I think I’m becoming a rumor.
That’s usually my wife’s job. When we lived in Kansas, Heather got out of the house so rarely that she said people would decide I was making her up – or that I had quietly buried her in the backyard, between the rosebush and the rabbit warren.
Now it’s my turn.
It’s been the same cause both times: Heather’s chronic health issues. Sometimes she hurts so intensely that she needs me close by for even basic things. Sometimes Missy has a cold or something else that keeps her out of her day program, and Heather lacks the strength to deal with her by herself for a long period of time.
Either way, it means it’s once again to discover those three prominent words of the modern workplace: “Work From Home.” Sometimes for days at a time.
I’m lucky. I know that. Between cell phones and the Internet, being a home-based reporter is easier than it’s ever been. And I’ve got a lot of company. According to the Census Bureau, almost 10 percent of Americans work at home at least one day a week; almost 4.5 percent work the majority of their week that way.
If the scholars are right, it’s even good for me. One study out of Stanford of a Chinese travel agency found that telecommuters were more productive, were sick less often and had less turnover. The main drawback was they also got promoted less often.
I can believe the productivity gains. When your desk is the kitchen table, you feel a pressure to justify every minute, to make sure your boss knows that you’re not just curled up with a soap opera and a can of Coke. And since you’re in familiar surroundings, able to attend to domestic needs as they occur, that surely doesn’t hurt.
But there’s a less obvious downside, too. When you work from home, it gets increasingly difficult to tell which one is which.
I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about. Ideally, home’s supposed to be the place where you get away from work, where the problems of projects, deadlines and office drama can be replaced with the problems of chores, bills and family drama. And among all that, it’s the chance to recharge, to be with the people you’re doing it all for, to get back in touch with the world of pets, paints and bedtime stories.
But when the workplace becomes the homeplace, the boundaries disappear. The outside stress comes in, by invitation. And you begin to understand what the Flash felt like as you dash between the roles of employee, spouse, parent and sickroom attendant. Often at the same time.
Put it this way. Human cloning can’t come fast enough.
Don’t get me wrong. Telecommuting is convenient and I wouldn’t turn it down for the world. But it’s also exhausting. Work from home is no disguised vacation day. Sometimes it even makes you long for the comparative sanity of the office, where you’re only one thing to one person.
And yet, even as it creates a strange marriage of two worlds, it also makes it possible to keep those worlds going.
When I first started out, at The Garden City Telegram, I had a similar stretch of time where Heather’s needs would often call me home. Back then, my answer was to work an unholy number of hours when I was at the newsroom, to trade off against the times I wasn’t there.
This is better. Not perfect, but better.
And better still will be the day when my worlds no longer need to collide. When Heather is again well enough to throw me out of the house. When my co-workers can stop listing my appearances with those of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster and my boss can actually see me in the flesh.
I wonder if I’ll need a name tag?