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Working from home: Is it slacking or exploitation?

(MoneyWatch) "Working from home" used to be thought a euphemism for slacking off. But now new research from the University of Texas suggests that it may be just the opposite. In "The hard truth about telecommuting" researchers Mary C. Noonan and Jennifer L. Glass argue that where the impact of telecommuting has been empirically evaluated, it increases productivity and retention while decreasing absenteeism. It can also reduce traffic congestion, office overheads, commuting time and cost. That's the good news for the 24 percent of Americans who now do, on average, around 6 hours of work per week from home.

The bad news? Those people at home are all working harder than everyone else. "Telecommuting in practice expands to meet workers' needs for additional worktime beyond the standard workweek" with few structural boundaries telling people when to stop. Citing "work devotion schema" the authors point out that all the hours saved by not going into work still get used for work; the time saved is enjoyed by the employer, not the employee. And bosses know they are getting a good deal as it becomes easier than ever for people to work when they're sick or -- ostensibly -- on vacation.

Even through the haze of academic prose, I can recognize myself in this study. With no physical boundary between work and life, work invades everything. I may try not to work weekends or evenings but, with nothing to stop me, it becomes very easy to break my own rules. So, if you don't want to devote every waking hour to work, what's the solution? Here's what works for me -- sometimes:

1. Remember who you love. If you have a partner and/or kids, they can learn to do without you -- and soon will if you let them. I've watched as my family got used to my not being available and pretty much lost the habit of talking to me. That was chastisement alone but I've never forgotten how easy it is to be disowned.

2. Remember what you love. During periods of intense overwork, I became, I think, quite boring. All I could think or talk about was my work. You know people like that -- they're excruciatingly dull. You know you don't want to spend time with them, so look in the mirror.

3. Commit to something outside of work that makes you stop. Tennis, choir, school runs, fundraisers -- anything. What you will discover is that, when you stop working, you start getting ideas. Your work gets better when you stop doing it.

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