The Worst Reason To Work From Home

Last Updated Sep 30, 2011 3:33 PM EDT

There are many reasons people want to work from home. Quick quiz: what's your top reason?
A. I have a long, difficult commute that represents time I could be working, as well as needless environmental waste.

B. I am more productive in a quiet, relaxed setting where I am not constantly interrupted.

C. There is nothing in my job that requires being in a specific place, so why not work wherever it's most convenient?

D. Working from home will help my transition back from maternity leave, since I can still nurse my baby (who is being cared for by someone else in my home during working hours, but visits me for meals).

E. Think of all the money I'll save by not having to pay for childcare!

A-D are all fine. E, not so much. "If you have a professional job, something you take pride in and want to keep, absolutely do not be trying to watch your children at the same time," says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs, a job site that specializes in telecommuting arrangements. It isn't fair to your job -- or your kids.

Unfortunately, this idea that telecommuting means you'll save big on childcare is a common misperception. In my doctor's waiting room the other day, I was reading Working Mother magazine, when I happened across this little anecdote:

"Anne Connolly,* a data administrator in Massachusetts, works full-time for a large technology company yet only pays for one day of child care a week. How does she do it? Her in-laws watch her 2-year-old son two days a week, while Anne works at home the other two, with her son in tow. 'He's very independent, and I've always been able to get my work done while he plays with toys next to me in my home office,' she says, knowing he'll soon be off to preschool. Although her employer has an on-site child-care center, it's 'super expensive,' and the math didn't make sense."

The asterisk means that "Anne" isn't her real name, and I suspect that she didn't want her real name used because she knew that her employer wouldn't be happy about this combo office and playroom set-up. For good reason. The vast majority of us who have small kids and work from home know from hard experience that even the most independent 2-year-old is going to give you a grand total of 10 minutes of concentration at a time unless someone else is running interference. While it's incredibly tempting to skimp on childcare if your kid is a good napper -- why pay a sitter to watch TV? -- the reality is that even a sleeping baby can turn, unexpectedly, into an awake baby. It is inevitably the day you have an important presentation you're giving on a conference call at 1:30PM that your child who naps religiously at 1PM decides not to.
So what happens on that day? You're trying to force your kid to sleep, and "they pick up on the stress, the juggle," says Fell. Even if you're only 5 minutes late for your presentation, you haven't taken those last minutes to prepare. If your nerves are frayed from that naptime battle, you might mention why you're late and flustered and -- boom! You've given working parents everywhere a bad rep.
This isn't to say that working from home without childcare can't be done on occasion as a last resort. Indeed, one of the upsides of telecommuting arrangements for both employers and employees is that having a kid who is home sick from school, or a nanny's family emergency, need not necessarily result in the loss of an entire work day. But it's folly to think that the workday will proceed exactly as it would if you did have childcare -- and madness to try that every day, or even twice a week to save money. "It's not a benefit in my mind at all," says Fell, who works from home and has childcare, as do her employees and, she stresses, the vast, vast majority of job seekers who apply for positions through FlexJobs. "Childcare is an investment in your career," she says. Even if the math doesn't make perfect sense today, long-term, you'll earn more and eventually you'll need to pay less for care -- and you'll experience a lot less stress along the way.
If you work from home and have young kids, what are your childcare arrangements?


Photo (a very cute one) courtesy flickr user Christopher Blizzard