Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Home Sweet Office

With the advent of the internet and lower cost computers, a whole new under-culture of employee has  sprung up – home workers.  It's been a boon to some industries, allows others to retain good employees for a short period of time and has driven small business start-ups.  And it's been both a blessing and a curse to those who actually do the work at home.

At least once a week, I get a phone call from an acquaintance of a family member or just someone who "heard" I work from home, asking how they can get into "that racket" (as I was told the other day).  Another "friend" stopped by to have coffee because I'm home; she said she'd hate it if I got a "real" job.  Drives me nuts, as I'm sure it does all those who work from home.

Don't get me wrong – I love working from home.  I started my first computer consulting firm back in 1990 so I could be home with my daughter when my husband left, and while I've done other things while she was in school, including my time in radio and television, I always had an office at home so I could be there with her.  I stopped working outside the house at all in 2000 and have been here since.

Yes, it's great to be able to get up in the morning, pour a cup of coffee, read the paper and just start working.  My late husband used to tease me about my work uniform – instead of a business suit and heels, I have my sweatpants and T-shirts.  I'm here if a repair guy needs to come and fix something.  I'm here to take the dog out so he doesn't have an accident or eat furniture while I'm at work.  I have no commute, unless you count from the kitchen to my desk.  And I don't have to deal with office politics.  I do enjoy it and have a hard time thinking about doing something else that would take me out of the house to work.

But contrary to what most people think, working from home is hard work.  Those who work from home don't sit there and eat bon bons. Because I rarely get a chance to look at the clock, things are moving so fast, I keep the TV on;  it reminds me it's time to walk away from the computer and run up and down the stairs a few times to get the blood flowing.  It's hard to walk away from work because it's right there, so the tendency to be a workaholic is strong. 

Just because your boss isn't there in front of you doesn't mean you aren't accountable for your time.  Just because you don't have to get all dressed up doesn't mean you're not a serious worker.  And just because you work at home doesn't mean you don't really work or what you're doing is easy.  I always get people saying they'd like to do something easier, like working at home.  No matter what job you're doing from home, it's physically and mentally taxing.  Sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours a day is physically hard.  If you're a manager, it's still managing, with everything that goes along with it.  

Whether you're running your own small business from home or you're working for a company that allows telecommuting, as I said, there's always the tendency to be a workaholic - closing the door doesn't happen a lot of times until you're ready to drop because there's always the pull of just finishing that one last thing or answering that one last email.  There's also the complementing problem of distractions and interruptions, which are sometimes brought about by unthinking or uncaring friends, spouses and children; I love the "Honey, I know you're working, but could you just help me with this one thing?" conversation.

Here are some tips for keeping your work and life in balance when you work from home:
  • If possible, set up your work computer in an office or room separate from the main living quarters; it's easier to close the door if there's actually one there.
  • Set up your work area as if it's an office outside the home - complete with plants, pictures of the family and snacks in the desk drawer.
  • Make sure those living in the home with you know when your work hours are and how to handle situations that might arise while you're working to keep unnecessary interruptions to a minimum.
  • If you're working at home because you have small children home, set up a small corner in your office that belongs to them; it can be their "work" space.  Fill it with books, crayons, coloring books, quiet toys, things they can play with while you're working that won't disturb you too much.
  • Take a break at least once every 2 hours; walk away from your desk, close the door and step outside.  While you're there, count to 10, take a few deep breaths and then go back.  You'll be surprised how energizing it can be and it gives you a fresh perspective on what you're working on.
  • Don't underestimate the "I'll just do this quickly" time suckers.  Let's say you go into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.  There's none left, so you make another pot.  While that's brewing, you figure you can just throw in a load of laundry.  Oops - you forgot to make the bed, so you do that before you sort laundry.  The laundry goes into the machine and the little one needs a glass of milk and wants to show you the picture she just drew.  You smell the coffee and are reminded that's what you initially came to do and while there, you look at the clock - it's been an hour!  Yep - time suckers can destroy even the most productive day.
  • At the end of your work day, get up, walk out the door and close it.  I know how hard it can be to just walk away and I'm still trying to master not working every waking minute, but it's important for both you and those who live with you that you walk away, even if it's just for a few hours.  If you feel the need to check back in at work, wait until after dinner and the little ones are in bed.  
  • Keep a one-week log of everything you do, especially if you feel like you're not getting anything done but you're working longer.  You might be surprised where your time is going; it'll allow you to make adjustments.
  • Remind those who consistently interrupt that you're working.  They may be under a mistaken impression of what that means; kindly remind them and then stop taking their calls or answering the door to them.
Working from home can be a great way to go; as I said, I can't imagine working in an office again, after 20+ years of working from home.  But you need to be smart to be productive.

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