The Boundaries and Benefits of Working From Home

by | March 31, 2009

I was sitting in my office a few mornings ago, composing an e-mail on my laptop, when my four-year-old daughter, Sara, walked in.

"I'm cold," she said.

She pulled her blanket, the special one -- so worn that her pajamas showed through its thin veneer -- around her more tightly and walked up to me. I closed the office window and picked her up. She curled up in my lap while I maneuvered back to my keyboard and completed my message.

I then carried her into the kitchen, filled her sipper cup and returned to the office for some one-on-one time. It was 6:30, and the rest of the family was asleep.

During moments like these I relish my decision to leave the hustle and bustle of corporate life and work from home. I walked away from a six-figure income, and equity, as the chief information officer for a financial-services company, to make a life while making a living, to paraphrase the subtitle of Jeff Berner's book "The Joy of Working from Home" (Berrett-Koehler, 1994). But such moments also provide the greatest threat to the work-at-home professional.

For those who have joined the growing at-home ranks, the same benefits that attract professionals to this lifestyle can present problems if not carefully managed. These include: a flexible schedule, more family time and no commute. Let's examine these issues, the difficulties they present and how to deal with them.

The Flexible Schedule

Part of the benefit of working from home is the freedom to make your own schedule. It's been liberating to know that I can run errands during the day without worrying about whether I've gone over my lunch break. I've been able to make it to the kids' events with far less hassle.

However, the danger is that you often catch yourself thinking, "I'll get back to this later, after I&." This is especially true when you're working in your home office and you hear your wife and kids playing in the yard. Or when the family is heading off to a museum or the library. Those are the danger zones for me, but you can substitute your own.

Working from home affords you luxury in your schedule, but you must be disciplined to ensure this benefit doesn't become an Achilles' heel.

Family Time

It's rare that I come home to a plugged-up toilet or a family stressed after a full day of arguing. That's because I deal with such events at the time of crisis. When something comes up that requires my intervention, my wife and kids know where to find me. I have no secretary taking my calls, and I can't send them to voice-mail.

On the positive side, I was there when my eight-year-old son learned how to write his name by hand, and composed touching poems on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and Sara spelled her name for the first time. Almost daily my wife calls me into the kitchen when lunch is ready. Because we also home-school our four kids, lunch is typically a family affair. Yes, I've traded "doing lunch" at some trendy Italian restaurant for hot-dog sandwiches or the common peanut-butter-and-jelly.

But that means that when Mom isn't available, I'm the next problem solver. It isn't that I mind the role, but when working in a traditional office, these crises wait for you. When you work at home, they seldom wait.

No Commute

How is my commute a problem? It's easy to see the benefit. Stopping at the coffee shop means visiting my kitchen counter, where I can get coffee without being called a "tall drip" and taking out a small loan. I then take about 20 steps to my chair in our home office. Unless I have a presentation or a client-site meeting, I never see a car on my way to work.

But&that also means I eat about 15 steps from my office. I sit on the couch with my wife about 28 steps from my office. Where my office phone rings. Where my PC hums its siren song. Where I have unobstructed access to the copier, fax machine and printer.

The question from my wife and now my older two children has become, "Are you home from work yet?"

They mean it. It's common for me to come out for dinner at 6 p.m., after having put in a 10-, 12- or 14-hour day, only to run back in to answer the phone and not emerge until 7 p.m.

Three Tactics

Each of the above is, without doubt, a perk of the work-at-home telecommuting lifestyle. But each presents a unique pitfall. So how does one manage this interesting dichotomy? The following are tactics I use to make working at home actually work.

  1. Work first, play second:

  2. Having a flexible schedule is great but don't reward yourself with time off before your scheduled project work is done. Instead, if you know a day will be broken up by a family event, personal errands or some other nonwork-related task, compensate by starting earlier or working later in the days prior.

    This will provide you with a stress-free experience and ensure you don't suddenly find yourself backlogged with unfinished project work. Few things are as liberating as a clean desk and an empty to-do list.

  3. Set boundaries for family interruptions:

  4. Our system: If my office door is shut, I'm not available unless it involves blood, fire or broken bones. If my door is partially open, it means, "it better be good." Asking whether friends from down the street can visit doesn't qualify. I'm accessible but working and would like to remain concentrated on the task at hand. If my door is open, I'm available.

  5. Schedule your workday:

  6. Sounds simple, but as with a "regular" job, work-related emergencies come up. In most cases, however, interruptions after the workday has ended can wait until tomorrow. Of course the problem plagues plenty of regular office workers, too. That's why you see people leaving the movie theater (or worse, not leaving) to take a phone call. I find it hard to believe that all those calls are really emergencies.

    My day typically begins at 4:30 a.m. and I try to end it around 5 or 5:30 p.m. When the day is over, I leave my cell phone in the office. Unless, of course, we're going to the movies.

These steps don't work in every case but neither does working in the standard office environment. Even the most structured and well-planned day can be turned upside down by events beyond our control. So when I'm speaking with a prospective client and suddenly my office door bursts open with two children yelling the proverbial, "Did so. Did not. Did so. Did not. Dad!" I simply have to shrug my shoulders and laugh& after I hit the mute button.

-- Mr. Moran is a speaker, consultant and author of "The I.T. Career Builder's Toolkit" (Moran, 2002). Based in Phoenix, he provides career counseling and seminars for information-technology professionals.

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