A Rant: Why Working from Home is Terrible

“The office is one thing, and private life is another.  When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me.” (Dickens, 1861)

Private life and work don’t mix.  Charles Dickens knew that 160 years ago and his words are still relevant today.  Wemmick’s dialogue in that scene from Great Expectations reflects an old British phrase: “Your home is your castle.” Its traditional meaning is that people should be free to do whatever they want in their own homes; that you are the ruler of your domain.  However, the word castle has many associated connotations.  In the case of Wemmick’s home in Great Expectations, comfort, not sovereignty, is the prime characteristic.

Wemmick’s sentiments have become more relevant recently, as the shift toward working from home quickens.  It’s true that many professionals can do their work from anywhere with a computer and a reliable internet connection — lagging video calls show that the speed and reliability of that connection doesn’t need to be exceptional.  This transition might be convenient for those who prefer working in their pajamas, but convenience comes at a cost.  The toll you pay for bypassing the barrier between your public and private life comes directly from the vault in your mind.

Working is a mental state.  Creating space between your place of work and your place of relaxation is essential for maintaining your mental health.  Much like Wemmick, many people are not the same individuals at work that they are when they’re relaxing at home.  I’m certainly not.  Wemmick’s philosophy has been a fundamental practice in my life for years.  Everyone I’ve ever worked with has only known a reflection of a real person.  I wear a Halloween costume every day.  My coworkers will never truly know me, only the Goodwill vampire version.  I wouldn’t even use my real name if I could get away with it.  I’d go by Pip, or Wemmick, or Charles Dickens.

That fake personality threatens to take over your mind when there are no boundaries between your work and your home.  Your residential personality is exposed.  Your serenity is compromised.  Once it’s allowed past your castle walls, work begins creeping into your psyche like vines on yellow wallpaper.  Soon your professional personality completely takes over, destroying your real identity in the process, like an evil clone that kills its original copy.

I can’t argue that there aren’t benefits to working from home.  I get at least a half-hour of extra sleep that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to spend pressing snooze on my alarm.  I don’t have to spend my morning awkwardly squished against a stranger in a train car.  I never even have to leave my house.  In fact, I often go outside less than three times each week now.  It has been five days since I’ve seen the sun.

All those benefits are certainly convenient for indolent people like me, but none of them are enough to balance out the slithering invasion of work into the places where I want to relax.  I set up the Hovel (my leisure space) as a place for relaxation and personal development.  The shelves are adorned with D&D manuals and Blu-Rays.  There is a large flatscreen TV.  The computer I’m typing this on was only ever intended for personal use.  Now, I have a whole cluster of icons lurking in the upper left-hand corner of my computer monitor that are essential for my job.

I can no longer use my computer without thinking about work.  The Hovel has become more like a cubicle than a leisure space.  There is no room for relaxation among the cluttered thoughts that still hang in the air above my desk for hours after I’ve finished my last task.  Every second that I spend working in this space catalyzes its mutation from a place of leisure into a place of labour.  There is no longer any delineation between where I spend my energy, and the place where I used to get it back.  That extends to all the other areas of my home as well.

Your commute creates a barrier between work and home.  The time you spend sitting on the train or leaning on your horn in Monday-morning traffic is when the mental transition between your individual selves takes place.  Working from home eliminates that barrier.  It also reverses the process of going to work and coming home that Wemmick describes in that quote.  Instead of going to work and leaving the Castle behind, you’re bringing work directly into the Castle, where that little labour seedling will grow like an invasive species, spreading throughout every room in your home.  Your living room becomes a conference room.  Your kitchen becomes a breakroom.  Your bedroom becomes that small, dark place where people go when they’re having painful migraines in the middle of the day.

First, you lose your personal space and then you lose your personal wardrobe.  I used to come home, rip off my work clothes, and assume the costume of a leisurely kite as I drifted between rooms with the weightless tranquility of silk in the wind.  I only wore comfortable clothes at home, but now I wear my work clothes more often than my leisure-sweats.  Instead of drifting casually, I engage in a kind of desultory spinning — with all the subtle grace of a paper bag caught by an isolated garbage tornado in an empty grocery store parking lot.

“But you wouldn’t have that problem if you just didn’t dress up for work.  Why bother if you’re not actually going to the office?”

Wearing my weekend wardrobe while I work isn’t a benefit of working from home.  It’s the final sign that my personal identity has perished.  It’s the swan song of the self.  Work clothes are the only barrier that people working from home have left.  Putting on your uniform and leaving it lying in a heap at the end of the day is the only way that anyone can still transition between the beleaguered work consciousness and the untethered serenity of the Castle.  Those khakis are the only defence I still have against the indefatigable waves of work slamming against the cliffs of my mind, slowly eroding the weathered psychological walls that separate work and home.

Work is a term for both what people do and where they do it.  You do your work, and you go to work.  Those two definitions are inseparable, which means that if you do your work in the place you live, your home becomes your work.  The Castle becomes an office — but an office can never be your Castle.

Dickens, Charles.  (2008) Great Expectations.  Oxford University Press, p.191 (original work published 1861).