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The Water Cooler Dries Up

Hillel Kuttler writes for www.ework.com – a Ms.Money partner.

One would think that after working solo this long, I would have by now embraced the lifestyle, bathing in the solitude of home as birds chirp outside my window while — in the fairy-tale tradition of writers everywhere — I contemplate just the right literary cherry with which to top my article sundae.

One would be wrong.

After nine years of writing alone (including six as a salaried employee of a newspaper for which I worked out of the house as a one-person bureau), I remain highly ambivalent about the trade-off — grateful for the income it provides but skeptical that my lifestyle is healthy for me or for society at large.

The Pluses

  • Dress code? Hah! Sweat pants in winter, shorts and a tank top in summer.
  • Alarm? What alarm? I can roll out of bed at 8 and still be at work 30 minutes early. . . . Scratch that. Since becoming a father, I've had human alarm clocks the past five years. But that's also meant bundles of time to spend with my sons, far beyond the limitations of a commuting-to-the-office routine. With no drop-off in productivity, I've indulged in coffee-breaks and lunch playtime, driven them leisurely to school, even cooked dinner most evenings. Sure beats early-morning dashes out the door and returning merely to tuck in weary kids.
  • No office politics. No gossip. No backstabbing.

The Minuses

  • The same sets of four walls — all day, every day.
  • No interfacing. Forget about the techno pseudo-word; I'm talking about interfacing, literally, with a real face atop a real body.
  • The flip side: Telephone conversations and interviews with people whose gestures remain unseen, with nary a new haircut to mentally critique. This article is a perfect example. I'm writing it from 3,000 miles away, having never spoken to, much less met, my editor. Ditto for a national magazine client just minutes away in the suburbs.
  • No spontaneous, intellectual ping-ponging. No chewing over strategies, ideas and goals with co-workers and bosses. No productive friction wrought when people come together — what the now-cliche'd word "synergy" supposedly means. No water cooler. Plenty of serious-minded people complain about colleagues' interruptions that consist of little more than drivel about the restaurant down the street. I'd welcome even five minutes of such daily triviality.

There is no way that phone interviews could have conveyed what I've observed in face-to-face meetings: the sorrowful fatigue creasing the face of a top American official I interviewed just hours after he and President Clinton returned from Yitzhak Rabin's funeral; the joy of a foreign-born soccer player discussing his adapting to a new culture; or the determination of a traveling saleswoman analyzing her grueling day while we made the rounds of customers.

A mere 17 years ago, neither my fellow college graduates nor I could have contemplated the reality of early-21st Century America. Who could have dreamed of concepts like outsourcing and telecommuting? If we had, odds are we would have embraced the notion with a knee-jerk reaction, eager to exchange the real-life rat race of subways and highways for peace-and-quiet work time.

But in our zeal for improved lifestyles, we would have hastily concluded a devil's pact without considering the individual social and larger societal ramifications. Odds are that our children may not earn their salaries in a traditional office building.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which conducted a population survey in 1997, 3.6 million wage and salaried workers were paid for work done at home, which constituted 3.3% of all American wage and salaried workers — a huge increase from its 1991 findings of 1.9 million and 1.9%, respectively.

The 1997 study was also the first one to ask how many self-employed people worked at home. The answer: 6.5 million. The numbers all point to lots of home workers, yet the social ramifications are rarely considered.

Says Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at North Carolina State University: "For Americans, the workplace is a very important site for community, for making friends, for having a sense of belonging...If all human contacts are made through a [computer] screen, they'll probably end up lonely and disconnected. To the extent that you are working at home, unless you have a very strong alternative community outside work — church, neighborhood — you may become very isolated."

Very true. When I first went solo after being laid off from a good job, I was so busy adapting to the shock, switching careers and embracing the journalist's life that I scarcely contemplated the bigger picture of my changed environment. I hit a low in 1992, just a year into my new life, when I yanked on a sweatshirt and shuffled across the street to the supermarket. The salad bar: so-so. The conversation: heavenly.

ME: "Hey, how's everything? Slow day, eh?" HER: "It'll pick up later, when people get home from work. Here's your change. Have a nice day."

My head spun as my senses adapted to the unusual happening, sort of like leaving a pitch-black movie theater on a sunny day. The cashier represented my day's only real interaction until my wife came home later that day. It was a disquieting experience. Pathetic, really.

This example validates the necessity of independent workers' networking — it's crucial for growing one's business and, equally important, for maintaining one's social touch.

Like the assembly line a century ago, high technology is turning into a mixed blessing. The Internet brings us closer to people continents away, yet more distant from our own community of peers. Telephones, e-mails and home offices are replacing up-close-and-personal human interaction. Some day, Americans may evince the same yearning for the long-ago cubicle that those who hastily fled cities for suburbs today express for the old town squares.

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