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Walking the Line When You Work from Home

Walking the Line When You Work from Home

Working from home, whether as a freelance contractor or remote employee, can be a great thing, particularly if you live alone. But what if you have a spouse and/or children at home with you while you work? Every work environment offers distractions, but those who work from home with their families face a unique set of issues—and need equally unique ways of dealing with them.

How it happened to me

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A year ago, I was returning to a full-time career after taking time off to be home with my then toddler daughter. She was going into preschool and my husband had just renovated the back of our basement into a dazzling office just for me. A stellar company in San Diego, Monk Development, hired me to work from home. Life was good. A few weeks into the job, I suddenly became very ill and couldn’t work. I quickly discovered I was pregnant with twins, after five years of trying.

As you can expect, that “good life,” though it got even better, is completely gone. With the huge change, I rebalanced my freelance career. As I did so and spoke with others in the same or similar boats, this article began to come to life. Here’re some pointers for not just getting through the day, but relishing it and begging for the next one.

Location, location, location

Despite what works in a company environment, there must be different rules for the home. The first rule for getting the most accomplished—and stealing the least amount of time from family—is to get your own work space. If that means converting your garage to an office and parking your car on the street, then it’s a necessary compromise if you’re going to successfully work from home. If you have no space to set aside, it doesn’t mean you can’t work from home, but be prepared for a more difficult experience.

Many set up offices in a basement, over the garage, or right off the living room, but one thing productive offices have in common is closed space. Though some share space with a spouse or work from the family couch, the consensus is that it takes a quiet place, cut off from the world, to do one’s best work.

Readers who commented on Dan Benjamin’s “Offices and the Creativity Zone” seem to agree with this. Some work in places who have what one reader calls “cube farms,” where closed offices or high cubicle walls are either in short supply or non-existent. The common argument for his arrangement is that it fosters communication and learning, but in a family situation, I can’t imagine how my daughter yelling at Dora the Explorer can improve my creativity.

My office is a separate room in the basement, with a door I can close and lock. Although a lot of my work ends up getting done sitting at the kitchen table upstairs while the kids play, my best work gets done alone in the quiet office.

Recognizing and curbing distractions

The most common complaints about working from home are family-created distractions and self distractions. The distractions I experience now, though, are so different from the “cube” distractions I dealt with in my corporate jobs, that sometimes they seem worse. Where in an office I had to contend with “gossip girls” and candy dippers (don’t ever put a bowl of candy on your desk), at home I have crying babies and “Mom, when you’re done, can I play on the computer?” The difficulty lies in finding a way to recognize what’s getting in the way and nip it before it stops production.

Family responsibilities

Maybe this is different for women than for men. I’m generalizing, but some mothers tend to have a stronger “home” instinct that makes it more difficult to detach work from family duties. We see a pile of laundry and feel the need to stop everything else to get “just the one load” in the washer, and before we know it, we’re running a laundromat. Likewise, we hear a child cry and stop everything to make it better (even when Dad or a sitter is there to take care of it). It’s not easy to stay put and keep working when our instincts are so powerful.

Of course, many men suffer this distraction as well. Men whose wives stay home with the kids know it’s tough to stay “at work” when you know you’re really at home. For me, the kids are a huge distraction, so I do the bulk of my work when my husband is home and able to take care of them for me.

Headphones and a closed-door policy

Having a good pair of headphones and some music you love helps to keep the external noise out while giving you that boost to keep working.

There’s also the “closed-door” policy, in which your family understands not to bother you if the door to your office is closed. James Higginbotham’s policy means, “If the door is closed, please don’t interrupt unless [there is] a fire or loss of limb,” which says a lot to his five year-old, as it does to my own. You may still want to have a lock on the door, just in case.

External communication channels

For some, Twitter is a huge distraction: it’s like having a chat window open all day. Others have a problem with new e-mail popping in all day long. If you’re trying to get some serious work done and you’re not the type who can tune out a conversation going on near you, it’s probably a good idea to turn off the Twitter or chat client, and even close e-mail if you’re inclined to read and answer each one as it comes in.

For me, the phone is a big distraction. Although I’m not against talking on the phone when it’s necessary or when a client prefers it, in general I tend not to place calls or answer them while I’m in “the zone.” Not everyone feels this way, but I know myself well enough to know my limitations. You know your distractions, so it’s a matter of balancing what distracts you most.

As for e-mail, it might help to set a time when you read and respond to it. If you have a lot of e-mail you might even read it at one time and respond to it another time. This works well for me because it also gives me that in-between time to process what I’ve read before responding (which is particularly helpful when it comes to blog comments).

The same is true for physical mail. I go get the mail, open it, and sort it while the kids are around during the day, but I wait to read or respond, pay bills, etc., until after the kids have gone to bed. Getting it prepared in advance makes it easier to get through it that night.

When all else fails, get away

It’s important not to isolate yourself in an office all day, particularly if you have a creative job. But even with a more technical job, you need to be able to focus and if the distractions at home are getting in the way, take a break.

Get out of the house. Go to a coffee shop, the park, your car—wherever you need to be to get away from distractions and get refreshed. For me, that means leaving the house completely and driving, usually to the other side of town. When there’s a child’s cry within earshot, there’s also a desperate, instinctive pull that says I need to stop what I’m doing and fix it. Leaving the scene helps me more clearly define my immediate responsibility and turn off my “mom” personality to turn on my worker personality.

The family phone

Something else you’ll want to consider is getting a business phone line if you don’t have one. You can use your wireless phone if that works. Skype offers a direct line that works great too. It’s a direct phone number to your Skype client, or with the Skype phone, you can have a “real” phone that runs off the Skype network.

There’s also Grand Central, which allows you to have a phone number not attached to any particular location. Instead, you can program the number through the internet to forward to any phone you’re using at the moment, or directly to voicemail. I use this because it allows me to freely give out a phone number and mark telemarketers as “spam” in the same way you would with e-mail. And, I can program specific people or groups of people (clients, family, friends) to ring through to my cell phone instead of voicemail without actually giving them my cell phone number directly (when working via the web, it’s nice to have that added bit of security).

Michael Boyink works from the family home and recommends teaching the kids to answer the phone anyway, just in case. You never know when you may have to give your home number to a client and you don’t want them hearing what my clients would (my daughter answers every call with “Hi, Daddy!” because it’s usually Dad calling).

Dealing with clients

There are two things I would say are more important than anything I’ve mentioned up to this point.

  1. Be transparent: Be upfront and honest with your clients about how, where, and when you work.
  2. Be discriminating: Be choosy about your clients. Select only those you think will be able to work with your schedule and environment.

On transparency

This is an area for caution. You don’t want to spill your guts to a potential client in your first meeting, telling them all about your family and how one time Susie spilled her juice on your keyboard and you were backed up for two days. Still, you don’t want them to assume you work a normal 9-5 schedule in a brick office downtown, free to design in quiet until the sun goes down.

Tell them you work from home. Tell them your family is home during the day. In my case, I’m honest about my twins, explaining that my first priority during the day is being a mom, but that I also only work on one project at a time, so they can be sure that when I am “at work”, their project is my top priority. Tell them just enough to be fair to them without disclosing enough to scare them off.

Being discriminating

Seek out people who understand your lifestyle and work schedule. Look for the like-minded, who don’t mind odd business hours and who won’t push deadlines too hard. That’s not to say deadlines are to be broken, but in a home where family trumps work, there’s a bigger chance that those family obligations will get in the way of your work. There’s no need to try to pretend otherwise. Own it, but be prepared to work a little harder to make up for it.

I have only one corporate client: the rest are individuals or small businesses who “get” me and are, in most cases, willing to work around my family obligations. I also don’t take any local clients. If I lived in a hip big city I might feel differently about that, but in my experience, my local prospects are deadline-driven, creatively dull, and less forgiving when it comes to any obligations apart from them and their needs.

There’s nothing wrong with being discriminating. We do it every day—choosing one brand of butter over another, or deciding which channel to watch. You have the right to choose your clients, and taking every client that comes to you isn’t fair to them or to you.

When everything breaks down (and you’re about to)

Even if you happen to be able to get everything set up—the perfect office with sound-proof walls and a Pleasantville-style family to back you up, something is going to go wrong.

Sound effects

Someday, you’ll be on the phone with a huge client, discussing their quickly depleting budget (which would make anyone tense), and suddenly there’ll be a bloodcurdling scream from the family room. What do you do?

Me? Well, I was transparent with the client from the beginning, (of course, well…usually) so they were prepared for that scream. Plus, I made sure to schedule this particular call when I was “off duty” as a mom, so I don’t have to run to the rescue. So what do I do? I laugh, apologize, and head outside to the deck to finish the call from the quiet of the back yard, while offering them the option of continuing the call another time.

When this happens, it’s embarrassing for sure, and can cause tension for the family if you get angry at them for interrupting your work. But imagine you work in an office that happens to be right next to a railway. You’ve let it be known that a train could happen by while you’re on a call, and that you try to schedule calls around the train. But this time, the call and the train came together. It happens.

Do apologize—assure the client you’re right there with them and the conversation is still “live.” Don’t grovel or stop to yell at the wife or husband to shut the kid up. Just keep cool and keep going as if it’s part of your life—because it is.

Sick kids and other obstacles

Thankfully, I have pretty healthy kids, but about once a year, they get sick and deadlines suffer. But you know, we all get sick. Computers lock up. We get creative blocks. No matter what we do, we just can’t make the deadline. Life happens, and the way we deal with it matters more than whether we make a particular deadline.

One thing I’ve learned from my own work and from helping junior designers with theirs is that it’s better to miss a deadline and finish the project than roll out an unfinished project just to hit a deadline. Most clients will have greater respect for your candor in dealing with a missed deadline if you have the integrity to complete the project.

Still, deadlines are there for a reason. Clients’ lives are equally important, and their professional success often depends on our work hitting their desk on a certain day, at a certain time. There’s not much worse than having to tell a client it’s not going to happen on time because the kids got the flu, but if you’re a parent, you know your responsibility is to put those kids first, even if it puts you in a bind with a client.

It is possible to get out of those binds, though, with some creative pre-planning. Here are a few tips I use to be on top of things with my clients as best as I can:

Have a back up

I have a good list of colleagues I turn to when I need someone to pick up slack or when an impending family obligation is about to collide with a deadline. In fact, I’m in the process of putting together a sort of design co-op or partnership with another woman in my shoes (she’s about to have a baby herself). We’ve each found ourselves stretched thin with our own projects, so it has been nice being able to lean on each other from time to time. We’ve done one project in partnership, and it worked great: we just met the deadline, and she’s about to go into labor any day!

Work ahead

In most cases, I have a little insight about what the client needs before we get started, so I start sketching designs. I usually have something in mind before the first payment. I also start coding some things before I have finished or approved comps. I find it helps to have things planned and partially implemented as far ahead of time as I can, just in case. In some cases this makes extra work, but as I get better at it and become more intuitive, I find there are many projects I can get ahead on and have room to breathe—or take care of family things behind the scenes.

Personal accountability

The bottom line is that even when you have a boss somewhere, at home you are your own boss. You are responsible for getting the job done, despite any distractions or interruptions.

Keeping track of time

An important aspect of personal accountability is keeping track of how you spend your time. Just as an accountant accounts for the money, you must account for time. If you’re paid hourly, you track your time because you have to bill for it—and it’s also important to know where the non-billable hours go.

There are a million time-tracking programs out there—both standalone software and web apps. What is important is that you have some way of keeping track of what you do and how long it takes you to do it.

I’ve started doing this not just for work, but for my family as well. It has been incredibly helpful to see, on days when the laundry or dishes didn’t get done, what did get done. Sometimes I discover I’ve spent too much time on Twitter, or on the phone, and I can adjust things the next day to make sure I cut back on what got in the way.

Writing down or typing up what you’re doing helps. If you find yourself actually writing down “browsed blogs and responded to comments” instead of “finished that big project” you may be compelled to get away from blogs for awhile and get back to work.

I started out using Dave Seah’s Printable CEO forms, but ended up making my own similar one that is much simpler for my needs. Still, the original forms are spectacular for micro-managing yourself. (If you’re into that sort of thing!)

Get the family on board

Being accountable is even easier when you have peers to remind you to stay on track. In an office you would have co-workers, but at home you have people there to help as well. Tell your spouse, and the kids too, that you need their help staying “at work.” Get them involved and ask them to help remind you to get back to work if you wander out into the family living space.

Several people I spoke with said their spouse lovingly forbids them to do any work in the family areas, like the living room or kitchen. If they ever complain that they can’t get any work done, the spouse will tell them, “You have your space, and we have ours. You’re in our space now.” My daughter has caught on to this as well. She’s not quite in kindergarten yet, but she’ll tell me to go to my office if I tell her I’m trying to work.

Walk the line

Working from home is a balancing act, to be sure. But pre-planning, negotiation, flexibility, perseverance—and, of course, quiet time—are all you need to successfully walk the blurry line between work and home.

Send your best practices on working from home to homebased at alistapart dot com (subject: “Working From Home”). Best answers will be published in a future issue.

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