I have a long history of working from home in various ways. At my first library I worked from home for seven years. My next two libraries weren’t as work from home friendly but I was usually able to do it once a week1. I’ve been in my current fully remote position for two years.
I have been disgruntled for years over how few employers consider fully remote workers to be a viable option. There are clearly some positions that are more compatible with fully remote work than others. There are also some people who prefer being fully remote more than others. One of the few silver linings of COVID was that many employers had to figure out how to make remote work feasible and their employees managed to do good work even with all the complications that the pandemic brought2. I am very annoyed with companies who are now trying to bring their people back to work in-person when it’s not for actual work purposes. In my view, neither “strengthening our community and sense of connection” nor compensating for managers who can’t manage remotely, are sufficient reasons to require in-person work. These issues can be dealt with in other ways.
Now that I think about it, many of the benefits of remote work compensate for a society setup to make having kids hard for two working parents3. This is a problem that I feel many top executives do not have either because they have a spouse that stays home or they have an army of support workers for their home.
Once we had kids, having both Jaeger and I work was never the easiest option for our family. However, I desperately need to work. If I don’t have interesting problems to solve, my mental health rapidly deteriorates. I assume Jaeger is similar. At the very least, he does not want to stay home full time with the kids either. Remote work helps bridge the capacity gap between working outside the house and being a parent.
In San Francisco I was working 40 hours a week and commuting down to Mountain View Monday-Thursday. On my commuting days I had no free time. I’d wake up and leave the house by 6:30am and would return around 6:00pm. I’d feed the kids, get them ready for bed, and then immediately go to bed completely exhausted. I had a shorter commute in Seattle, and it was better, but I still didn’t have much buffer if something went wrong at work or home.
Many daycare hours are limited and are barely open long enough to both pickup and drop off kids within an eight hour work day. They also require driving, rather than taking mass transit when it’s available, because available daycare slots and job locations never seem to match. Several of our preschools had a large number of holidays when care wasn’t available. In San Francisco, we dealt with this by having an au pair, who is limited to 45 hours of work a week, and supplementing with preschool. Due to cost, and other factors, this is not an option available to many people. Even with the support of an au pair, I had a panic attack in the Millbrae BART station one day when I was reviewing the preschool calendar and realized they were going to be closed the entire month of July4.
Working remotely allows for much more flexibility around childcare options. When working remotely the only commute time I need to factor in is the time to get to the daycare/preschool. Holidays aren’t as big of a deal because even with tiny kids I could usually get in a significant amount of work5. When the kids get sick, I don’t have a mad scramble to find alternative care or take the day off and, it turns out, kids get sick a lot. So far this school year we’ve had one or both of the kids home sick for a total of 11 school days (no COVID, just regular colds). Some of this was probably delayed exposure due to everyone being more careful during the early COVID years. However, I distinctly remember Julian being regularly sick when he started preschool.
Schools are another institution that work best when there is a stay at home parent. One of the reasons Calvin went to private school in Colorado, even when I was only working 20 hours a week, was because our public school’s kindergarten hours were incompatible with complimentary childcare options. Even once you hit first grade, the school day usually ends between 2-3pm. Some schools offer after school programs and some don’t. Those that do rarely guarantee you get a spot when you enroll in the school. It’s very hard to find care for kids to fill the gap between the end of the school day and the end of the work day.
Working remotely allows me to pickup the kids from school and then continue working for the rest of the day. Depending on the age of the kid, you may still need extra care but it opens up a lot more options.
Speaking of more options, having two fully remote parents is amazing. For the first time since we’ve had kids I feel we’re actually close to a 50/50 split in kid/house work. Most days I drop the kids off at school and Jaeger picks them up. I no longer have to make the choice of starting early, skipping lunch, and/or working late to fit both my child and work obligations in the same day6. I just work a normal work day and it’s amazing.
I was so disappointed when Apple and other tech companies started walking back their remote work options. Yes, in many ways tech workers are incredibly privileged. However, I strongly believe that having more permanent remote workers would increase the overall diversity of tech companies. In addition, it might provide more relief for the partners of those tech workers. I really appreciated the Thoughts on Office-Bound Work some Apple employees put together.
So far I’ve focused on the benefits I get from remote work as a mother. I mentioned them first because they are by far the most important for me. However, remote work also offers other perks which include:
- I like people but I also find them exhausting. After a day of interacting with people I need several hours, or more, to recover.
- I have more control over the temperature at home. While working at Mountain View the thermastat in my work area was broken for several months. It was regularly in the lower 60s (17C) in summer. I had a space heater, wore a down coat, and had fingerless gloves. During my 15 minute breaks I’d go outside and try to warm up.
- Open floor plans are the norm these days but I would not work well in them. Due to some incidents in middle school, I do best when I have my back to the wall. (This is not just true at work, in restaurants I also try to pick the chair that doesn’t allow people to sneak up behind me.) The typical advice when needing to concentrate in an open floor plan is to wear noise canceling headphones but that would mean I would have even less ability to hear people coming up behind me.
- Related to above, my job involves many Zoom meetings (often 4-5 a day) with people all over the state. This would not be fun for a desk/cube neighbor.
- More flexibility for everything. When I worked at Mountain View I had to leave at a specific time either to catch my train or to avoid traffic (if I drove). I couldn’t keep working even if I was in the middle of an interesting/important problem. This last week I was in the middle of something and kept working on it, off and on between dinner and other stuff, till around 9pm. Mind you, I rarely work that late under normal circumstances, but I appreciate how easy it is when I want/need to.
Since having kids, my quality of life has been drastically better in the jobs where I am a fully remote worker. Remote work isn’t the best option for everyone but I believe it should be an option for those that can do their jobs without going into the office.
- My third library did move almost everyone to fully remote work when COVID arrived and stayed that way until I left but it was clear that administration was not comfortable with this. ↩
- Working fully remote from home during a pandemic is nothing like it normally is. Until COVID, anytime I worked from home my kid(s) were either in daycare/school or being watched by an au pair. I did not interact with them at all during my normally scheduled paid work time. I’m still astonished that anyone with little kids managed to accomplish anything during the pandemic. ↩
- Note, my viewpoint is that of a mother with kids and a very good family income. However, the benefits of remote work are not limited to issues that affect mothers/families. See Remote Work Boosts Employees With Disabilities, Research Shows for another perspective. ↩
- It looks like the subject of my email to Jaeger after that was “Morning Unhappiness” where I list possible alternatives including “change jobs”. This, ironically, is what I ended up doing. At the time, I did not consciously factor the July childcare break when accepting the Seattle job but the stress of figuring out childcare in San Francisco was regularly overwhelming. ↩
- Yes, this usually involved giving the kids lots of screen time but a few days a month aren’t going to kill them. ↩
- True, when we had au pairs they did the pickup/dropoff of the kids but you don’t magically get all that time back. Having an au pair (or nanny) means you have the overhead associated with that to deal with instead. ↩