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I watched my first episode of “The Office,” nearly 10 years ago, slouched uncomfortably on a bar stool in my childhood kitchen, the granite island cutting across my spine. The ascetic pose grew out of necessity, not prescient symbolism — the family’s other televisions were occupied by Fox News and PBS. But metaphor it was: this was the beginning of my transition to the office life.
A newly minted college graduate, I moved home and got a job as an editorial assistant at a small textbook publisher in the suburbs of Boston. I started my first day with a fresh notebook and eager smile. I ended it watching my coworkers file out at 5 o’clock sharp, like ants in a row. “Why don’t people just leave when their work is done?” I wondered aloud, genuinely baffled.
“Because the work is never done. We leave when the day ends,” replied my officemate, packing her bag, wise beyond her 26 years.
Polls indicate that nearly everyone, encumbered or free, thinks the idea of shifting work away from the physical office is a good one, for office and worker. But what are we envisioning? And at what cost?
I was accustomed to the university life, where like most students I scheduled afternoon classes to suit my biological and social rhythms, where I studied whenever and however I chose, where the work had a self-evident arch. Sophomore year, fueled by vending machine coffee, I stayed awake for three days before finals. The choice was mine, but the rewards and consequences were, too: A’s and the flu.
But in the office I was accountable to a beat not my own. During my second week, an email was sent to the entire company: “We counted cars in the parking lot at 8:30 am. There were only 72. Get here on time, please.” This felt like regression.
It was a struggle, not only to avoid being late — a problem I’ve since conveniently exempted as hereditary — but also to sit through idle Internet-surfing moments in the afternoon, waiting for an assignment or response, or, especially, to leave at night with tasks unfinished. The cleaning crew’s vacuuming heralded the day’s end. “It starts again tomorrow,” the supervisor would gently nudge. With that prophetic prompt, I’d trudge out to the parking lot.
But why should the office dictate the pace of my day and of my accomplishment? Wouldn’t it be more effective to dip in and out of work as it came and went, eliminate the inertia in between, respect more deeply the unsteady stream of information and focus? Wouldn’t it be better to work from home?
Today, almost a decade later, the question has unprecedented resonance. Fueled in part by technologies before unavailable, increasing numbers of employees are opting for a life without the commute and the water cooler and its scuttlebutt. There have been in the last year high-profile decrees from Yahoo and others against working from home, but the tide seems to have irrevocably turned. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of workers telecommuting in the U.S. grew by 73 percent.
The change will be a blessing for many, especially those with disabilities or responsibilities to young children or elderly parents. Polls indicate, however, that nearly everyone, encumbered or free, thinks the idea of shifting work away from the physical office is a good one, for office and worker. But what are we envisioning? And at what cost?
I am a writer in temperament and profession, prone to ill-timed fits of inspiration and bound by a need for periods of silence. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, I have come to love the office life. When I work from home, those “time wasting” moments I long ago balked at mean a dishwasher emptied or 10 minutes of CNN — small rewards for a day spent in virtual isolation. But in the office, they mean shared jokes and whispered frustrations, pats on the back for triumphs, commiseration for failures — building blocks toward a sense of collective purpose.
But beyond the camaraderie, the office has given me something even more important: protection in the form of that first-hated, forced rhythm. “Work is war,” my father is fond of saying. But I am convinced that without the structure of the office and its beginnings and ends, I would be my own enemy.
Last week, on a work-from-home day, 10 hours after he’d left the apartment, my husband found me on the same place on the couch, laptop still on lap. “What time is it?” I asked, eyes glazed. Without the distraction of passing coworkers, without the jaunty expeditions for answers or conversation, without the mass exodus at day’s end, time had lost its shape.
My experience isn’t singular: new research shows that telecommuters work at least 5 to 7 hours longer a week than their office-going counterparts. Although a Stanford study found that Chinese call-center employees who worked from home were 13 percent more productive, it may miss the nuance. Critical elements of a successful organization, such as ability and willingness to collaborate, may be difficult to quantify. Telecommuting may work well for planned, formal meetings, but doesn’t seem to for spontaneous, arguably more creative, gatherings.
When we report that we want to work from home, do we realize that the lines will blur between life and work, not only for us, but for those who have power over our promotions and paychecks?
And what about the separation of work and outside life? When we report that we want to work from home, do we realize that the lines will blur between life and work, not only for us, but for those who have power over our promotions and paychecks? Or are we seeing only the dream, the effortless weaving of work and life outside it — the email with the yoga, the deadline with the dog, the conference call with the laundry?
There is seemingly something natural, even primal, about defining our work, patterning our time, in packs. And yet the office isn’t always the best place to be — petty politics can be draining and mindless policies, frustrating. Seemingly minor distractions can add up to an unproductive day. Commuting, especially in the car, wastes valuable time.
As with most social questions, the best answer probably lies somewhere between extremes: the office should be accommodating, especially for those who need it to be, with weekly work-from-home days, flex hours and fewer cubicles, more individual office spaces. But as the technologies that enable telecommuting become better and cheaper, and as companies realize that people will work longer and harder from home, I have a hard time believing that the movement will not reach a tipping point. Will businesses maintain ghost offices for the few who want to remain?
As we say goodbye to “The Office,” I imagine how the show would look into 2025. What would it be without the hijinks that led to friendship between Dwight and Jim, the jokes that led to love between Michael and Holly, the hours simply sharing space and experience that led to the goodbye tears? The work would be done, that is unquestionable — maybe even better, faster. But is that all there is?
This program aired on May 24, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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