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Is Telecommuting Work? The Answer Isn’t In the Fridge. (I Already Looked.)

Von Drehle is an editor-at-large for TIME, where he has covered politics, breaking news and the Supreme Court since 2007. He is the author of four books, including Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, published in 2012, and Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

'It makes work avoidance so easy'

Want to glimpse the future? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a quarter of all employed Americans work from home at least part of the time–roughly 39 million telecommuters, and the number is rising rapidly. Based on my personal experience, that means at least 13 million of us are staring blankly into the refrigerator right now.

Roughly 2 million are organizing the junk drawer in the kitchen.

One hundred and forty-three thousand are trying to figure out why the drain is slow in the hall bathroom.

It’s not that we’re trying to avoid work. Well, actually, we are trying to avoid work, and the thing about telecommuting is that it makes work avoidance so easy. Slacking at the office requires subterfuge. I know of a lawyer who kept a spare suit jacket and trick ice cubes in his office. When he was feeling unproductive, he would put the jacket on the back of his chair and pour a soda over the non-melting ice, then slip away for the afternoon, leaving his door ajar. Anyone looking for him would peek into his office, see the ice in the glass, and assume that he had stepped away for just a moment.

Before I became a telecommuter, I used to put on a suit and tie to go to work. I rode the subway or sat in rush-hour traffic. Sometimes, when I was at the office, I might appear to be idle, sitting for minutes or hours at my desk, staring into space, as I waited for the next word or sentence to form. Sooner or later, though, the sitting would produce results. What does it take to be a writer? A cast-iron rear end, mainly.

At home, when you stare into space you are likely to notice dust bunnies under the bookcase, or a lightbulb that needs changing. That will cause you to remember that you need a new dust mop, and that lightbulbs are on sale. A trip to the grocery store wouldn’t hurt, would it? Might as well fill the car, and get it washed while you’re at it–the thing is filthy.

I worry about what this is doing to my marriage, because my wife does most of her work from home too. She has a saying about too much togetherness: “For better and for worse, but not for lunch.” It’s hard on her when she sees me lounging on the sofa, Googling former classmates, and asks if I’m free to drive the afternoon carpool, only to have me snap: “Excuse me for trying to feed this family!” I think she would prefer to have me march out the door, briefcase in hand, at 7 a.m. and return at 5:30 like Ward Cleaver.

But with experts projecting that the telecommuting population could double in the near future, this probably isn’t in the cards. I have to wonder: How will my kids ever figure out what work is? For much of human history, work was relentless: hauling water, tending crops, raising herds, spinning cloth, dipping candles. That gave way to an era in which workers in offices and factories arrived on time, often in uniform, and when work was over they changed into other outfits that let you know they were off the clock. I grew up in that era, and I learned that earning a living meant leaving home for a designated portion of every workday.

What kind of example am I setting, barefoot and T-shirted, staring into my laptop on the back porch? “Don’t bother your dad–he’s working,” I hear my wife say. I know what they’re thinking in reply, the dears, even if they are too polite to say it: How can you tell?

They’re coming of age in a world in which the line between working and not-working is being erased. The counterpoint to the midday grocery-store run is the midnight email from a distant time zone. If telecommuters are never entirely at work, neither are we ever entirely away from work. We’re catching up on reading while the ballgame is on, furtively checking texts during the school pageant, reviewing tomorrow’s agenda just before bedtime.

Multitasking is a fine thing, but some tasks still demand good old-fashioned focus. That’s hard to model as a work-from-home dad, because the struggle to dial up my focus on today’s world can seem indistinguishable from goofing off. One advantage of having parents disappear daily is that the ritual gives visible form to abstract notions of discipline and concentration.

Which is why I keep a tiny office, the size and charm of a prison cell, in a building not far from home. There is nothing to do in my office but sit, hour after hour, as writers must. I go there when the work absolutely must get done–no dust bunnies, no lightbulbs, no fridge.

This column, for example.


This appears in the November 07, 2016 issue of TIME.
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