Walking the Line When You Work from Home
Issue № 263

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.

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How it happened to me#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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#section10

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#section11

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)#section12

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#section13

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#section14

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#section15

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#section16

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#section17

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#section18

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#section19

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#section20

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.

About the Author

Natalie Jost

Natalie Jost is a freelance web designer, wife, and mother of three girls, two of which were born minutes apart. Her blog, Standards for Life, is known for fresh and honest writing. It focuses on her passion to follow the highest standards in design and in life.

47 Reader Comments

  1. My office is also a separate room for the last 5 years. I love work at home because it is absolute freedom! 🙂 I have only one problem with tracking work time…

  2. This article is particularly relevant, especially in light of “Kathy Sierra’s recent tweet”:http://twitter.com/KathySierra/statuses/858693111 — learning to balance all of the home responsibilities is difficult but so very important.

    Another important part of learning to work at home is learning how to deal with the phone, especially if your personal cell phone is your work phone. I just recently went on vacation and got quite a few requests for work at the strangest places (in fact, one woke me up this morning). I’ve found that professional and candid responses work best: “Thanks so much for calling, I’d really love to talk with you but I’m actually on vacation right now, can you call back Tuesday of next week?”

    I’ll probably look into Grand Central again to help divert things better; I was under the assumption that commercial usage of Grand Central was prohibited.

  3. bq. I was under the assumption that commercial usage of Grand Central was prohibited.

    I admit I didn’t read the TOC all that closely so I may have missed that if it’s true. Although, in my case, the number isn’t just for business; it’s my primary number – for everything, including family and friends. I wonder if by commercial it would mean a company setting it up as an official line rather than a freelancer’s occasional use? Still, great to know, thank you!

  4. Although I’m not a freelancer, my employer has allowed me to participate in a pilot of their telecommuting program for the past year or so. I work in the office three days a week and work from home the other two days. It’s been wonderful, but distractions are definitely something that’s proven difficult to manage.

    My particular family situation (a 3 month old infant, a wife who works the night shift, and a house that’s too small to accommodate an office space separate from the living room) makes mitigating those distractions pretty difficult, but we’re working through it. It certainly helps when your employer — or client — is flexible with your work hours!

  5. Thank you for this excellent article!

    I’ve been working from home since 2002 and have learned some of these things the hard way. I have the opposite perspective of being a dad with a 2 year old and a wife who works part time in our business, but she works from the couch most of the time because she can.

    When we moved into our new home in 2006 I designated one of the bedrooms as an office (yes with a door lock). One thing that has helped me tremendously was designing and painting the office to look _completely different_ that the rest of the house. When I leave or go to “work” the transition is easier because I walk into or out of a different environment. And the (business) phone doesn’t ring in the house, unless I am expecting a scheduled call.

    As a man my tendency is to want to look back to the office when I should be spending time with the family. Having a unique space and scheduling my time helps me better do that.

    Thanks again for this great article.

  6. bq. One thing that has helped me tremendously was designing and painting the office to look completely different that the rest of the house.

    That’s a great idea!

    bq. As a man my tendency is to want to look back to the office when I should be spending time with the family.

    Again, a generalization, but interesting isn’t it, that the instinct is different for moms and dads?

    Great comments, I’m learning a lot!

  7. I’ve been a working from home full time as a freelance developer since late 2001. My children are now 14, 10 and 7. When the kids were younger I thought they could get loud at times, but in the last year or so, during the summer it can get kind of crazy. We’ve been fortunate that my wife does not have to hold a job out of the home so that’s been a huge help. We’ve tried to develop in the children an awareness of what’s going on around them so that they can “try” and not be too loud, but they are still kids and there’s no way around it really. When we moved fro CA to Idaho we were able to find a house that had a good set up for a home office, without that I’d be on the fence (near to jump off!) about getting an outside office. Don’t want to sound too negative, but it doesn’t get easier as they get older, I’d guess until they’re around… 20? 😉

  8. Having your own space has psychological advantages for everyone. In our house, we decided the best way to give me the psychological and physical space I needed was to give the kids the same thing.

    One of the things we did when I decided to work from home was convert the entire upstairs to our children’s domain. They are 10 and 6. We gave them the upstairs office and the loft in addition to their bedrooms. They have their computers upstairs, an art room, a video game center, and a bathroom. They only need to come downstairs to eat or to play outside. Otherwise, between the time they come home from school and the time I’m done working, they live upstairs.

    The logic here was that if they had their own space–not just a bedroom–that they’d feel less need to invade the privacy that I need to get my work done. So far, so good. The house feels like it really houses everyone’s needs–my husband and I share a bedroom and an office, and the kids have upstairs to themselves. That’s really helped my productivity.

  9. The issue of “how not to go insane when working from home” is one that’s been occupying my mind, after going freelance and homeworking for the last year or so. It’s interesting to see the perspective of someone with more of an established home environment.

    Not having a family or, for that matter, house, puts a bit of a different slant on things but I find it quite illuminating that actually a lot of the issues seem to result in similar conclusions. For instance, the section titled “when all else fails, get away” is _precisely_ what I do when I realise that I have been refreshing Twitter for the past hour instead of actually doing anything useful.

    It does make me wonder whether some of the advice as to avoiding distractions is to an extent to avoid _giving in_ to distractions as well, putting oneself in a position where one just can’t procrastinate.

  10. I apologize to all of you trying to get a Grand Central account. I didn’t even know it was still in beta until people mentioned it in the comments of the article! I looked into it and apparently the beta invites are over, so the only way to get it now is to sign up via the home page and wait for an invite from Grand Central. If I could give you all an invite, I would!

    If you do a search of “virtual telephone number”:http://tinyurl.com/6rh2eg you can find a number of other similar services out there. Which ones are any good and how much, if anything, they cost I can’t tell you, but it’s there for you.

    What about Skype? It’s been a year since I used their phone service. Has anyone had experience with that lately? I hate to give advice on things and have them not work out.

  11. Natalie, I would be lost without Skype. I use it three ways – regular telephone conversations, video conferencing, and IMs. Skype means that I never use my landline phone anymore and my phone bills are barely £10 per month.

    I am one of those people who finds that I just cannot work from home in jeans or pajamas – I HAVE to “dress up” – and knowing that I may find myself on a Skype videoconference at any time is great motivation to not let myself go into “slummy mummy” mode.

    In terms of planning and structure, try the Printable CEO series –
    http://davidseah.com/blog/the-printable-ceo-series/
    it takes a while to get the hang of it but once you do, wow.

  12. Video, now that’s motivation, huh? Thanks, Heather! I’m always nervous calling someone Skype to landline because of the quality, but I’m hearing it’s better these days.

  13. Great article! I’m reading more and more people recognizing the need for a dedicated, quiet time to really be in the zone for doing your best work. This includes controlling your email… not the email controlling you! Your comment about *not* taking local clients was a surprise… something for a St. Louis guy like myself to think about 😉

    BTW, I have found the local library to be a great place to work. In particular, the reference room — which is “reserved for quiet study”. I almost always find a table, and the wifi network is fine.

    I’ll have to start checking out “Standards for Life”.

    Thanks again,
    — Joe

  14. I’ve been working at home for about 18 months now as both a full-time employee for a company that used to have an office in the city and as a web design freelancer on the side. But on Friday I finally quit the day job and am now a full-time freelancer.

    We’ve got a 4-week old baby at home now along with our 15-month son so I don’t have to deal with the issues of them answering the phone or interrupting me too much (the older one’s at day care until we settle in with the new one), but it’s something I’ll need to be aware of in the future because I hadn’t thought of it.

    On thing that I’ve found useful is to keep exactly the same schedule as I used to have when working in the city – starting and stopping and taking breaks at exactly the same times.

    When I finish work, I head straight out to take the dogs to the park which is my exercise for the day but also is often the place I get my daily dose of interacting with other people.

  15. bq. One thing that I’ve found useful is to keep exactly the same schedule as I used to have when working in the city — starting and stopping and taking breaks at exactly the same times.

    I’m ear marking this one, John, thank you. I hate schedules personally, but I agree that it does make it easier to stay on task. It’s a personality conflict, me and schedules. 🙂 Congrats on the new baby too! What fun!

    Oh, and *_Joe_*, thank you for the idea of the library. I keep meaning to find out if mine has wifi, but I forget and end up going to Borders or Panera (then feel guilty after an hour or so of taking up space there). Thanks for the tip!

  16. I am a beginning web designer (self-taught), and I feel my best option is to start work from home (my husband and I have a good system for kid-sharing!) But I wonder if anyone has advice about how you get clients this way? Is it better to start out working for a company, thereby making contacts and getting to know the industry, and then converting to working for yourself from home? Any comments on this would be appreciated.

  17. I have been working from home for the past year and a half. At times it gets tough. I’ve had the inadvertant scream from the other room during a business phone call already.

    The one questions I have is about your clients. You said you don’t take local clients. How then do you find your clients? I’m interested in picking up another client, but I also live in a small town and there isn’t much work for a web / database programmer.

    Thanks for any hints.

  18. I started working from home just over a year ago and I love it. In my case I work for an organisation so to me I get all the benefits of being self-employed and the benefits of being salaried. I pop into the office every other week for a day but other than that I’m at home.

    I do have my own space though it is currently a shared space. I work in the conservatory which we also use as a utility room. I do NOT recommend this compromise. But this is short term until I get a new office in the loft.

    The comments about getting the family on board are so true. My wife stays home with the kids (19months and 7weeks) and if anything happens with the kids I am absolved from all responsibility while I should be at work unless the incident would have called me home from ‘the office’.

    That’s a tough rule to follow but it works well. The other great thing is my wife is great at making sure I work the hours I need to and no more. She will usher me back to work or ask me to leave work depending on the time.

    For me the big bonus is that when I finish work I am at home and able to play with my kids. It’s great.

    so while it is a balancing act it is worth perfecting.

  19. Melanie, the answer is – networking, networking, networking. Find some local business groups and organisations and make a point of attending everything you can. Look for networks for small and startup businesses; sometimes the well known large organisations can be old boys’ clubs and you won’t get a second glance from anyone there.

    I get a lot of my business from a special network just for women who are thinking of starting up or have just started up their own businesses. I get to work with clients who are on the exact same “page” as me and we have a great mutual understanding. Also, if my kid is wailing in the background, they don’t care because their own kid is doing the same. Let’s face it, you go into business for yourself to get away from office politics and nonsense, and if you are going to take on clients who would look down on you for having a child, you’ve brought old office politics into your own business, which defeats the point entirely.

  20. Networking is certainly a good way to go but in my case I built a client base first through friends and then by being a regular poster on web development forums – when you begin answering more questions than you ask, people sometimes contact you to do work for them. Do good work for them, and they then let other people know about it and so on.

  21. Melanie: I would encourage you to work for another firm (or two) before freelancing. I think there is a lot you can learn on your own, but I think there is also a lot to be learned from working at an established firm or agency. I think a four year degree is optional (some people learn well that way, some people not so much), but I really think it’s important you work for other people for a while to learn the business. Just my 2¢.

    I’ve been working from home about 4 years now. I love it. I have two small kids and I see them all the time, that’s worth a lot to me. I’m trying to forego my desktop and go strictly to my laptop (and external monitor) to make work more portable when I need to go to a client’s place for the day.

    One thing I’d point out that I haven’t seen on the comments yet: Make sure you don’t work too much, especially if you’re married and/or have kids. It’s hard for me to ever “leave” work. I try to turn off mail and iChat at 5(ish) and really be there for my family on nights and weekends, but I’ll admit there are weeks (used to be months) where I’d work from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed. It’s not only unhealthy and very bad on the family life, but I think it really hurts the creativity.

  22. I installed a free program called Rescue Time and, at the end of each week, it tells me how much time I have devoted to email, to IM, to Twitter, and to applications. Always interesting. I imagine you could fine tune much more than I have, so that you could track billable projects.

  23. Interesting read. I have been doing freelance projects for the las 3-4 years. I have a regular dayjob and work at night on freelance jobs. For the last couple of months, I rented a small room with internet connection. Me, my friend and cousin all go there to work on sidejobs. No TV, so comfortable bed – in short very little distractions. A little overhead but worth it. We share ideas and work individually on our projects. And in case we need a helping hand, we have each other.

    I especially like the “Be Discriminating” part. I always choose my clients and make sure that they understand that I have a regular day job and my work hours per week is limited.

    Being transparent also helps a lot. I never lie to the clients. When I am tired and don’t want to work (sometimes I work full 15 hours in 1 day, – dayjob + sidejob), I tell them. Most understand 🙂

  24. I have been working from home for about a year and a half now, and for the most part it has been very enjoyable. I get to see my son and wife each day when most fathers would be out of the house, I work to my own schedule and I can take a break when I want to.

    I have discovered some downsides though, with the main one for me being the lack of contact and ‘tech talk’ with other fellow geeks. I also find I miss the ‘bouncing of ideas’ that you get when working closely with other people on a project. Also, my daily train or tram ride used to be where I got a lot of reading done – now I find I really have to make time, usually at night, to read.

    I am thinking of coworking in the city one or two days a week to counterbalance this. Then, I think I will have the best of both worlds!

  25. Natalie, this was a great article. Even as a single person working from home this gives some food for thought.

    I think though that David brings up something that needs to be emphasized: don’t work at home ALL the time. Working “from home” doesn’t mean staying in one place necessarily. Coworking initiatives are popping up everywhere to help alleviate these problems.

    I understand that might be harder with people with young families; though, this does bring up a possible business opportunity to open up a family-friendly co-working initiative (daycare + office?) heh. 🙂

  26. Lea, you’re right, that’s a great idea! I wish every day that I lived closer to more people who do what I do. I would do something like that in a heartbeat, but in my small town it seems like all I have are mom+pop design shops from the 90s (still designing 90s style) and big design firms who’ve beaten their poor designers to un-ambition. Incidentally, this is why I’ve remained freelance all this time! 🙂

  27. You have a very good point about not being able to connect with others. I find I can no longer attend mums-and-toddlers groups because all the women there who have children my daughter’s age are there because they have chosen to be stay-home mums – whereas I would be attending because I was taking a break between projects on a busy work day. I love being a mum, but I just cannot talk about babies, babies, babies, babies, babies all the time, so I found that I didn’t have anything in common with anyone there. I definitely felt uncomfortable and the feeling was mutual. I thought running my own business would give me the freedom to attend lots of groups, but instead I had to exclude myself from them.

  28. The timing of stumbling upon this article could not have been more appropriate – as I don’t have any friends who are working from home full-time, I was comforted in discovering that my daily struggles were not my own!

    Though I’m not an official ‘mom’ per se, I do tend daily to our domesticated zoo, consisting of 2 great danes, 2 Eclectus Parrots, and 2 cats. Though not entirely like children – I often end up overwhelmed by minor emergencies which steal me away from my desk, unexpected trips to the vet that require me to shift around phone conferences and priorities, and there’s nothing like two birds screaming “I love you!” or whistling “If I Only Had a Brain” (from the Wizard of Oz) to add an interesting flavor to a phone call with a client! I, too, have decided to be transparent with my clients, and I find that so far all of my clients appreciate this – and therefore feel more comfortable being honest with me as well. We’re all human!

    In saying this, Natalies article really made me reflect on why I wouldn’t trade this home office for anything in the world! We’re about to re-locate to Denver, and I was considering looking for a ‘job’…but now, I’ve decided not to – because I’d miss my cats lying on my keyboard, my dogs lying under my desk, and my birds whistling a cat call whenever I come in the room!

  29. I’m a wife/mother/teacher/writer and a client of Natalie’s. She recently designed my website (www.christaallan.com) and was incredibly patient with my techno-disabilties. I appreciated Natalie’s honesty, patience, and sense of humor in the process of moving from nothing to something. And I respected her transparency; in fact, because of it, I felt I could be more open as well in sharing what worked and what didn’t.

    I admire people who work from home, those who are attempting to maintain balance between making a living and having a life. As a writer, I admire anyone who chooses to pursue a dream.

    Bravo, Natalie. Nicely done!

  30. Very informative article. The biggest problem I have right now is not having a creative little space of my own. It’s been a bit hard trying to be creative when there is no comfortable, inspiring place to work.

    Not to mention that although there is air conditioning here, it does not cool and I sometimes have to give up working due to heat exhaustion. We are actually planning to move in the next 2 months and I’m hoping to get into a better situation on space.

    I think my biggest problem is regulating my time online with distractions other than work. Kids are grown and only two out of the four are left here so they are not a problem.

    Really enjoyed the article and the tools mentioned that help you along.

  31. When I read this article I was thinking of me one year ago. As I continued reading the article I saw new perspectives what my co-workers might feel wheen they are at the “office” and when I see them after a long time. But then when I finished the whole article I started to wonder how I work and I found so many similarities to my life and I prefer to work on the office and see collegues when I work and not just on irc or communicator. I just feel more like me when I’m working myself but I feel more like me when I’m with people.
    So after I read this article I started to think if I should start to work at home but then I remembered I was there year ago and the money wasn’t so good. So what should I do?…decision decisions… I’m sticking with my job and I want to work at the office and I enjoy the people I meet there.

  32. My kids are now grown and gone. I have been working from home for 12 years, trying various rooms as my office during that time. My husband’s office is adjacent to mine, and since he doesn’t mind me walking through and filing or putting something away in his office, he assumes I am not distracted by that when he comes through my office.

    In fact, I AM completely distracted, whether it’s him or houseguests. I just can’t completely focus when there is activity anywhere in our home. Maybe that is the homemaker thing: can’t stop mentally planning shopping, dinner and laundry?

    If I had it to do over, though, I would not go back and shut the door and put on headphones. Being home when my kids were home was a gift. It impacted my efficiency and meant for some very late nights and early mornings, but I was there when they were and that was priceless.

  33. I find it way to difficult to work from home on a regular basis. There are some good tips in this article, but I have to get out of the home office to be truly productive.

  34. I have worked from home since 1995. There are definitely perks. Unquestionably. There are a few things you don’t get, however. Not really, anyway.

    1) *Sick or maternity leave*. Since you can work in your pajamas, you can always work. In my case, I have three employees who come to my house Monday thru Thursday. I have to pull it together come nine o’clock or there is a breach in professionalism that isn’t productive. This, even when I am sick. And after I had my daughter, the team still came in. Just because I was on maternity leave, didn’t mean they were. This extends to the whole household. When my husband is sick, he can’t walk around in the kitchen (which is common area M-Th) in his boxers or his robe or I risk violating various employment laws.

    2) *No vacation*. I mean, sure, theoretically you can have as much vacation as you want if you are the boss. But since you can work from home you can probably work from anywhere. So last summer when my sisters and I took our kids for a cousins vacation, I was on the computer every evening triaging email and approving deliverables.

    3) *Time away from work*. It’s hard to leave work when it’s at home. There is always an email to be returned, or a mess to be cleaned up or a bill to be paid. And for me, since I would rather be spending time with my daughter, I shift at least two hours to the evening so I can spend time with her after preschool. My husband is done working at nine but I often have a couple hours more. This can cause a disconnect if I am not careful.

    Like anything else in life working from home has both advantages and disadvantages. It just takes a very disciplined person to be able to balance it. I wish I was as disciplined as I should be, but the situation forces me to be more disciplined than I actually am.

  35. I work part-time from home while my son is in pre-school (with a few evening hours a week sprinkled in). I couldn’t be more thankful to have a job that is flexible enough to allow me to be a present parent. It helps that my boss is also a mom who works from home (oh yeah, and she’s my sister) and understands when schedules change last minute because of sick child.

    When I tell people I work from home I usually get a response akin to “Oh, you are so lucky you have time to do stuff around the house!”

    Uhhhh…. yeah…. have you SEEN my house?

    It is a common misconception that those who work from home have more free time to do… whatever is needed (heck, I will sometimes slip and believe I have more time to do more things because I am at home). I often have to remind my husband that yes, I could call the roofer about fixing that leak, but he could just as easily do it from his office, where he gets paid for the whole day. Every five to ten minute ‘home’ task I do is five to ten minutes I am not working and earning money, and it adds up. My big piece of advice is to be selective about what ‘home’ tasks you agree to take on when it should be ‘work’ time.

  36. As someone who is going to be searching for a telecommute job in a few months (our due date is Jan 30th), this article is awesome. Printed it out.

  37. When the kids are at school, it’s great to be able to work on the couch, sometimes with a movie on in the background (though it has to be something I’ve seen before, just as “background” music so to speak). Once they got off for summer vacation, though, I was forced to set up a little makeshift office in my bedroom, which isn’t the most romantic thing, alas. I find the hardest part is that I’ll let the kids distract me here and there during the day, and the next thing you know I’ve got to work all night to catch up… I end up feeling like I’m not getting quality work time OR quality family time. I have to keep telling myself: shutting them out now is necessary so I don’t have to shut them out later…

  38. Very inclusive and helpful; you encourage my decision to settle down as a freelancer.. later on. I’m working at home right now but intend to go back to part time job in a few months. Focusing on work is no lesser problem when you’re staying with your also freelancing PARENTS who want you to run errands every 5 minutes and who think the state of your room indicates not your approaching deadline, but your messiness T_T

  39. I’m actually in a parallel boat, as I am about to become a stay at home DAD. At one point I had an amazing home office that I shared with my wife’s craft supplies (she works out of the house, so we sort of traded the room off from day to night). However, as my desk got piled up with documents, color chips, and wiring, I moved out to the kitchen table (where I still have a complete office set up). Needless to say, my productivity has suffered a bit.

    We’re moving in a month or so, and one of the prerequisites now (after seeing this article) is a room large enough for an office, a door with a lock, and the ability to pile up the kitchen table instead of my desk 🙂

    Thanks for the great advice/article!

  40. Thank you for taking the time to write such a great article, in what must be, your spare time. I have been working from home for the past three years, and although my husband and I don’t have a family yet, I can relate to nearly everything you’ve mentioned.

    Because my husband works out of the house, it’s pretty quiet around here during the day. Now that I’m freelancing full-time, it’s best for me to keep regular “business” hours because I am most productive in the morning. I agree that it’s most important to have a separate office, and keep work hours separate from family/recreation. This is tough with distractions like Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have to force myself to turn off the chat!

    Thanks again for the article, I really enjoyed your perspective and advice.

  41. Although I am now an empty nester with no small children at home, the advice is still wonderful. I have been working at home for the last 2 years, slowly building my web design and development business. I still struggle with keeping track of time, how much to charge and not getting distracted with household duties!

  42. I’ve been fortunate enough to work from home for the past six months. And for a company that’s over 500 miles away!

    For me, what’s been the hardest is keeping a presence now that I’m basically in a different state. I’ll send out emails to colleagues who I haven’t talked to in a while just to catch up and let them know I’m still around. It helps them think of me when a project comes up and allows me to be more in the loop with company politics.

    I have my office set up with two desks on opposite sides of the room. One for my work machine and the other for my personal computer. If I want to spend more time than I should surfing gossip sites, it won’t show up on my work laptop.

    The only glitches so far have been the occasions when I’m teleconferencing and the mail carrier rings our doorbell causing my dogs to bark their heads off. Thankfully, my coworkers are all animal lovers and get a laugh out of it.

  43. As a new father who is just starting out with my own business this was a helpful article. I checked out GrandCentral right away and am still very sad that they are lost in the google black hole. I also used the Emergent Task Timer for a while and it was helpful as a start, but I got tired of all the paper printing. I just found FreshBooks, which provides a time tracking widget and a lot more features. If someone is looking for a way to track time and invoice, its a pretty slick online software option.

  44. Great articles and a much needed read and diversion for me today. I’ve been working from home since 2001 as a freelance web designer. I feel I’ve been “successful”? in my best personal opinion, though we all define success differently — something I’ve learned over time and apparently am still learning.

    Being that I am self-taught and all of a sudden found myself working from home, I started off early headstrong that I”˜d do whatever it took to maintain and persevere in the industry. Between jobs, I buried myself in books and tutorials learning new software or trying new tricks. I’d created a monster within myself and nearly eight years later am gratefully still burning the midnight oil and maintaining that steadfast ambition. Oh but yes, I falter from time to time.

    A day in the life of an extrovert gone introvert without ever even trying. I miss camaraderie. I miss learning by quietly and intently watching someone else. I miss sharing obstacles and triumphs. I once sent a prayer to Einstein at 3AM over an ActionScript code I couldn’t get past for 3 days. He answered and I wrote a perfectly perfect line of script my very next attempt. I thanked him. Have I gone completely mad?

    This morning I started my day off on the lanai with coffee. I’m in Florida about 5 miles from the Gulf. Crisp air, blue skies, birds singing, light breeze blowing, the pool is blue and the trees that line the estuary behind the house are still green from summer. I am truly blessed for more reasons than one. Foremost I am not fighting daily traffic with the rest of them heading my way to a cube with hospital-like lighting. I remember those dreadful days — and most times this is how I validate my success. Freedom. Not by a 6-figure salary or bragging rights to say I work at “Disney World”? or that my latest client is a hot new Hollywood star.

    Today was different. An arbitrary conversation with my husband spawned a gut-wrenching feeling of despair and I’m stuck in it and writing it out. He is one of the few that does understand and respect what I do for a living.

    I am reminded at times that “working from home” can often be perceived of as a “cushy” job. Oh contraire! Over the years I’ve come to learn that no matter how hard I work, how many hours I sit at this computer, how much sleep I didn’t get because I had no choice but to make a deadline, nobody ever perceives it as hard work. Even worse, I feel I have been misunderstood as being … dare I say “lazy”? Ouch – that one hurts.

    I saw this morning through cloudy tears that stained my cheeks far too early in a day, feeling incredibly misunderstood. I am usually not concerned with how others perceive me; I’ve been comfortable in my skin for some time now. But why should I have to justify how my time is spent in a day in the life of a web designer? Would anyone even comprehend the headaches behind the table to div transformation? I am mostly socially quiet about the details of my job. Therefore I must be lazy. Hmm. Maybe next time I’ll take a poll of browser and resolution usage and get some stats out of it.

    Perception:
    One time someone saw some drawings of mine. They were complementing and followed with an insistent passion that I should “do something with it.” I found myself taken back and not sure how to respond. I thought to myself “I thought I am doing something with it.” Sure I loved to draw but I am also a computer geek. I’d married the talents to design websites for a living. I’ve designed far too many and counting in my career span. I make more hourly working from home than I ever would under any corporate umbrella. I’ve earned the privilege of being paid well for my knowledge, skill set and talent. I thought I was doing something with it?

    I sleep 5-6 hours a night and spend 10-12 hours at the machine. Working, cleaning, educating/playing = 80/60/30/5. That’s about an accurate read of 175%. It’s my choice to do as much as I can at this time in my life because I’ve a busy mind and I choose to feed it. Also I am usually (and thankfully) booked with jobs. It just so happens I do the majority of my “living”? from home and I shift my percentages as needed to maintain balance. I’ve been doing it for 8 years and still going strong. But working from home is not for everyone. It’s a tough job where separation is vital.

    But I do wonder how many others have ever encountered this diminishing feeling of being misunderstood? It’s difficult to explain the depth and intricate details of my work that demand such toiling and quiet hours of ceaseless non-interruption. Weekends and nights are vital to my design time whilst clients are grilling in their back yard or watching Wheel of Fortune.

    Why is it so hard for some to understand that working from home does not mean we have all kinds of extra time on our hands? When in fact, it’s just the very opposite? Am I alone here?

    Frustrated, hurt and not going down without a fight. I’m off my soapbox and thanks for listening. Peace to all.

  45. I too have learned that having a office away from the family is the best bet. I am currently in the process of building a more professional and sound proof room in my basement. Having kids in 6-9 range can be very noisy around the home. In addition, I have found working the web development in the evening to morning hours (9pm-3am) gives me the most time in a completely quite home. I then sleep late until around 8am. I try to schedule all my meetings around 10am or 3pm. This gives me time with my family, time with my clients and time to do my work. It’s not ideal, I would prefer to have my office out of the home. However, it these tough economic times, I have to juggle several jobs to make ends meet.

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