Domestic bliss? The Born Freelancer on the merits (and pitfalls) of working at home

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

Several posts ago I wrote about the pains and pleasures of having your own out-of-home office (and how to find one). This time I’m going to talk about the ups and downs of working at home.

According to the most recently available statistics from Stats Canada, an increasing number of Canadians work from home. But as at least one study shows Canadians generally seem to have mixed feelings about the concept. It’s not for everyone.

Working at home is how most freelancers begin. Usually you have very little choice in the matter. Eventually you may in a position to choose, and it is my hope that this post will help you do so more easily. Since I’ve repeatedly worked in my own office as well as at home over the course of my freelancing career I feel in a pretty good position to compare and contrast and to offer my thoughts — presented here in no particular order. And I hope it will be understood that for every so-called “rule” I offer to facilitate the work at home process there are always reasonable times and situations to break or modify it.

One of the greatest advantages to working at home must be avoiding the daily commuting grind. What a waste of time, money and energy. If you don’t have to spend a couple hours a day in traffic or on public transit, spending your hard earned dollars on gas and unnecessary transportation costs, why would you? The internet has made telecommuting a breeze and since most freelancers work on deadlines rather than a time clock the extra time and money you save every day by not commuting simply cannot be beat.

If you work from home you will ultimately need to create a unique workspace in your home. Ideally it should be a separate room but if you live in a small apartment, even a specifically designated corner will do. This is so you get into the head space of work whenever you are in that physical space. It’s where you can leave all your tools of the trade to begin anew every day. It’s also useful so that anybody you live with will know when you are in that space to leave you alone — you’re working. I know of a writer who uses a table at the foot of her bed to work on in her tiny apartment. It’s worked out very well although her back now suffers from not having anything to sit on other than the end of her bed.

You will most definitely need to set up some kind of a daily work schedule (building in plenty of time for breaks and non-work activities too of course). Use a dollar store easy-wipe white board or several free bank calendars — whatever happens to work for you. I colour-code using various coloured markers to represent different types of things I need to do each day and plot it out for the month ahead. Otherwise it is far too easy to lose track of a day when at home. There are way too many distractions and so many domestic things that can take up a full day if you do not instigate a regular routine out of the chaos. Your schedule is important for your family and friends too — it helps to  gives them the understanding that you are not just at home goofing off but you are there working and should not be disturbed while doing so. If you are not self-disciplined enough to create and adhere to an efficient daily routine working at home may simply not be for you.

If you work with a creative partner it will definitely be an advantage to you to have a designated work space in your home. They are not there to socialize with you — they are there to do work with you. When you are socializing with them you can then use the rest of your personal space. This is a subtle distinction that might not be necessary for everyone but I have found it extremely useful in the past in helping to keep the momentum of work flowing.

Working at home allows you to adjust the environment to your ideal circumstances. The lighting, heating, sound, etc. can be set just the way you like it. In fact, you probably already have it exactly the way you like it so there is very little to change.

If you have family you must all learn to respect your working hours. Older children must learn that just because you are constantly nearby (and probably saving the cost of a sitter) it does not mean you are constantly available to entertain them. One of the hardest things a family must learn is that when you are working at home you must not be interrupted needlessly. This rule will need to come from you and as hard as it may be to enforce, if you don’t insist upon it it will never be respected. One freelancer I know builds in a break period every hour or so on the hour that he has scheduled for work and tells his family if they need to speak to him (for any non-emergency) during that period that is the time to do it. It may sound a bit anal but otherwise it can all easily become a free for all during which no work ever gets done.

On the other hand, if you work at home and live alone, the extended day to day isolation can become a very stressful thing. Texting and emailing are no replacements for real human contact even for the most introverted. It is important to get out every day and get exercise and make contact with people. I know too many freelancers, especially during harsh long dark winters or periods of economic uncertainty, who physically isolate themselves in their little turret home offices and slowly seem to drift into a kind of depressive malaise. If you work at home and live alone you will need to be aware of this possible danger and build into your schedule some time spent productively out of your abode.

If you work at home there are potentially significant tax implications. You will definitely need to have a separate work area to qualify but if you do, check out my earlier posts on freelancers and taxes for relevant tips.

When working at home you will have to make sure no other member of your family uses your computer or work tools. Let’s face it — your livelihood depends on your office equipment working at peak efficiency. While you are away from your home work space if your family members are using your stuff to play games or talk to their friends in Tasmania via Skype or surf to a million sites you would never consider safe to use you are asking for trouble. I know one freelancer who did not mind his young son using his computer — that is until his son accidentally wiped out all of that freelancer’s work for the entire week. It happens, and the best way to guard against it is to enforce these simple but necessary rules.

Working at home also requires a certain self-discipline when it comes to noshing or snacking. Another drawback of working at home — or one of the most significant advantages depending upon your point of view — is complete 24/7 access to your kitchen. While it is very good to be able to maintain a healthy diet, the danger is that you will constantly be snacking — heading back and forth to your kitchen just to “stretch your legs”. Result: Your legs may get stretched but so will your stomach. Be aware of this natural tendency and schedule in snack breaks, and stick to your schedule. Also, provide yourself with healthy snacks ready to eat. A continuous diet of junk food snacks will only be bad for your health, and therefore productivity, in the long term.

Working at home will require you to provide yourself with all the necessary tools of your trade right at home. You’ll need a suitable internet connection, a comfortable office chair with good back support to work in, and a dedicated phone line. The advantage to the latter is that anyone calling you on it for business expects you to answer right away (if you are not on deadline) and not your adorable 4 year old who answers the main line with ten minute explanations of their latest play school fantasy game before calling mom or dad to the phone.

Friendly drop ins, phone calls, e mails and social networking are all thoroughly enjoyable time killers and absolutely deadly to a productive work at home routine. There is no need to respond immediately to non-emergency personal communications. Set aside ten minutes every couple hours to reply or to call back. I keep a physical answering machine on at all times in my home office while I work. Friends who know I work at home know that I will call them back as soon as I can if I am on deadline but that it is not always convenient to talk just because I am at home.

It might be fun to slop around the house in your pajamas or underwear on your days off but in my experience it rarely makes for a conducive work atmosphere. Just because you physically stay at home to work doesn’t mean you should be a slob. (Unless being a slob is part of your well calculated brand and your successful “thing” in which case, carry on!) I find myself feeling and therefore acting more productive if I wash/ shower/ prepare myself every day as if I were going out. It makes me feel more like a professional and so it helps me get into my professional mode more readily. Of course I’m not suggesting formal business attire. Most freelancers would never wear that anyway — even to an outside meeting. Dress casually and comfortably, but take some pride in your physical well being. It should help you psyche up for your work day ahead. You can still cater to your personal comfort preferences if they increase your productivity. For example, when I work at home I rarely wear any shoes. I think better without them on.

Even though I am working at home that does not mean I cannot work outside the home from time to time. If I am interviewing a subject — something I could easily do so by phone or email — I will often still prefer to head out and do it in person if I have the time and ability. It helps create a healthy balance to my work environment. I find it useful to break out of the solitary work at home lifestyle from time to time. If the interview is conducted at their own place that also gives me invaluable added insight into their personality, character and preferences that could have never come across electronically.

If I am having a meeting with a client I will usually prefer to meet up at a coffee bar or cafe or even the central “lobby” area of a mall or shopping plaza. When you meet in your own home and you’ve had enough it’s usually impossible to tell your client (or client to be) to shove off! If you are out and about it is an easier matter to look at your watch and remark that you must be going on to another meeting. This way you have greater control over the situation and can bail out of a meeting much more diplomatically if it is not going well or has clearly served its purpose. Again, I also find the exercise and change of scene from my work space at home a psychologically positive experience.

Working from home offers the ideal work environment for many but not all freelancers. It provides immediate affordability, physical circumstances that can be easily tailored to your particular needs, and psychological comforts that only your home can provide. The drawbacks — to make it truly productive requires a greater sense of self-discipline than some individuals may naturally possess. (The good news is that it can be learned.) Also, if you live with family, they need to be a cooperative and understanding family who both respect and can abide by the necessary rules you need to set out in order to work successfully at home. It’s not for everyone. But if you can figure it all out you will find that getting it really right will provide you with an outstanding work environment unlike any other.

Posted on April 13, 2012 at 9:38 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Stubblejumpin Gal
    on April 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    All very good points. I have worked from my home office for about 10 years and still much prefer it to a communal office anywhere. It does make a difference if I behave as if I’m going to leave the house to go to work though — i.e. if I get out of bed, wash, dress, eat and brush my teeth. Of course, it’s also very nice that I can work in my pyjamas if I want, or pour myself a glass of wine during that last hour at the grindstone, though I rarely do.

  2. Written by Danielle C
    on April 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    So true about the schedule. You need to set a schedule for yourself. would not change a thing.

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