Home Is Where the Office Is

In comments the other day, Kelly Breakey asked me for tips on working from home.

Okay, this is something I know about.

I’ve been working from home for seven or eight years now. I know it’s the Dream for many people, but at the time I really didn’t want it. I worked in a two-person office. We were the Wyoming branch of a Boston environmental consulting firm. My “commute” was about ten blocks. I always liked the discipline of getting up and going to work, particularly since it was so low stress. People who worked for small consulting businesses in the building provided opportunities to chat.

The guy who’d hired me though, became increasingly obsolete after 9/11. He did a lot of consulting on environmental issues for private industry and that almost completely dried up after the terrorist attacks. Make of that what you will. One day I got a call that they were letting him go, closing the office and I could continue to work from home.

At that time I had become involved in very different work and everyone else on my team already worked from home, scattered across the country. So they gave me advice on the transition.

The company pays for my internet, phone and office supplies. They don’t kick in for utilities, but I get to deduct for a home office, so that makes it up. (The rule is that if your company in some way requires you to work from home, you can deduct.) The corollary to this is: have a dedicated office area. Not your bed, not a corner of the couch. Make yourself a desk, even if you can’t have a whole room.

My boss, who lives in New Hampshire, told me the best piece of advice she ever received, from another home-worker is never to wear elastic waistbands.

Grazing is a major issue at first.

On the one hand, you’re not exposed to the relentless onslaught of office treats. But you have to keep yourself out of the kitchen. It’s very easy to wander off on “breaks” and get a little something something out of the pantry.

I don’t have a rigid schedule. Some home-workers have to be at their desks during the same hours as another office. For my work, what’s most important is I get it done on time and do a good job, so I can set that up pretty much how I like. I’ve discovered, though, that when you work from home, people tend to assume you’re screwing around. To counter this, I make sure I’m available all the time. I answer my office phone at six in the morning because I know someone from the east coast is calling. I respond to emails on my Blackberry if I’ve turned off my work computer.

For myself, I delineate the work time. I take a shower, put on work-type clothes and sit at my desk. People talk about wanting to work in their pajamas, but it’s demoralizing after a while. Save the PJs for down time.

Resist the urge to do household chores during work hours. People working in offices don’t break what they’re doing to load the dishwasher or change over the laundry. During work hours, the job is what deserves your attention.

Also, people will tend to assume that, because you’re home, you’re available. Tell them no, you’re done working at six or whenever. I use Instant Messenger to communicate with colleagues – signing in and out of that helps define my work day.

I think all of this applies to any kind of work from home – including writing. I’ve never been privileged to be a full-time writer, but I’d try to run it the same way. I think I’d try to follow a schedule of writing for a couple of hours, then checking email, etc. There’s lots of business to take care of with writing, too, so that needs time. Drafting time might be separated from editing time.

The point, though, is to dedicate time appropriately. It can be a slippery bugger and lends itself to frittering.

So, now I’ll throw this open – any other advice on working from home?