Why you shouldn’t live in your office

Imagine a rent-free abode with heating, cooling, internet, and perhaps even a telephone. There’s somewhere to buy food nearby and a microwave for cooking. This place is right by your place of work. In fact, it is your place of work. Why not live in your office? After all, what do you really need these days besides your laptop, your cell phone, a toothbrush and a few changes of clothes? This could all fit in a file drawer or two. Think how much money you would save without a home, without a car, no electricity bills, no commute costs. You can use that on-campus zip car when needed. Think how efficient it would be. Think how peaceful work is without all the people at early hours and late. Why don’t we all live in our offices so we can save money, then retire young?
Everywhere I have been has had an occasional cohort of office dwellers. At Michigan several decades ago, it was a famous professor. He (they were all he then) bathed in a large sink, hairy, bony knees sticking up above the soapy gray water. If you walked by his lab in the evening you might smell chicken deliciously frying in one of those electric skillets. He had a long tropical field season. Why bother to have a home in Ann Arbor?
At Texas in the late 1970s office dwelling was particularly popular because of the frozen grad student salaries, high inflation rates, and spacious labs. At the field station there were even easily accessible showers. Grad students feel like they work all the time. Why not make it true, particularly if field work has you up before dawn? Some of these clandestine squatters even had rather elegant little dinner parties.
In case you were thinking this is going to be the next big thing, it won’t be. First of all, no university that I am aware of condones, or even allows it. You can’t even sleep out on the roof among the greenhouses on hot Austin nights. If you are caught, you will be asked to leave, to sleep elsewhere. But what if you really are working all night? Isn’t that allowed? Well, yes, it is. Also, aren’t you allowed to take a nap after lunch, if by no other means than putting your head on your desk? Yes, that is also usually allowed, though Texas doesn’t want you to for fire code reasons, apparently. So what is it exactly that is not allowed? If I had to define it, perhaps I would say it is that deep slumber between midnight and five AM, extended a couple hours in either direction so you get your full seven or eight hours needed for creativity.
Researchers with lives fulfilled by and devoted to children or pets cannot even contemplate living in the lab or office, unless their pets are limited to fish and plants. You might ask why, if we can almost live in our offices, when we don’t live there we choose such huge dwellings, expensive to fill, to cool, to heat, to protect? Why can’t we just take that cell phone, laptop, and changes of clothes to the most simple and tiny of dwellings, a tiny home of four hundred square feet, say? Why do we kick into full home mode the minute we expand into private dwellings? Why can’t we live like many Europeans, in small homes, then gather socially in restaurants and parks?
OK, so you’re stuck. You’ve decided to make your office your home for a few days. What is the best way to do it? You knew I’d tell you, right? First of all, don’t sleep on an unprotected surface like a couch without sheets or blankets protecting it. We do not want our chairs and couches to acquire the sour smell of old sweat or worse.
Second, spend at least six hours a day somewhere else. This should fall before and after your workday. Use the office only for sleep and work, separating the two by several hours. The minute you wake up, shower, then go somewhere else for a few hours. It can be a coffee shop, the library, the gym, or even a park bench like the other homeless people. You should also disappear after the workday ends until it is time for sleep. Vary your routine. Discover new parts of the city. Use that zip car. It is creepy for your co-workers to see you always there. It is not good for you or your creativity either.
Third, don’t store all your stuff in your office. It is not a warehouse. It is depressing to work around boxes and crates. Unless you are like Diogenes, eschewing all possessions, at least according to some stories, you will have stuff. Put it somewhere else. Maybe I could expand this entry to discuss sleeping in storage rentals, but I don’t know about anyone who did that.
Fourth, keep it quiet. Keep it short. Figure out why you have become homeless and fix it. I think even the guy I knew in Ann Arbor decades ago who slept in a tent all winter long had a better solution than the office.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Daily routines, Life in a biology department and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Why you shouldn’t live in your office

  1. Lesley says:

    Hilarious post, Joan! We’ve all done it at one point or another. You also need to figure out the routine of the folks who might clean your office, before setting up camp. 🙂 I found that filing cabinets were excellent for storing one’s clothing & sleeping bag; lockers in the gym for storing toiletries and its the best place to shower without being detected by colleagues.

    • Jeremy Fox says:

      We’ve all done it? *I’ve* never done it! No one in my lab did it when I was a grad student, and I’d never let any of my own students do it today. Perhaps I’ve just hung around the wrong places all my professional life? Or maybe the right places?

      • Maybe you are not the person that would find out? Life can be complicated at times, even for ecologists. If your students are discreet you wouldn’t even know. And what is it anyway? A nap? A head on the desk during an all night proposal binge? Or is it truly nowhere else to go?

      • Jeremy Fox says:

        Well, I do know that my students all have somewhere to go. Heck, two of them live across the street from me! But yes, it’s possible they’ve occasionally napped during an all-nighter in the lab without me knowing.

      • You have to love Canada! That’s great!

  2. Hi Leslie, I guess you are in the glorious years of kid(s) at home for the next couple of decades. Me, oh I haven’t slept in the office since the day before yesterday, but that was only naptime. Did we ever overnight in the office when we were transitioning from Houston to St. Louis? Well, all I’ll say is that I know where the showers are.

  3. Manda Clair Jost says:

    In grad school, I definitely slept in my private 8×8 cubicle on the 3rd floor of the MCZ on many occasions… Had one of those folding foam mini-futons for cold Cambridge nights, sleeping in that cluttered side-wing of the Entomology collections surrounded by ceiling-high stacks of back-issues of Psyche…. I believe Ernst Mayr was also known to sleep in his office, perhaps even during those same years… Funny, that notion never leaves you. I just completed a major cleaning & decluttering job on my current faculty office and just yesterday thought, “wow, with all this open floor space I’ve gained, I could probably fit a cot in here now…”

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