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Why working from home isn't as good as it sounds

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Every time somebody asked me what I did for a living, and I replied that I worked remotely from an office in my house, the response was always the same: "You are so lucky."

People would look at me with envy and tell me how wonderful it would be to not spend 40-plus hours a week pinned to a beige cubicle, enduring the smell of stale coffee and printer toner, a boss perched over their shoulder. I would shrug and tell them it's a pretty good deal. Inevitably, I'd get asked if I worked in my housecoat.

"Uh, no," I'd reply with another shrug.

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In many ways, it was unbeatable. No soul-draining commute, no dress code. No passive-aggressive or control-freak co-workers. No endless forking out for chocolate bars to support your colleague's kid's soccer team. Fewer pointless, time-sucking meetings. And it's much easier to tune out the busy environment of the modern office and simply focus on your job.

But the remote employee experience was not all strawberries and cream. I did it for five years, and eventually, I had to let it go.

I was happily working for a mid-sized biotech company in Vancouver when my wife's career abruptly took us to the other side of the country: St. John's. With a little negotiation, I was able to stay with the company as a remote tech-support rep. This was a tremendous relief, for as wonderful as Newfoundland is, it's not exactly a biotech hot spot.

I was given a fully loaded company laptop to take with me, and as soon as a second phone line was installed in my new house, I was ready. In the morning I would get up, make coffee for my wife and myself, kiss her goodbye as she went off to work, fire up the laptop, tune into either CBC Radio One or an Internet radio station, and start working.

The first thing that became obvious was how much more productive I was. There were no distractions - nobody in the cubicle next to me wanting to talk about their significant other or their impossible deadlines, fewer artificial crises and make-work projects. I had much more time for the sometimes radical notion of actually getting work done.

Another big plus was that I was largely outside the realm of office politics and gossip. It was liberating to avoid the usual petty feuds and in-house melodrama. The part of my brain that couldn't help but dwell on the sometimes weird or annoying behaviour of my colleagues shrank, and freed up time in my working life that simply didn't have to deal with all of that.

I was happy in this great new world. My boss was happy, and so was her boss. I was the office nomad, a lone romantic figure on a rocky island far from the office, a product of 21st century work technology. In the morning, I'd look out my window and laugh at the poor suckers getting in their cars to bask in fluorescent lighting and breathe in recycled air (laughing at my wife was avoided, of course, for risk of large objects being hurled in my direction).

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So, how did the dream die?

Motivation wasn't the problem. Many people think remote workers spend more time doing laundry or watching Family Feud than actually working. But the world of tech support was a constant deluge of e-mails and phone calls from high-maintenance customers and type-A sales reps that had to be addressed as soon as possible. It was a matter of "get the work done or be fired," so it was easy to stay motivated.

The main problem, I learned, was that human interaction is one of the things most of us need to make our jobs tolerable.

Working from home became extremely lonely. In a stressful job such as mine, being able to complain to your colleagues lightens the load, but I had nobody right there to whom I could complain. I started talking to my spider plant, but it could only commiserate so much.

Every six months or so I'd spend a week back in the Vancouver office, a Kafkaesque and exhausting experience. I couldn't get any work done because I was paralyzed by the frantic office atmosphere and contagious stress of friendly but tightly wound co-workers. I'd share awkward silences with new employees who had no idea who I was. I felt like nobody had taught me the secret handshake. In a loud pub after the company Christmas party, I watched the sales guys with their arms around one another, laughing, shouting and singing, and thought: "I don't belong here. Who the hell are these people?"

For all of its drawbacks, work is a social construct as much as a means of income. It's a force that pulls us out into the external world, where we can talk about hockey and pay-TV dramas, share bad jokes and build, for better and for worse, a family of sorts. Slowly, by degrees, I came to feel like an orphan, living a bubble-like, isolated, virtual life. I felt my social skills eroding. I'd become Major Tom, a solitary astronaut orbiting a distant Earth.

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I knew I had to come back down. With equal parts relief and regret, I said goodbye to my job last year and embarked on The Great Midlife Career Change. I'm not sure yet where the end point of my journey lies, but I hope it won't involve going for a beer on Friday after work with a spider plant.

A confession: I'm afraid I lied. Once in a while, I would spend the morning in front of my laptop, coffee in hand, in my housecoat. Wouldn't you?

Ron Makowichuk lives in Nanaimo, B.C.

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