Eight years ago, Max and I left the corporate world and started our own company. Funny, to this day I find it awkward to call our business a company even though it’s fully incorporated in two countries. I suppose the only reason for this is the fact that we don’t work in a building; instead, we work out of a home office.
We started our business, or company, because we knew there was no organization that would allow us to have the family/work balance that we needed, at least not in Tokyo, where we were living at the time. Max and I worked at the same company and we were frequently there from 10 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. 6 days a week. The demands were so great that the vast majority of women employees remained single and pretty much gave up on the idea of having a family. I was our company’s first employee ever to get pregnant and the HR office created its first parental leave policy that year.
In Japan I enjoyed a full year of paid leave.
But parenting doesn’t necessarily get any easier once a child graduates from infancy, nor do our families need us any less after that first year. After my leave was over my employer wanted me back full time, and physically in the office. 60-70 hour work weeks with a 150 minute commute each day? With a toddler? The whole idea was preposterous. Had I been allowed to work from home even a few days a week, I honestly would have considered staying. But this wasn’t an option, and so not only did I resign, but Max did as well. It is not only mothers who need more time at home with their children.
Our small company is entering its 8th year this year. We have 10 part-time staff across 3 continents. Half of them are parents of young children. We all work from home.
What is it like to work from home?
It’s peaceful. It’s busy. It’s freeing. It’s isolating.
One of the very first questions I received – from a stay-at-home mother, of all people – when Fred started preschool was, “So how you are going to spend your day tomorrow? Will you have a spa day? Watch a movie?” I was floored.
And that is a common misconception about people who work from home – that because they are out of the clutches of an office or a boss or because they have control over their schedules, they have all this free time to catch up on t.v. or sleep during the day.
We do enjoy a tremendous freedom that we did not when we commuted to our former employer. Depending on our work cycle, it is usually not difficult to volunteer at Fred’s school or run to the bank or nurse a bad cold in the middle of the day. However, whatever doesn’t get done during that time “off” simply needs to get done at some other point during the day – and that is usually between 9:30 p.m. and midnight after Fred has gone to sleep or between 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday before the family day starts. We work literally 6 or 7 days a week year-round, while Fred is in school, while waiting for the chicken to roast, while Fred is on a play date. The fact that there is no office to leave blurs the boundaries between work and home life. This is one of the hardest parts about working from home.
Do parents make worse employees?
Given the reasons why we started our business, we naturally pride ourselves on being a family-friendly company. I’ll be honest, though, that as an employer one of the things I most dread to hear is, “Can I get an extension on my deadline? My son/daughter has a fever/is not sleeping/is…” Of course, this is second only to “Mommy, I don’t feel good…” As family-friendly as we are, we still have high-paying and demanding clients to respond to. My sympathies for my own child and my employees’ sick children do not change the fact that our (often single, often male) clients still need to get their work back. But you know, we work together with our staff. We find a way to make it work. We don’t punish with guilt trips or warnings. Max and I have personally been there ourselves and we’re there again and again. Good staff do not abuse our understanding.
But I imagine it’s easy to blame any lapse on the fact that one has kids. If someone misses a couple of e-mails or turns in something with typos, it’s easy to conclude, “It figures because she has a newborn at home.” Until you stop and evaluate all your employees. The most careless staff member we’d ever had – one we had to fire before the year was out – was single with no children. And perhaps the most dedicated and high performing employee we’ve ever had was a woman who had left the corporate world to raise her 4 children (all under 6 at the time). Along the spectrum we’ve had dedicated employees with no children as well as one or two parent-employees who just made it clear that our work was a distant second (or third?) on their list of priorities. My point? It depends on the person.
Are we more productive working from home?
I cannot speak for everyone, but for Max and I, yes. We don’t talk to each other while working, unless it’s about work. In fact, except for occasional non-work-related phone calls or IMs, we have no interruptions whatsoever, which is very different from those days I worked in an office, when bored or overly chatty co-workers would swing by my office or cubicle and overstay their visits. Except for a single flight of stairs, I also do no commuting. So each week that’s an extra 6-7 hours of work that I can do – basically like putting in a whole extra day of work! And honestly, if I really am exhausted – because I was up late the night before working or because my son was sick – I will take a 30 minute power nap to re-energize instead of staring blankly at my computer screen for 5 hours hoping my colleagues and boss will believe I am working.
Is there less togetherness?
Yes. Absolutely. And this was the reason my former employer gave for not allowing us to work from home (and one of the reasons that Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer gives). Though practically living in our former company had its many disadvantages, the one thing that made it bearable throughout all those years was the close sense of family. There was a real sense of team and bonding and thus loyalty to our company when we were all so close. I got to know my colleagues and staff both professionally and personally which made me a better supervisor. I miss that now about our own company. We get together physically with our staff once a year. I wish we could do that more frequently.
But the virtual nature of our company has not made our staff any less loyal. Our core staff has been with us for years, and the relationships we have are – without exaggeration – the best of any work environment I have ever been in. Our respect for our employees as whole people has earned us their loyalty and affection.
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In the end, being faced with unyielding work requirements forced us to make a choice we didn’t want to make. For several years we honestly thought we were never going to have children, constrained as we were by the demands of our work. When we finally decided that we wanted to become parents, we sadly made the decision to break away from the professional family that had been such a huge part of our lives – indeed, the family that we had almost quite literally given our lives to. But ultimately the decision wasn’t entirely ours to make; in not wanting to find a reasonable way to make things work for all of us, the company was telling us that we really weren’t worth it in the end.