The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

National News

November 2, 2012

When working from home goes wrong

NEW YORK — Nearly every office dweller fantasizes about the joys of working from home: Dressing in PJs instead of suits, eating from the fridge and not the vending machine, listening to birds chirp instead of the boss bark.

But Superstorm Sandy has created legions of people who can’t wait to get back to the office.

They include parents who have struggled to juggle conference calls while their kids scream in the background. Also families who have fought for days over the use of a single home computer. And even execs who conducted business with the only device they had with reliable Internet access: their smartphone.

About one-third of Americans typically work from home, but massive flooding, power outages, transit shutdowns and school closings that followed Sandy forced at thousands more from North Carolina to Maine to do so. And many learned that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Michael Lamp, a media strategist who has been working out of his one-bedroom apartment in the Brooklyn borough because his office in the Manhattan borough is closed, sums it up on his Twitter page: “I’m getting sicker of it with every hour that passes. I might be slowly losing it.”

Lamp, who converted his coffee table into a desk, says he longs for face-to-face interaction with his colleagues. And he’s finding it particularly difficult to share workspace with his live-in partner.

“I love him very much, but I would rather not see him 24 hours a day,” says the 28-year-old, who proudly admits that he can’t wait to greet his manager in the office. “I’m going to run to my boss’s office and tell her I missed her face.”

Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, says it’s normal to struggle with working from home. He says it “has its own set of difficulties” that people who don’t do it often aren’t always aware of.

“There are many more distractions than working in an office,” he says. “Even people who do it on a regular basis find it much harder to structure and discipline their time.”

Hilfer, who lives in Brooklyn and works in a hospital in Manhattan, knows the distractions firsthand. He was working at home on Thursday to avoid the difficult commute because of the storm’s aftermath. But he kept getting distracted by storm updates on TV, projects he needed to get done around the house and his wife asking questions about what she should get from the supermarket.

“I had a whole list of things this morning I intended to do working from home, and I got about half of them done,” he says.

With some school districts cancelling classes for the week, children have become the biggest distraction for stranded employees who were working from home.

Brooklyn resident Deanna Zammit, a content director at media company Digiday, says she’s grateful that her home and family were unscathed after Sandy. But she found herself overwhelmed when she had to work from home — and watch her son — Monday and Tuesday while her husband was away on a work trip.

“I’ve had to juggle taking care of a very energetic five-year old — who only wants to jump on the couch — and trying to get as much work done as possible under the situation,” she says.

On Wednesday, with the added pressure of Halloween festivities, she gave up and took the day off. But on Thursday, she drove three hours to her parent’s home in Westhampton, N.Y. so that she could finally get some work done at home.

“I kind of threw my hands up in the air and said I have to go to the only place I know that has free child care, and that is my parents’ house,” says Zammit, who acknowledges that she can’t wait to get back to the office.

Drew Kerr, a public relations specialist, also was eager to return to work Wednesday morning after losing power at his home in Westchester, N.Y. on Monday.

A big challenge was keeping his two teenagers occupied. To prevent the family from getting cabin fever, Kerr went to a deli to charge up everyone’s laptops. He says he even ate his corn beef sandwich and onion rings slowly, so the devices could get as much power as possible.

But the next morning, he decided he’d had enough of working from home. Trains were down, but he was determined to get to the office. While he always vowed not to drive into Manhattan, he woke up early, hopped into his car, and did just that. It felt great to be get back to the grind. He even bought a bagel along the way.

“It’s just me and my bagel and a working computer,” Kerr says. “It’s nice to have heat. It’s nice to have electricity.”

Paul Costiglio, another Westchester, N.Y. resident who lost power Monday, also misses the office. He had to commandeer the family’s sole laptop so he could use it for his job as the director of communications for the New Rochelle School District, updating the district’s Web site on school cancellations and responding to reporters’ inquiries.

He explained to his children — ages 5, 7 and 10 — that “Daddy needs it for work.” Then, later, Costiglio, his wife and kids huddled around the laptop in the dark and cold to watch movies such as “Spy Kids 3.”

Costiglio said while he’s eager to return to work, he’s not the only one: “My oldest (child) even said she’d rather be in school than home without power.”

A lack of power also weighed on Samantha DiGennaro, who has been trying all week to run a 35-person public relations company through her smartphone because there’s no power at her home or office, which are both in lower Manhattan. Adding to her woes, about half of her staff also have been without power. To say the least, it’s been difficult.

So DiGennaro has been using social media websites Facebook and LinkedIn to communicate and delegate tasks to her employees through her phone. And she’s had to do that while constantly keeping an eye on the phone’s draining battery.

“Doing everything mobile-y is very limiting, as much as we rely on mobile,” she says. “Everything is taking triple or quadruple the amount of time that it ordinarily does ... I want to get out, get to the office and be 150 percent productive.”

Similarly, Kathleen Webber, a college journalism instructor at the College of New Jersey, can’t wait to get back to work after having been without power since Monday at both her home in Yardley, Pa., and at the college’s campus in Ewing, N.J.

Webber has had to be resourceful: She’s been grading papers by candlelight. But she desperately wants to work online, so she’s been on the hunt for free wireless Internet service. First, she tried her husband’s office, only to find the cubicles filled up. Then, she ventured to her local library and restaurants. But there wasn’t one empty seat.

Next Webber, the mother of three teenagers, plans to hit up friends for Internet access.

“I may have to freeload,” she says.


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