Shower? Why Bother?

The pleasures and perils of working from home

Jess Korman had been working at home for only a few months when his personal and professional worlds collided loudly. The former creative director at New York shops D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and J. Walter Thompson had set up his own company, Air Korman, in his Manhattan apartment. A client wanted to review some print ads on the same day Korman’s home was being cleaned. Then a friend called—she was in the early stages of labor, on her way to a nearby hospital that didn’t have a bed ready for her yet. Could she come over? Um, sure!

“I’m making a presentation in one room, the cleaning lady is vacuuming around us, and my friend is doing Lamaze in the next room with all this heavy breathing,” says Korman, who has worked out of his apartment for three years. “It was like a Marx brothers movie.”

While not always so dramatic, more scenes like these are playing out in homes across America. In 2001, 19.8 million people worked from home at least once a week as part of their primary job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Half of those were full-time office employees taking work home, 30 percent were self-employed, and 17 percent were telecommuters. International Telework Association and Council, a telecom industry group that defines a “teleworker” as anyone working outside a central office more than two days a week, says 28 million people teleworked in 2001, up from 19 million in 1999.

“Broadband and secure Internet connections are driving the trend,” says ITAC president Tim Kane. “Plus, the AOL generation is more comfortable interacting remotely.”

Working from home boosts his productivity, says David Thall, a freelance art director in New York whose last full-time staff job was as co-creative director of Armando Testa in New York in 1990. “I can work more efficiently than in an office environment where there is constant distraction, interruptions and schmoozing.”

Of course, not having cube mates with whom to dissect American Idol has its downsides. “It can get a little quiet,” admits Korman. “But with e-mail, you don’t feel as isolated.”

When Thomas Richie, Steve Carli and Kevin Lynch decided to start an agency, Hadrian’s Wall, in Chicago two years ago, their first order of business was finding clients, not an office. Richie had recently bought a spacious loft in trendy Wicker Park, so they set up shop there. The informal setting was perfect for a launch, says partner and copywriter Lynch. They barbecued for lunch, watched TV and sat on the couch with their laptops. “We assumed we’d stay there two weeks,” Lynch says. “We ended up staying one and a half years.”

But having an office in his home took a toll on art director Richie. “When you start a business, you do everything possible to keep the engines running,” he says. “That it was out of my house, I got into it even more.” At the end of the work day, he’d go for a run or a bike ride, eat dinner and return to his computer. If he woke up early, he’d start working before taking a shower or having breakfast. His social life suffered.

Even those at home on payroll find it hard to walk away from the job. Teresa Voss, vice president and director of local broadcast for Doner in Detroit, moved into her home office when the company launched its innovative telecommuting program in 1996. Fifty people in the company’s media buying department work remotely; turnover is extremely low. The buyers love telecommuting because they have more family time, says Voss. And while she admits that she sometimes neglects to change out of her pajamas, the flexibility comes with a price.

“When you’re at the office, you’re aware that you need to leave to get home or to go to an event,” she says. “At home you think, ‘I can finish this,’ and you end up working late. On Saturday or Sunday, you’re inclined to check e-mail because it’s right there. We typically work 50- to 60-hour weeks.”

For some people, it’s easier to cultivate a personal life with a separate work space. When Hadrian’s Wall moved out of his apartment and into new offices last June, Richie noticed an immediate change in his quality of life. “As soon as they left, I started dating again,” he says. “Now I have a girlfriend.” —tish hamilton