’re running a magazine half the day but still manage to deliver, who cares if they’re on a train, in a hotel, at a publishing conference, wearing pants, or letting their bizarre 3-D nail art dry while typing your press releases?
When it comes to knowledge workers, at least, it takes a special egomaniac to care more about obedience than productivity. Not being that egomaniac sounds like a way to win.