During the last two weeks of January and the first week of February, I earned some money performing contract work from home with the hope that the contract might turn into a permanent position. It didn’t.
Although it didn’t work out the way I had hoped, at least this contract bought me some time. Now my state unemployment benefits will take me into April instead of ending this month. This is of critical importance since the U.S. Senate refused to approve federal unemployment benefit extensions on numerous occasions this year, then headed out of Washington until the summer.
As this was the first time I had worked a contract, it was a learning experience. The following are among the lessons I learned:
Metamorphosis. This works well for turning caterpillars into butterflies and Kafkaesque dreamers into giant cockroaches. For the rest of us, however, let’s just say “it ain’t happening.” When you take on a particular type of work, either you’re a job match or you’re not. Sure, you can learn the day-to-day details and the particulars of an employer’s expectations as you go. But a word person is not going to turn into a computer geek overnight, nor is the reverse likely to occur. One’s background and temperament cannot be faked. Wanting to get it right and trying hard are lovely, but they are not in themselves a recipe for success. Yes, the vicissitudes of the American economy require us to constantly reinvent ourselves. But there are limits. Lesson learned: Don’t try to be what you’re not.
The Plaza Diner factor. Let me tell you a story. We can call this “the parable of the Plaza Diner.” When I was a child, I loved nothing more than the occasions on which my family would go out to eat. In the days before Wal-Mart and mega malls, my parents would treat us to “all you can eat” fish fry on Friday night at The Skillet restaurant in the W.T. Grant Co. department store. Then, after the mall came in, the area became more commercialized and diners began popping up all up and down Route 59. I was thrilled when we got to eat at the Plaza Diner, where the menu was the size of a book and noodle pudding, pickled herring and feta cheese could always be found on the salad bar. In fact, I loved it so much that I informed my parents that when I grew up, I was going to work there. Lesson learned: Just because you love the experience of a particular product or service does not mean you should work there. You may find that it is not so lovely slaving on the back end to create the user experience you so enjoy as a customer.
Their end of things. Every workplace has a culture, some more unique than others. When you work remotely for a distributed company, the lack of a “real” workplace culture (you can’t meet your coworkers at the water cooler or knock on your boss’ door to float an idea that just came to you) may mean that the employer will attempt to create a synthetic one. The distance factor results in communication via such electronic media as Skype and Internet Relay Chat, which seems exciting at first but can quickly become frustrating. I found words on a screen to be a decidedly bipolar experience: Either the discussion was so technical that I understood nothing, or my coworkers would leave me flummoxed by spontaneously breaking out into spasms of synthetic workplace culture. The latter might take the form of an impromptu contest of wits to see who could make the best puns about coffee and tea or perhaps a request to post a photo of how you look right now, whatever you may be doing. (If you don’t know how to create an HTML link to your photo that will work on the company’s message board system, you may as well have “Loser” tattooed on your forehead.) This works for some, and more power to them. For those such as myself, however, who are not programmers and are not quick on the draw with witticisms, “any way you look at it you lose” (with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel). Lesson learned: I am a conservative guy who wears a white shirt and a tie to work. I don’t code and I don’t know any jokes. Just leave me alone and let me do my job. If I can figure how to do it, that is.
My end of things. Working at home sucks. There, I said it. It’s supposed to be so wonderful because you can pick your own hours and work in your PJs and not have to sit in commuter traffic or pay for gasoline. Plus, you don’t have to uproot your family and relocate to another state 2,000 miles away. Sounds too good to be true, eh? Trust me, it’s not wonderful. Deceptive as the Siren song of telecommuting may be, it is not for everyone. I particularly don’t recommend it when you’re working on a laptop set up in your living room while day care is being provided to a one year old. If you live alone or you’re comfortable with hiding with your computer behind a closed bedroom door and ignoring all sounds emanating from the opposite side of said door, then go for it. Lesson learned: If you can concentrate enough to work effectively with Sesame Street blaring on TV, YouTube videos belching forth from a phone, visitors walking in and out, and a child having a conniption fit all at the same time, then working from home is clearly the way to go for you. Otherwise, you’re just fooling yourself.
Your computer will hate you. Performing contract work from home will generally require you to download or purchase all manner of software to bring your modus operandi into compliance with the employer’s standard operating procedures. The company may insist upon this, but even if they don’t, you really, really need to use whatever software they’re using. Don’t try to make do with what you already have, as the result will be endless frustration. Before you load a pile of crap onto your computer, however, be sure that your computer can handle it. Some programs are memory hogs, and if you don’t want your computer to slow down to a crawl that drives you insane, you’d better be sure there is enough free space available. Also, be sure that all the software they throw at you is free of viruses and other little computer nasties. Also, be sure to uninstall everything when the contract is done. As I was performing said uninstall, my overburdened laptop decided that this was about as far down the road as it was willing to go and simply gave up the ghost. I now have the pleasure of choosing between my mother-in-law’s desktop and my iPhone. Lesson learned: Have a computer dedicated to your contract work. Don’t try to install and uninstall piles of software on your personal laptop unless you don’t mind losing everything when it throws in the towel in a binary fit of pique.