Proponents of work flexibility often talk about life stages. In different stages of their lives, people have different aspirations, responsibilities, and commitments, which may alter their relationship to work. Parenthood is one of the most obvious stages—when parents have young children at home, they often place more value on family than on career. They don’t want to (and often simply can’t) work long hours. For those lucky enough to work in a flexible environment, this is may be a time for stepping back from responsibilities—moving to part-time for a while or even into a different position that allows them to cut back on travel or weekend work.

Empty-nesters—those whose children have grown up and left home—are another life stage sometimes addressed in work-life research and policy-making. Sometimes the focus revolves around the ability of these people (most often women) to dig deeper into their careers, or make bold new entrepreneurial moves. Sometimes, it has to do with transitioning into retirement. But there is another aspect of this life phase that I, at least, have not heard discussed. And I will admit that I hadn’t thought much about this aspect, myself, until I suddenly found myself facing my own empty nest.

When I left my job to open my own business over sixteen years ago, I wasn’t too worried about getting clients and doing a good job delivering on my promises to them. But I was a little concerned about my ability to work full-time out of a home office. I wondered whether I would be lonely and distracted, and would find it hard to get anything done. Almost to my surprise, I discovered it was not hard at all.

I discovered that when a job needs doing, it needs doing—it takes no more self-discipline to get it done on one’s own than under the eye of one’s boss. That if not meeting deadlines or doing quality work is a problem for you, it’s a problem wherever you are physically located. That while an office at home holds many distractions, it also is blissfully free of a whole other set of distractions that accompany life in a traditional office.

But when I started down this road I had two children under the age of four, both in full-time child care. And while I knew I’d have to structure my time to accommodate their schedules, what I didn’t realize is how great an impact their schedules, and their needs, would have on my ability to create that structure. In short, it was not so much me structuring my time around their schedules, it was their schedules lending structure to my work.

With one child off at college and the other on her way, I am now faced with vast expanses of open time: no kids to get off to school in the morning or greet at the end of the day, to make dinner for or hang out with in the evenings and on weekends. Not only does this make it that much harder to settle down to work and that much easier to drag work out to all hours, it provides fewer enforced breaks for human contact—it is more isolating.  (I do have a loving and supportive husband, but he works long hours outside of the house.)

The whole question of “work vs. life” is frequently seen as a negative—a tough struggle for balance waged by exhausted parents, stressed by conflicting demands. That can certainly be an accurate depiction. But there is another side to it, too. I’ve known many people who say they became more efficient workers when they had kids to get home to. Facing the competing claims of work and home responsibilities often means that, by default, employees are more productive and less likely to fall into the dangerous trap of overwork. And I suspect this may play out even more strongly for employees who work from home.

Only now am I realizing the important role my kids have had to play in helping me run an efficient business. If I were an employer with remote (or just telecommuting) employees who were entering the empty-nest stage, I’d want to be sure, first, that they were still comfortable working from home and, second, that we had a candid discussion about what the change might really mean to them and how I could support them through it.

In short, re-think the empty nest, employers! It may have more significance than you imagined.

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