Ode to Annoying Co-Workers
Yep, I miss them, as well as demanding bosses, even the bad ones. Working at home, you see, ain't always a picnic.
When people learn I'm self-employed, they often express envy. "I'd love to be my own boss," they say. Or: "No more office politics; you're so lucky." Eager not to make anyone feel bad and, to be honest, wanting to ward off additional competition for tables at Starbucks and other Wi-Fi hotspots I run down my situation. "You don't want to be your own IT guy, believe me," I counter. Or, "It's hard not having a vending machine."
I'm kidding, of course. And yet I'm not. Talk to any healthy adult who can work from home in his pajamas (and who isn't Hugh Hefner), and you'll hear complaints. "Home workers often miss sharing aggravations that arise from the annoying co-workers," Judith Doyle, assistant professor of sociology at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, told me by e-mail. Doyle, the author of a study showing that gossip makes workers more productive, says that "sometimes it isn't the gossip so much, but the camaraderie that the annoying co-worker can make everyone else feel." (Since leaving an office environment, I've tried to re-create this phenomenon by gossiping with my 5- and 6-year-old sons, but they never dish any good dirt. Even so, I can't stop myself. "Did you hear about Jim in HR?" I asked at bath time yesterday.)
At last count, nearly half the nation's 23 million businesses were run out of the home, according to the US Census Bureau. The agency doesn't perform this breakdown, but one way to interpret the figures is to say that there are millions of workers hanging out alone at the kitchen water cooler, signing their own "from the gang" birthday cards, and longing for colleagues, even irritating ones.
"One of the biggest things about working at home is that the chances for office romance are greatly diminished," New York City-based writer and TV commentator Andy Borowitz told me. "In any given day, I spend a lot of time sexually harassing myself, and it's created a lot of tensions in my workplace. I have actually created a hostile work environment for myself. I'm afraid to go to work in the mornings. That has been the one biggest problem."
Like a lot of home-based workers, I often venture out to charming cafes, a set-up that seems almost unbearably idyllic to office-bound onlookers. They're unaware of the stress that comes from trying to score a "desk" at a popular spot and then holding on to it from 9 to 5, through bathroom breaks, battery issues, and hunger pangs for food not sold at my power source. I'd fix that last problem by ordering pizza for my table, but I fear the paying customers circling for seats might attack. If only we Bedouins to use a term catching on in San Francisco to describe roaming workers armed with laptops and cellphones could unionize. Suggested motto: Coffee-shop squatters of the world, unite!
Alas, strangers in coffee shops aren't a self-employed person's worst enemies. We've got our ids to contend with (or, to put it in non-Freudian terms "Oprah's on"). As Stewart D. Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Program in Philadelphia, points out: "You've got to be more disciplined about focusing and paying attention to the things you really want to be paying attention to, as opposed to going down to the fridge and snacking all day and watching reruns of your favorite show. It's a lot harder when you don't have the social cues of peers who are also working and, most importantly, someone who is in a bosslike position telling you what to do."
Speaking of bosses, I might as well admit it now: I'm not the leader I'd hoped I'd be. Where's the team-spirit-boosting retreat? The celebratory lunch for a job well done with the company footing the bill? Time off with pay?
I called Timothy Ferriss, the San Jose, California-based author of the best-selling The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, and asked him if it's possible to be your own jerk. He says yes. "Most people lack management skills," he explains. "Trading one boss for another is replacing one master for another, especially if that boss is yourself."
Oops, gotta look busy. The battle-ax is watching me.
Beth Teitell, a Boston-based writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.