Dear Americans: Don’t work at home, work less

March 4, 2013

Mom at work by S.Bennett via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

LONDON — I have no doubt that as I write this column, someone, somewhere in America, is busily stitching together her very own Marissa Mayer voodoo doll. But despite all the furor that has raged since the Yahoo CEO ordered her employees to cease working from home to improve productivity, that debate has barely caused a ripple on this side of the Atlantic.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all sanctimonious on you and remind you of how far the United States lags behind most of the rest of the world in providing workers and their families with supports or protections. Nor am I going to point to the growing body of work suggesting that telecommuting may actually be more efficient for many work-related tasks and help keep employees around.

I’ve got nothing against offices. At heart, I’m actually that annoyingly over-zealous co-worker who rushes to Bagel Fridays and can’t wait to perform at the annual office karaoke night.

But I do think that this entire debate has largely missed the point. To my mind, the problem facing American workers isn’t where they work, it’s how.

I myself work for a large British company that is extremely flexible about working from home. It’s one of the things I like most about working there, and I regularly take advantage of this perk — working from home at least one day a week and up to five when I’ve got a sick child and/or am on deadline with a report.

But let’s not kid ourselves that working at home means that we necessarily work any less or that it’s somehow more relaxing. I routinely get up at 4 a.m. and routinely work 50-hour weeks. It doesn’t matter whether I’m doing that in an office or on my sofa; I’m still exhausted. In fact, the human resources team at my company recently phoned to remind me that I was “in danger of not complying with company policy by taking my mandatory 28 days of annual leave.” (I know. 28 days? What are they smoking? But this is Europe, after all….)

The fact that I work so hard has nothing to do with being a woman and nothing to do with working (or not) in an office. It has everything to do with my own psychology (I have a hard time delivering B+), the difficulty of shutting down in a wired world and, above all, being American. I’m sure I’d push myself equally hard regardless of where I worked or when.

I don’t see my European colleagues killing themselves to the same extent. When I first started this job about nine months ago, I was shocked that everyone always seemed to be on vacation. (“Gosh!” I thought. “Susie/Johnnie/Billy is taking *another* day off? How lame!”) But working your tail off  to get the job done doesn’t have the same cachet here that it has in the United States. The first thing an American friend warned me upon moving to London was never to brag about pulling an all-nighter. “People will think you’re insane,” she confided.

Annual leave is also sacred. If you dare bother a co-worker when he or she is on leave, that is considered very un-cool. (Whereas when I worked in an office in the United States, or even for an American company abroad, it was not at all seen as unprofessional to interrupt someone’s vacation to ask about a work issue.)

Perhaps because it’s slowly dawning on me how out of whack my work habits are with those around me, I’ve recently begun reading Timothy Ferriss’ best-selling The 4-Hour Workweek to see if I can glean any insight about how to lead a more productive — and healthy — work/life balance. (Never mind that I’ve been reading this at 4 a.m. when I can’t sleep. What’s wrong with this picture?)

Which brings us back to Marissa Mayer and Yahoo. Mayer has come under a lot of fire for, among other things, building a nursery for her baby boy adjoining her office even while exhorting her minions to leave their kids at home. But the real problem with that isn’t just the double standard she’s setting for her employees; it’s the signal she’s sending to that child about where work ought to fit in his own list of priorities.

We’ve recently been told that today’s millennials are more stressed out than previous generations. I wonder why. Is this the legacy we’re leaving them?

Delia Lloyd is an American journalist based in London who was previously the London correspondent for Politics Daily. She blogs about adulthood at www.realdelia.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @realdelia.

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