Making Work-At-Home Work For You

There probably isn’t a soul in the workforce who hasn’t dreamed of the possibility of a comfy work-at-home arrangement. Today I want to play devil’s advocate on this topic. There are so many incredible benefits to work-at-home, but it’s important to understand the limitations as well. Not to be scared off by them, but to be prepared.

Work-at-home is an underrated arrangement too. In my experience, work-at-home is something of an incubator for starting your own business. I know that was the case for me. I worked at home for eight years in mortgage sales before launching this blog. Many of the skills that you acquire with work-at-home enable you to transition over to self-employment.

I think that may be a subtle reason why employers are reluctant allow more workers to work from home.

Making Work-At-Home Work For You
Making Work-At-Home Work For You

My Own Adventures in Work-at-Home

I’ve spent a good deal of my life working from home and strongly recommend it as a preferred workstyle. I’ve also become quite familiar with both the advantages and the downsides of work-at-home. For years I worked from home as a mortgage loan originator. It was a natural advantage because it provided the ability to concentrate all of my efforts on serving my customers.

It also forced me to learn to work independently and to identify and utilize outside resources that could enable me to do that more fully.

I became comfortable with the proverbial “chief cook and bottle washer” aspect of work-at-home. I was eventually able to translate those skills to subsequent businesses, including recruiting, blogging and freelance blog writing.

One element of work-at-home that I know to be absolutely critical above all others: your contribution MUST add tangible value to your employer’s business.

Working at home isn’t about us nearly as much as it’s about our employers. The critical connection is: what can I do FOR the employer through a work-at-home arrangement.

Never forget this if you’re already doing work-at-home. Even moreso if you’re trying to pitch the idea to a cynical employer.

The Challenges of Work-at-Home

Before thinking that a work-at-home arrangement is an idyllic situation, it will help to consider some of the limitations.

Here are the issues I’ve identified over the years:

Isolation. The very people who can be so irritating at work are the same ones we rely on for camaraderie and commiseration. With work-at-home you’re working alone. This can be tougher to manage than you might think, especially if you have a high social drive.

Time management. When we go off to the office or shop there are proscribed routines and workflows. With work-at-home, there is no structure. You have to create one immediately. There are distractions at the office, but there are even more at home. Staying on schedule can be daily grind.

Work-at-home requires more discipline than working in an office or shop. A certain amount of discipline is imposed on us as a result of working in an organized environment. With work-at-home, you must establish priorities. You must create daily, weekly and monthly “to-do” lists. They must prioritize the most important tasks.

Your job, your fault. When you work-at-home, you lose the “benefit” of being able to blame others if a job isn’t done, or isn’t done correctly. I’m just sayin’.

No boss or staff to rely on in a crisis. Even with all of the marvelous technology that exists today, there’s no better feeling than having others around to rely on when a crisis hits. Sure, there’s always email or phone. But it’s a cosmic reality that people tend NOT to be at their computer or phone when we need them most. You won’t be able to call a staff meeting to bounce ideas. You become a “staff of one”.

The Biggest Work-at-Home Challenge of All – Creating Workable Boundaries

This one rates a discussion all its own. A lack of boundaries between work and family/personal life can sink a work-at-home arrangement. Some people simply can’t create and respect this line.

This is the work-at-home paradox: Part of the reason you want to work-at-home is to achieve a better balance between work and family/personal time. But if you aren’t careful, family/personal involvement can very well sabotage the arrangement.

Many years ago, I worked for a CPA who had her office and staff in the basement of her house. While it may have worked well for her, it was one distraction after another for the rest of us.

Her young kids often scampered down the stairs on one of their not so infrequent trips to the office to see mom. Mom was, of course, delighted to have her kids close by. But it was a real concentration-killer for the staff. Imagine being up to your eyeballs in tax returns during tax season and having someone else’s kids running loose in the office?

I lasted only one tax season in that office. My nerves could stand no more.

Boundaries have to be set and strictly maintained in order to avoid losing control. You can’t tell your boss or your client that you didn’t get an assignment in on time because you had to help your child with her science project.

Even though you’re working at home, work must always come first.

Getting Yourself Prepared for Work-at-Home

I’m not pointing out these challenges to keep you from working from home. However, the reality of each has to be acknowledged and prepared for.

There are different requirements for work-at-home, and not all will apply to all types of jobs. Some are skills, some are physical requirements. Some will be unique to telecommuters who work for others, some are for home-based businesses.

Necessary General Skills

You may not need all of these skills, but the more you have, the better suited you are for work-at-home:

  • Personal initiative. No boss, coworkers, agenda or work flow means that you’ll need to be a self-starter in the truest sense.
  • Multi-tasking skills. Whatever needs to be done will be up to you. There will generally be no staff to hand assignments off to. You’ll need to become an expert in juggling multiple situations flawlessly.
  • People skills. In an office, you can often hide from clients and customers. At home, you may be a direct contact. Also, since you’ll be out of the main line of supervisory sight, you may need to be better at articulating what you’re doing, what you’ve accomplished and what you need in the way of resources or support.
  • Organizational skills. Prioritizing will be a priority! You’ll have to learn what’s most important and focus on accomplishing those tasks first, foremost and always.
  • Basic computer skills. In an office, you may be able to rely on the expertise of your boss, coworkers or IT staff. But since work-at-home is heavily computer based, you’ll need to be comfortable with the primary software systems your company uses. You’ll even have some ability to maintain the hardware, since it will often be your own.
  • Previous experience. Work-at-home is generally not an arrangement for entry level workers. Before an employer will turn an employee loose to work-at-home he or she will need demonstrated competence for the job that needs to be done.

Required Skills for Work-at-Home for Self-Employment

If you plan to run your own business from home, you’ll need a few more skills to make it work.

Sales-ability. Most home-based businesses (and even jobs) are sales related. Your chances of success are considerably greater if you have a proven track record in sales in some capacity. That’s true even if it isn’t directly related to the product or service you’re selling.

Marketing skills. These are a must for the self-employed. Marketing skills will reduce reliance on pure selling. The better you are at marketing, the more successful you’ll be in your business.

Self-reliance. If you’re self-employed, there’s no boss, and usually no coworkers to fall back on. You’ll have to be a born problem solver. That doesn’t mean that you need to be able to anticipate and short-circuit every problem. But you should know where to find the resources to deal with the issues that come up. That can be online resources and people networks. (Big hint: learn your way around the web early – it’ll become your best friend.)

Creating the Right Work-at-Home Environment

You’ll need to do a good bit of prepping before you even start a work-at-home arrangement.

Have a dedicated and private workspace. Since separation of work and personal lives is a necessity, you’ll need a dedicated office space to conduct your work in. A private space where you can go to and not be disturbed by family members is highly recommended. This is part of that all-important boundaries issue.

Get the necessary equipment. There may be equipment specific to your job or business that you’ll need to have. But common equipment includes:

  • A high-speed internet connection
  • A computer with common office suite software (Microsoft Office, at a minimum)
  • A dedicated phone line with professional quality voice mail
  • A good quality printer/copier/fax machine
  • Any office furnishings that will enable you to do your job with the greatest efficiency

Still another work-at-home must-have is a list of reliable business contacts. Don’t go into work-at-home alone! None of us knows everything, so if you’re working from home you’ll need a list of people to contact when you need help, support or additional resources.

The list can include various people in your company (including other home-based employees) or any outside vendors who might help you accomplish your mission. You’ll need to become an expert at locating and coordinating people- and system-resources from diverse places. If you’re self-employed, you’ll need close contact with others in the same business, or related ones.

Concluding Thoughts About Work-at-Home

Never be casual about a work-at-home arrangement! It isn’t as simple as moving what it is you do each day at work to your home office. A certain combination of experience, skills and abilities can be the difference between a permanent arrangement, and one that flames out after just a few months.

To all those who want to start their own business, work-at-home could be the perfect launching pad. You may not be thinking of starting your own business – or maybe you have. But as I said at the beginning, work-at-home is an excellent place to practice running your own business.

If nothing else, you’ll be learning to work successfully outside the physical realm of an employer’s organization. That’s important from a psychological standpoint as well as a tangible one.

Do you work-at-home? Or did you become self-employed after having a work-at-home job? What advice could you give to someone who wants to transition to work-at-home, and especially how to convince an employer to allow it?

( Photo by krzyzanowskim )

19 Responses to Making Work-At-Home Work For You

  1. Nice post Kevin! Do you find you are more efficient overall working at home or no?

    The irony of blurring the work/life boundary is quite insightful. I think I’d miss the camaraderie of the work place. Perhaps a 3/2 split every week, 2 being at home.

  2. Financial Samurai-Generally speaking, I find I can be a lot more productive working from home, though it does take discipline and some serious focus.

    Since I also do contract work outside of home, it seems as if I have a nice balance between the two!

  3. I would love to work from home and could be disciplined enough. I just can’t think or put a finger on it about what to be self employed about for the life of me. I would make a great serial entrepreneur if I could just get at least one started!

  4. Money Funk, I think that’s probably the biggest question for all would-be entrepreneurs – what to do. It would help to inventory your skills and past work experience as a start, then follow that up by seeing what others are doing with their own businesses.

    Part of it is complicated by the many multi-level marketing schemes that are making big promises but delivering little.

  5. Working at home is a tough call for anyone but if you don’t try then you definitely will never know or become successful. If you think that office job is everything that you ever wanted then there is something definitely lacking in your life. Times are hard but for every 10 people that work at a normal job, 1 will take that all important step and change his/her life forever.
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  6. Neill – I agree with you, there are substantial advantages to taking the step to working at home. One of the most significant can be the ability to take on different lines of work, to the point that you effectively become self-employed.

    But work at home isn’t for everyone. Some people absolutely thrive in an atmosphere teeming with people and activities, while others are lost. The ability to work independently–and to be satisfied with that–is a major part of it.

  7. I agree with you on the points of being isloated and the difficulties in time management and managing the work/family divide properly. It’s so easy when things aren’t going so well to lose track of where you are when there are so many distractions around!

  8. Tom – In writing about those distractions I was writing purely from real world experience. I sense you’ve been down work from home road as well!

  9. Hi Kevin. I think it all comes down to being able discipline yourself to do what needs to be done. There’s a negative connotation around the term “discipline”, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s no different that diet/exercise, money management, and all other facets of life. If you don’t learn to discipline yourself first, it’s not going to work. You also need to know your own personality and what makes you tick. We are self-employed but don’t work from home. I am an introvert, and my husband is just plain asocial. He doesn’t do people well. He’s a great guy, he just doesn’t need a lot of people in his life to feel fulfilled. He used to work from home until he desperately needed more space. If it’s something someone is interested in, then I would say to learn the discipline of boundaries, deadlines, space, surfing the net, and distractions first. Like now with all this latest news, it’s tempting to go watch TV. But you can’t. It has to wait. If you can do this, you’ve won half the battle.

  10. All true Bev, and spoken like someone familiar with self-employment 😉 It’s true though, you have to be able to block out the goings-on, which are always there, and get down to doing what needs to be done. Even after working at home for the past 17 years, I still have to battle the creative avoidance monster on a regular basis. It’s so easy to do nothing, or to occupy ourselves with busyness that amounts to nothing. A manager I worked for very early in my life told me the difference between keeping your hands busy versus actually getting the job done. It was never wasted on me, and I try to keep it in the forefront of my mind at all times.

  11. I think this also depends on if you work for yourself or if you work for a remote company. In my case, I work for a remote company, so I do have the luxury of working with a team to prevent isolation, which is nice.

    I LOOOOVE working from home. I can’t believe businesses are still so against it, because I’m way more productive. As an added bonus, my company doesn’t have to pay for huge overheads like rent.

    I agree that setting boundaries is crucial. We’re still figuring out the kinks, like when Mr. Picky Pincher has a day off work and wants to talk while I’m working. Having a separate office space with a lockable door goes a loooong way.

  12. I still have family issues as well. I occasionally have to remind my cell mates that just because they’re home doesn’t mean I don’t have to work. Their day off doesn’t = my day off.

    As to why more employers don’t allow work-at-home, I think there are two primary factors. The first is what I’ve described in the past as the Plantation Economy. It’s a holdover from previous centuries when your boss was your task master, and had authority over your very life. Employers don’t want to give up that control. Some even prohibit certain off-hours activities, like second jobs. The other reason is what I wrote in the article, that employers sense that work-at-home is a step toward self-employment. That’s anathema in the organizational world.

    All that said, I believe that many more employers will actively home-base employees when the next downturn hits. As you’ve pointed out, working from home lowers the employer’s overhead, and I think that will be a major push when things go sour. After all, once you’ve reduced payrolls, the only thing left to cut is bricks-and-mortar. The technology already exists to do it and it isn’t expensive. It’s just waiting for the right circumstances to hit to turn it into a trend.

  13. With all the BS I went through when I worked at the state government, I do not feel that sense of isolation when working from home. I was glad to get away from all my former co-workers and that hellhole of an office, and salary was lousy. Although my self-employment is not generating much more income, I save money but not having to commute (this saving gas for my car) and not having to buy pricy work clothes. One thing is true, is the the stream of income from self-employment is not steady like a job income, and you do not get the health insurance, etc from a job, but hey, there has a trade-off to everything. I am actually working harder with my home-based business but I am glad to do it.

  14. Hi Karin – I’ve found all of that to be true. But as you’re in business longer, the cash flow aspect generally improves and becomes more predictable. For myself, the advantages of working from home far outweigh the costs. I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf, so it fits my personality better. I’m with you on the coworker thoughts. I can’t deal with office politics, and being one of the steady producers, I always found the slackers coasting at my expense. I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime!

  15. My advice for anybody that would consider starting their own business. I started my own business 4 year’s ago.

    1- be prepared to not make any money for awhile. Make sure you have something to live on when you start out that is outside of what your trying to accomplish.
    2- No debt. No business loans, no credit cards, no nothing. Do not close your retirement fund too fund an unproven business. It causes too much stress on yourself right out of the gate.
    3- You need to learn how to be an accountant. You’ll need to become a tax man. Need to do inventory if you have product. Know your numbers and know what you own. Know where your money is going. It’s not enough to have a talent for something. That’s the easy part.

    I saved for 10 years to be able to afford my own equipment. It was the best thing I ever did. I never touched any money I had except that was earmarked for the business. I still operate the same.

    I didn’t make any money for three year’s. Finally this being my fourth year I am making profit. It took me that long to learn how to run a business and how to make it profitable.

  16. Hi Tim – It’s interesting how work-at-home and self-employment are so closely linked. What you need to do for one is very close to what you need to do for the other.

    I completely agree on not taking money out of your retirement plan to start a business. If the business fails, that’s when you’ll need to tap the retirement plan to rebuild your life (or to retire). If you’ve already drained it for your business you’ll be flat broke. Your retirement plan should always be thought of as the “family jewels” and not liquidated for anything short of an emergency.

  17. They are. Same focus is required. I have never worked at home when I always had a conventional job. Starting my own business was and is much harder than I gave it credit for.
    I don’t want to sugar coat the fact that it is going to be easy.

    It all depends on what you want out of it. They’re are plenty of home based businesses that are decent to just help out with some extra spending money. I always wanted the whole truck load. However, as I grow and learn about all that goes with a bigger business I am not sure I want to continue with my orginal thought.

    I am seeing the value of staying small and tight.

  18. I think the rule of thumb, today anyway, is to grow up to the point where you need employees, then stop. Once you hire your first employee you’re subject to diminishing returns. More revenue, more responsibility, but not much more money in your pocket. The cost of hiring is too high, as are the risks of being sued, or losing business to the employee(s). I’ve heard this from dozens of small business people. Contracting out is usually preferred.

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