Isolation is one of the "drawbacks" that experts cite against telecommuting and working from home. Sure, working from home, one doesn’t have that water cooler or coffee break effect that occurs in traditional office settings. (And aside from a toddler who has awakened from a nap prematurely, one doesn’t have the same kind of distractions either.) Both types of employment have their benefits and drawbacks, especially when it comes to productivity, but the social component of work (and there is one) changes dramatically when one works from home. So, how do we interface, network and get the very important social interaction? You guessed it—the Internet.
Many work-at-home professionals also engage in professional forums (or bulletin boards as they used to be called), where one can discuss professional and sometimes personal (but not too personal) issues. Those are the places where we learn from one another, help one another, get leads and advice and are still able to maintain collegial and professional relationships in our fields. And with social networking, you can keep the conversation going with your friends and colleagues on Twitter and Plurk throughout the entire day. But sometimes, that’s just not enough.
A change of scenery
Sometimes when one works from home, it becomes imperative to get out of the house. Not just for a quick trip to run errands or pick the kids up from school—but to interact with other people in real life. But what do you do, when you still have work to complete? With WiFi access at many places across the Metro area that have free or nearly free WiFi access like Heritage Perk in Taylor, Beans and Bytes on Woodward in Detroit, and Café Ambrosia in Ann Arbor, to name a few, one can still get work done, get that change of scenery, get a good cup of coffee (or two) and food, converse with the regulars (or not) and support a local business. Notice I did not mention Starbucks or any other national chain in my short list. (And if you happen to stop by "the Perk," as we call it in Taylor, check out the art exhibit by renowned Michigan artist Leo Kuschel.)
Sometimes the café is not enough
More and more, freelancers and other work-at-home professionals are establishing working collectives. I think these can be compared to the artist’s salon of the nineteenth century, where working alone, but together, free exchange of ideas and information can occur (of course without divulging anything sensitive information about clients or projects).
In fact, in 2007 the group Coworking Ann Arbor was established to seek out and create spaces where freelancing and telecommuting professionals could work together in an un-office space (my term), yet without being at home and around some of the distractions that working at home can create. Yes, as much as I am a champion of working from home and dedicated to helping support, enable and encourage the work-at-home lifestyle, there are distractions—the laundry, the television, the garden, the dishes, the phone, that spot on the wall that you really should re-paint that you notice every time you look up from the laptop to think. (Of course, the disciplined work-at-home professional knows how to handle such "distractions.")
In Detroit, several engineers (thought of as isolationist by trade) developed the Detroit Grotto, a coworking space patterned after the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto, but for software engineers only, rather than artists and literary creative professionals. Several coworking spaces have already been established in Ann Arbor, as Amy Whitesall reported in April in Coworking: Solo but Not Alone. While I haven't personally tried the coworking method myself yet, I can see it as beneficial adding yet another dimension and tool for freelancers and work-at-home business owners for connecting and thwarting that isolation and cabin fever than can occasionally creep in. As the work-at-home industry gains an even stronger foothold as a widely acceptable business practice, grottos, salons and other coworking spaces may become more prevalent in the quest for flexibility and a different kind of work/life balance.