photo: faster panda kill kill
Working from home sounds like the perfect gig. What’s not to like about videoconferencing in your slippers, ditching the daily commute, and getting out from under your boss’s watchful eye? Plenty, actually.
Take it from someone who’s freelanced for four years, working from home may sound like a dream (all right, in some ways it is), but before you want to bludgeon me in my bathrobe, know that it does have its drawbacks. There are a few pitfalls that will have even the most independent and disciplined home-worker pining for a cubicle and looking for ways to cope, but these suggestions may help you get around them.
Make yourself presentable
Yes, I have worn pajamas for entire days at a time. Yes, I have made it to two in the afternoon and realized I have not yet brushed my teeth. As a writer, these are occupational hazards. But anyone who works from home will tell you that the first rule of successfully working from home is that you must exercise at least a modicum of presentability. You can wear your bunny slippers, but you (and your postman) will take your work much more seriously if you’ve brushed your hair.
Go to your happy (work) place
When I first started working from home, I would find myself wandering aimlessly from room to room. I had a home office; I just couldn’t write there. If you work from home, it’s important (especially to the IRS) to have a place dedicated exclusively to that. But don’t feel like you have to work there unless it works for you. My office houses my filing cabinet, printer, fax machine, books, and desk, but I work from my couch, my bed, and my dining room table. Find the place in your home where you’re most focused and creative.
Get out of the house
If you think staring at the inside of the same cubicle every day is bad, imagine living in it. I’m just as sick of staring at my bedroom wall as a nine-to-fiver is of the beige burlap of her cube. If you can take your work with you, consider going to a café or the local library, even for a couple hours. Wifi and my local coffee shop have saved me from many a meltdown.
Fake an office
The sound of silence can be deafening. The first thing I do in the morning (besides grunt at my roommate and pour myself some coffee), is turn on the TV while I check emails. I leave it on all day at a low volume. Sure, HGTV is not the same as coworkers, but it does approximate the low-grade burble of office noise, and it keeps me sane. Just keep the mute button nearby for unexpected phone calls.
Create your own water cooler
Remember the cliché of coworkers gathering around the water cooler to gossip about other coworkers? There’s a reason for that water cooler (beyond hydration). A healthy work environment includes breaks for socializing. If you’re the sole employee at your “office,” seek out stand-in water cooler mates. Take a time-out to IM with friends, browse your favorite blogs or Web sites, meet a friend for lunch, or call your mom. The point is, everybody needs some good, old-fashioned, gossipy brain candy.
Leave the office—mentally
When you work from home, you don’t get to leave your work at the office. You also don’t get weekends or holidays. I’m writing this article on President’s Day, when most of my other friends are reveling in their long weekend. I’m also writing it at night. My workday lasts all day. I might not turn this article in until 2 a.m. (Don’t feel too sorry for me, because I’ll sleep till ten.) Occasionally, however, you have to check out. Tell yourself “no work thoughts allowed” and stick to it. Even God rested on the seventh day.
It tickles me when I tell people I work from home and they marvel at my self-discipline. I thrive on deadlines and procrastination. I do have a few tricks, however, for keeping myself on track. If I’m working, I screen calls. (Sorry, friends.) If my task doesn’t require Internet, I log off. If I commit the morning (or rather, The View and Martha) to emails and Facebook, I’m less likely to find myself checking status updates every ten minutes in the afternoon.
Get a social life
If you don’t have work friends, you need real friends because working from home is a lonely business. I love living with a roommate because it gives me someone to pounce on when I’ve got a whole day’s worth of conversation saved up. Make weekday plans, not just weekend. A movie, dinner, a play, a walk—it doesn’t matter, as long as it keeps you from feeling like a work-at-home hermit.
Put down the Doritos
You might think people who work from home would be buff. They can go to the gym any time and produce spreadsheets while doing twelve reps on the Thigh Master. You would be sorely mistaken (at least in my case). Because I’m on my own schedule, I always think there will be time for that workout later. Instead of a snack machine, I have an entire fridge and pantry to tempt me. (Not to mention a glass of wine that would be really nice around 4 p.m.) The fact that I wear stretchy sweatpants every day doesn’t help. Drag yourself to the gym. You’ll thank yourself.
Don’t feel guilty
As someone who works from her couch, I am constantly defending my work ethic, even to myself. If I miss a call because I’m in the bathroom, I worry the other person thinks I’m out to a two-martini lunch. If I’m behind schedule, I feel like I’ve slacked off. I can only imagine what it will feel like when I have kids screaming in the background of a conference call. Remind yourself that your work may look different from other people’s, but it’s still work.
Of course there will be days you’ll envy friends who work in a skyscraper downtown or at a school in the suburbs. As they say, the grass is always greener. But one hassle-free midday trip to the grocery store followed by a matinee should take care of it. You’re checking your guilt—not your work ethic—at the door.