March of 2020 presented the opportunity to beta test working from home for about 5 weeks, while the company I worked for tried to figure out how it was going to respond to COVID. I had wanted to work from home for a long time, but this experience helped to see that it would be possible. Maybe you the reader know me, and are curious to know how a real-life transition to remote work has worked out.
I left my previous employer for reasons unrelated to working in a crowded office building in the middle of a pandemic (though that helped). I had applied to dozens of companies that listed remote-only setups, and I had multiple third round interviews with companies that had fully embraced remote work for even the management teams. Remote jobs are out there if you are looking for one, especially in 2020 and 2021.
My experiences over the last year are a combination of what working from home in general is like, and specifics of how my current employer has chosen to implement remote work. These stand in stark contrast against the rigid ways of previous employers (if you know me personally, you know what I am talking about).
So, if you are contemplating working from home, your mileage might vary.
My first job out of college had work hours of 8:30-4:30 with a 8 mile commute (8:10-4:50, 8.6 hours/day). Then I spent 9 years working 7-4 with a 16 mile commute (6:15-4:45, 10.5 hours/day). Totaling that up, at my first job I was away from home 43 hours a week, and then 52.5 hours a week. Even if I had lived in the much higher cost of living town closer to the office, the best I could have done was maybe 47 hours a week. Either way, working for home has given me another 10 or so hours a week back with my family.
My engagement with the family is no longer confined to the hours of 5pm to bedtime. Here is just one tiny example: since it has reopened, the kids and I have gone to the neighborhood pool a couple times a week over my lunch break.
Here is a crazy thought for us salaried people. We can convert our salary to an hourly rate by dividing by 2,080 (thats 40 hours * 52 weeks). Using a round $100,000 salary, that is $48.07 / hour. What if we instead viewed the salary in terms of hours away from our families? At 50 hours / week in this example, thats 2,600 hours per year and $38.46 / hour. Eliminating 10 hours of overhead is almost like making time away from family 25% more valuable.
We have five children. The kids are not at the age yet that we get the built-in free childcare that can come with having teenagers. To have a sitter, we have typically paid anywhere from $15 to $22 per hour. Some of the services we have used also charge a booking fee that varies from $5 for advance bookings to as much as $20 for same-day bookings. In the worst case, if something came up that necessitated child care for a full day, we could be out about $250 for the day. Even on an optimum day, child care usually ran about $160. With my wife’s normal work schedule that requires 4-6 week days per month, we were budgeting at least $640 per month for child care. Many months it was over $1,000. Now that I work from home, we usually don’t need child care on most of the days that my wife works. If we do, we only book one for meeting heavy days, and only for a smaller number of hours in the middle of the day so I can be free from distractions.
We have it relatively easy with my wife’s 4-6 week day requirement. I reminded of a developer friend who has a wife that works nearly full time in a health care position, and they utilize daycare for their younger kids. One of them has to leave very early for work every day to drop the kids off, and have to be sure to pick them up at a specific time to avoid late pickup charges. I don’t know their specific budget, but in Tennessee the average daycare cost is about $7,500 per year per child. And with daycare typically comes kids getting sick much more frequently, which then requires one parent having to stay home.
Also, don’t get me started on household employee wages. That was the single most complicated tax issue we’ve ever dealt with. Thankfully that is not something we have to worry about anymore.
One of the other areas this has helped us is with doctor appointments. With 5 kids having annual checkups and dentist appointments, plus any regular appointment for my wife, there is at least one appointment a month. We would be faced with a choice – do we spend $50 or more to get a sitter, do I use the “flex” schedule to go home, keep the kids, go back to work and stay two hours late, or burn through two hours of PTO? There were a couple years in recent history where about 1/10th of my PTO was spent just dealing with appointments.
Now if anyone has an appointment, I just work from home like I usually do, and my wife takes them to their appointment.
I have put far fewer miles on the former commuter car. I’m theoretically saving at least $200/mo on fuel and maintenance. That’s not a huge savings (thankfully my commute was rather short and I had a reasonably fuel efficient vehicle, so others mileage may vary), but it comes out to more than some of the cost-of-living raises I’ve seen in recent years.
I say the commuter car has seen far fewer miles, but my wife pointed out that is a little misleading. Our family vehicle gets maybe 14mpg, compared to the commuter that gets closer to 27. Any time my wife wanted to run some errands, she used to have to load at least some of kids up and take the van. Now that I am home, she can take the more efficient vehicle to run her errands, even if she takes one or two of the little ones with her. So in our specific case, the commuter car has seen a slight overall decrease in usage, but the larger family vehicle has seen a much greater reduction in miles around town. I wish I took regular snapshots of the odometer to have some actual numbers for this.
I never was a car guy. I’ve owned some nice cars, and some beaters. But now that the commuter car is relegated to trips to the store and the occasional appointment around town, I care even less about the appearance of the car that sees action maybe 2 out of 168 hours of the week. It is incredibly rare these days for both of our vehicles to be in action at the same time.
I no longer have to wake up at 6 to be at work by 7 to beat the traffic, and have no stressful drive home in the evening. And, although I don’t recall seeing this enumerated, there was always the pressure that I got in a bad traffic jam in the morning, I was to use “flex time” and stay late to make up for the lost work time. Traffic didn’t take away from time spent with my butt in a seat at work, but it did ultimately take away from family time.
My former job itself was not stressful – I enjoyed the work, and it was rare for something like an outage or broken build to come up. But the drive home was often maddening dealing with all of the other commuters who were also in a frantic rush to get home at the same time. It was not uncommon to get home with stress levels higher than when I left the office.
Privacy and Focus
After 15 years of working in an open floor plan office, where only managers were allowed the focus time that comes with a closed door, I was ready to be able to have a desk where I could work without walk-by interruptions. My final year at my previous employer had me sitting at a desk that was in a very high traffic area. Hundreds of people would pass within 5 feet of me every day. Headphones were a must to block out the noise and conversations as people walked by to take their bio-break or get more coffee. I really truly don’t want to know about people’s biological rhythms. Because of where I was seated, I was starting to learn certain people’s daily schedules.
I was guilty of the interrupting others though. There was a certain person who comes to mind who had a desk right next to one of the stairwells that I frequented, and I likely interrupted their flow far too often when visiting that floor. But even when I was visiting someone else on that floor nearby, I could see how distracting it was to sit with clear line of sight to a busy stairwell door a mere 10 feet away.
I have never spent too much time and money on what I wear to work. When I left my last employer, I discarded about 15 free t-shirts that I had collected over the years (about $100 of “perks”?), and I usually just wore those to work with a pair of jeans. There wasn’t a super strict dress code enumerated anywhere I was aware of, but it was strongly implied that men had to wear pants that went down to their feet. This was especially annoying when it was 100 degrees outside (why nice shorts were not allowed, when women could wear skirts, always escaped me). But, now that I work from home, I can wear what I want, and the only one who can be annoyed with my fashion choices are my wife. And, because of that I am trying to dress a little bit better at home: I wear more button up shirts than I used to. And, yes, I wear pants (shorts most days). My desk is in front of a floor to ceiling window that is clearly visible from the street.
The office is on the furthest run from the central A/C, and thus can get warm during the Summer months without running the system cooler than necessary. We’ve had a small portable A/C for a few years, so I moved it to the office. Yes, these things are not the most efficient, but the HOA frowns on window units. The positive here is that it’s my office, I get to choose the temperature that is comfortable for me.
We currently have 5 kids, and we choose to homeschool, so the kids are always at home. The noise level can get rather high, and the office in our home is in a rather central location. One improvement we might make is to install solid-core doors to replace the glass french doors on the office. As much as a back yard shed office might be nice, it would be about 1/10th the cost to improve the soundproofing the office.
Privacy and Focus
Some of the kids are still learning what a closed office door means, and I am trying to do a better job of leaving the door open when I am not in focus mode or in meetings. Locking the door usually works, but there have been a few occasions that I have been in a meeting where the little one will desperately want to see me. Thankfully I work for a company that has embraced remote work, and are all too understanding of such interruptions. That, and I have so few meetings that it usually isn’t a problem.
When leaving the house at 6:15 to get to work by 7, and similarly leaving the office at 4 to get home by 4:45, that afforded 45 minutes each way (usually with a podcast) to switch the brain from home to work, and work to home mode. The line between home and work has been blurred a whole lot more. I need to do a better job of getting up just 15 minutes earlier, go for a “walking commute” before starting the day, and doing the same in the evening. My job is far from stressful, but having some clear markers in the day to transition might help.
Admittedly, this is the only thing I miss at this point from my previous job. I had been there for over 9 years, and had developed some very good friendships over that time. Eating together in the cafe was one of the more enjoyable parts of the day. I do have friends near where I live now, and I have made an effort to have the occasional virtual lunch with friends who also work remotely. On a 1-10 scale of introverted to extroverted, I am probably a 2 or 3, so this might not bother me as much as some people. I still enjoy the occasional lunch, physical or virtual, with friends, and working from home requires a lot more intentional effort to make this happen.
My previous employer had almost 1,000 employees all in one campus. I had worked with a handful of remote contractors in my time there, but they were just that – contractors. That company’s CEO has been vocally opposed to remote work as far as I can remember. But, now that I work for a company that embraces remote work, I can at least appreciate some of the complexities that a company must deal with when enabling remote work across state lines.
My current employer is small enough that HR is outsourced, and that company manages different state-specific employment issues. The most visible of these is that healthcare plans differ by state. Handling state-specific employer taxes or employment laws is another thing, and different states can have more strict discrimination laws.
One example of a rather innocuous law I saw in my new employment guide was “bone marrow donation” – some states (notably California) require employers give employees up to a certain number of days per year off if they choose to donate bone marrow. Tennessee has no such law, and thus does not need to be in an employment handbook.
One other thing I had not really considered when leaving an employer that was opposed to remote work is that working out of the office would likely hurt a company’s economic development tax incentives (government handouts, pork, forgivable loans, whatever you want to call them). For example, my previous employer, one who hates handouts for individuals, got a $1.8M handout by the county. One could reasonably assume that was tied to the “created” jobs actually being fulfilled by people in that county, who are likely to contribute to the local tax base in other ways like property or sales taxes.
My home office wasn’t really set up for permanent occupancy in early 2020, so I have made some changes along the way. Admittedly, these upgrades were somewhat luxurious – a sizable PTO payout after leaving my previous job helped fund some of these.
- Ubiquiti Dream Machine Pro – $400
- I’ve been using a cheap router for years, but it was starting to be a limiting factor, especially with all of the family wifi devices, TVs, smart things, etc. The internet experience has been greatly improved. I’ve also added two Ubiquiti AP AC Pros to the system – one in the office, one on the other side of the house. I would have purchased one of the newer WiFi 6 devices, but they have been out of stock for some time (even the DMP is out of stock as of writing this).
- Aeron Chair – $400
- At my first job out of college, every employee had their own chair. It was a “pair programming” environment, so you tended to move around to different desks, but each employee had a dedicated (and rather expensive) chair. These are easily over $1200 with all of the options (like this one), but there is an office furniture clearance store in Dallas that sells used ones. I was able to get a blue one that matches the office paint scheme for a great deal.
- Uplift V2 Commercial 72×30 standing desk – $900
- I was a long holdout on standing desks. I tried some of the add-on standing attachments that my previous employer had tried years ago, and they always seemed incredibly wobbly. When we moved to our new office in 2019, everyone got a true standing desk, and they were a lot better than I expected. They were also a lot more expensive (through the furniture retailer, it looks like they were about $1500, maybe more). I purchased the Uplift commercial frame (it contains a crossbar for stability), and have been very happy with how stable the desk is at my preferred height (44in).
Questions To the Reader
Thanks for taking the time to read all the way down here to the bottom.
Do you work from home? If so, how was the adjustment for you?
Are you looking to make the switch?