Many people dream about the freedom of working from their home from the confines of a corporate cubicle. Maybe you are one of them. You may be thinking that the world would suddenly turn upright if only you had that sort of flexibility and control over your working life.
I have worked from my home office for nearly 15 years. I’ve worked from home through several moves and different space configurations. I love working from home. While I can’t imagine going back to a cubicle, I also know deeply the challenges that face the home-bound worker. So here are my five truths about working from home.
I’ve written a free ebook called 5 Truths About Working From Home that includes the information from this blog post, additional information added for my presentation at Laid Off Camp Phoenix (August 2009) and interviews from successful home-based workers. Download your copy.
Truth 1: Your Work Space Matters
You may be sitting right now in your cubicle with visions of sitting on your patio with your laptop sipping iced tea and listening to the birds. Or you may be dreaming of lounging on your couch with your feet up typing away on your laptop with a frosty mug of something else beside you. If you start working from home, you can spent part of your time doing both or either of those things. However, you will find that those pesky birds make it impossible to conduct business calls while outside, and it is difficult to type while lounging on the couch.
At the office, they provide you with a space free from distractions. You most likely have a desk with an appropriate chair in front of a computer. There are good reasons for that. You need to consider the ergonomics of your work location. After all, you don’t want to end up unable to type because of some repetitive stress injury that you could have prevented. You need a set up designed for the range of motion of a human body. You need a desk and a chair that comply with the ergonomic standards. Don’t skimp on your chair, either. You don’t have to go all out and purchase your own Aeron chair, but you do need a good office chair with some adjustable parts.
Set up your office in a quiet space where you can work without distractions like television or game consoles. It’s hard enough to concentrate without the temptation of other activities calling to you every moment. Place a phone within reach. A file drawer helps you organize your work and put things away when you are not working. Keep a stash of office supplies tucked into a nearby drawer.
Truth 2: It’s Lonely At The Home Office
You know that pesky office mate who talks too loud on the phone. Or the one who slurps her coffee all day long? You are going to miss them. Well, maybe not exactly those people, but when you work from home, you are going to miss the interaction of the office. And if you are a highly social person, it will drive you crazy.
Human beings are social animals, and when you work in the seclusion of your home, you eliminate the opportunities to have a short conversation at the coffee machine, or randomly running into someone on your way back from the bathroom. No one pops his head over your cubicle wall and invites you to lunch. It’s just you. Alone. Inside your four walls. Even the most hermetic can go stir crazy.
With tools like Twitter, it’s much easier for home-based workers to find random conversations and make them fit your schedule. However, you also must schedule time to get out for lunch with friends, to meet someone for coffee, and to talk on the phone to balance out all of the alone time.
Truth 3: You Must Be A Jack or Jill Of All Trades
You know that nice computer they provide at the office? The one connected to the network that automatically backs up your work every night? You’re going to miss that. At your home office, you are not only the worker bee, but you are the IT support person, and the whole IT staff. Computer problems? That’s on you. Figuring out how to back up your files and making sure that happens? That’s on you.
Maybe you are a computer geek and those things don’t phase you. You still have to clean the office, dust your desk, vacuum the floor, and maintain the space around you. That invisible janitorial crew that comes in nightly? That’s on you.
Sorting the mail, keeping the printer stocked with paper, and having enough pens? That’s on you. Figuring out what internet connection is the best economical strategy? That’s on you. Calling when your internet connection acts up, when your lifeline to the world is gasping for air? That’s on you. Answering the endless stream of nonsense phone calls that come in all day? That’s on you. Signing for the UPS packages? That’s on you.
Figuring out how to do all of these distracting things while still accomplishing your work? That’s on you, too.
That place where you stopped to pick up breakfast, grab a quick lunch, or an afternoon snack? That’s probably your own kitchen. And all of that heating and air conditioning your enjoyed in the office? You pay for that now.
Truth 4: You Run The Show
Do you have one of those bosses (or co-workers) who loves to point out that you were ten minutes late today, or that you took a long lunch? You may dream of being the master of your own schedule by working from your home office. With some limitations, you do get to decide when you start your day and when you take lunch. You can decide if you start work at 6 am or noon, or if you take part of the afternoon off to catch a ballgame. All of those are the upside of working at home.
The greatest challenge to working from home is that you have to provide your own schedule and structure. Yes, having options is nice. But when you have nearly unlimited options, how do you decide how to spend your time as the minutes click past you each day? This is especially hard for people who like having structure and schedules, and nearly impossible for people who thrive on the pressure to meet goals. It’s a whole different situation when you are the one creating the structure and goals that you must meet. It’s hard being on both sides of the schedule.
An effective home worker usually ends up setting up a schedule almost identical to the one they loathed while in the office. A set starting time. A set lunch time. A set ending time. It turns out, without a schedule, it’s nearly impossible for most people to get things done. Until new home workers figure out this truth and create their own schedule, they flounder. Add to that the influence of Truth 2 (It’s Lonely At The Home Office) and the built in distractions from Truth 1 (Your Work Space Matters), and you have a recipe for non-work, if not disaster.
Truth 5: You Don’t Work At Home, You Live At Work
After working from home for a while, after I mastered the truths 1 through 4, I faced my greatest challenge. Being a driven personality and being engaged by my work, I soon found that I was working all the time. One of the nice things about working outside of the house is that you know what is expected of you in each space. At the office, they expect you to crank out work. At home, you have chores, but your time is your own. (Unless you have kids, then the home game is totally different.)
I found myself thinking about work from the time I got up until I went to sleep each night. Because of that, I found myself back in the office all throughout the day, not just during my working hours. Weekends became additional working days. Innocent tasks, like stopping at the computer to check my email turned into work sessions. Check Twitter? I get pulled into work from something sitting on my desk.
I had to create a physical barrier between me and my office. I put up curtains to separate my den from the rest of the house. Curtains closed? I can’t go in there, not even to check email or chat on Twitter. I had to find another way to get myself online from other rooms of the house (hello mobile devices). This is still the biggest challenge I face with my work situation. I have to go on vacation to actually walk away from work.
The bottom line is this: The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. Before you jump that fence, realize that you are trading one set of problems for another, and make sure you are prepared for the challenges of working from home. It’s a great life, but it won’t solve all of your working life problems. Happy working!