I am writing this sentence on my couch. As an improvised "desk," I've grabbed one of my kids' piano books to shield me from the increasing warmth of my laptop. It's 9:47 a.m. on a Thursday, the oldest two kids are at school, my wife and youngest son just left to pick apples, and I have a window of four hours to work on this article before I take over toddler duty for the afternoon. If you want to know what working from home really looks like, this is it.
According to a 2012 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 percent of American workers worked at least some hours from home each week [source: Noonan]. As more work can be done online, those work-from-home numbers are expected to explode.
On the surface, working from home sounds like a dream come true. No boss breathing down your neck (literally, with coffee breath). No depressing vending machine lunch at your desk. No impromptu conference room meetings to talk about "innovation" and "teamwork."
But the reality is far more complicated. Do you have kids? Can they sit quietly doing puzzles for hours on end? Does the giant flat-screen TV a few feet to your left pose an irresistible threat to your productivity? Does that awesome snack selection pose an irresistible threat to your body mass index?
If you can strike the right work-life balance, working can home can indeed be a dream come true. To help you plan for the real life challenges, we've assembled a list of 10 real-world tips for avoiding distractions, reassuring the boss and maximizing productivity.
Every job has a uniform. Doctors have their white coats; business executives have their power suits; and freelance writers have their sweatpants (only sort of kidding). Uniforms serve two purposes: (1) they communicate to the outside world a person's position, stature and function, and (2) they reinforce those same messages to the person wearing the uniform. When a doctor puts on her whites, she puts on the mantle of the knowledgeable and capable healer. Without it, she's just some lady gagging you with a Popsicle stick.
When you work from home, resist the urge to remain in your pajamas. True, no one but the UPS guy is likely to see you in your polar bear-themed sleepwear, but it's hard to take yourself seriously as a worker when you look unemployed. Dressing in your normal work uniform — even if that uniform is a T-shirt and jeans — reinforces the idea that you are actually working. If wearing a tie or pencil skirt really gets your juices flowing, go for it. Just don't expect the cat to be impressed.
Keep a Schedule
Many of us are more productive when we are working within a prescribed framework. That's why it's so important to set and keep a schedule when working from home. If your job requires a lot of interaction with the folks back at the office, you should try your best to align your schedule with the normal nine-to-five. If your work is largely independent, you have the freedom to work earlier or later than the regular work day, or split your day into several shifts.
If you have a spouse and kids, it's even more important to set a firm work schedule. Every week, sit down with your spouse to chart upcoming doctor's appointments and soccer practices, and to assess each other's workload. Devise a schedule that shares parental duties while giving each person enough time to realistically get their work done.
Print out the weekly schedule and tape it to your office door. By Tuesday, your toddler will have ripped it down and drawn a 20-legged elephant on it, but a schedule's a schedule. Stick to it.
Post a Sign
This is a critical tip for parents trying to work from home. Whether you are working in an official-looking home office or a milk crate desk in the corner of your bedroom, make sure that there is a door between you and your treasured distractions (er, children). If your kids are older, this door is a great place to post your daily work schedule along with a number they can dial to reach customer service, i.e., your spouse's cell phone.
If you have younger children, you need to post a sign that can be easily interpreted by a toddler to mean, "I love you, but please go bother daddy." Try a large "X" or a color-coded system like a construction-paper stoplight — green means "go on in," yellow means "enter only if you are bleeding/vomiting," and red means "there is a monster behind this door."
Check in With the Team
One of the greatest risks of working from home is the false assumption by everyone at the office that you're actually "shirking" from home [source: Bloom]. To make this arrangement work, you need to come up with effective ways to assure your boss and teammates that you are hard at work even when you're not at work.
If you use a corporate e-mail and IM account, use it to broadcast your work status. Send a quick "good morning" IM to teammates when you are at your desk, and let folks know if you're going to be away from e-mail and for how long [source: Wilcox]. If your company uses Gmail or another Web-based e-mail app, you can update your status (available, busy, away from desk) without having to send instant messages or e-mails.
Another risk of working from home is "out of sight, out of mind" syndrome. If your boss and teammates only see your face once a month, they might forget how much you contribute to the success of the company. One solution is to become a videoconferencing whiz. With free video calling services like Skype, Google Hangout and Apple's FaceTime, you can check in with the team "in person." All they have to do is place a laptop, smartphone or tablet on the conference table during the weekly meeting, and you are present and accounted for.
Change of Venue
No joke, I have moved from the couch and am now writing from a folding chair in the garage while my toddler peddles his plastic car around the driveway. While this particular change of venue was imposed rather than chosen freely, you'll find that moving your work space is an effective way to kick-start creativity and refresh your energy levels when working from home.
Even if you have a dedicated home office, you might try working from the kitchen table or outside on the back porch to restart the workday. Some people find it helpful to leave the house entirely for part of the day and set up "office" in a coffee shop, library or other venue with reliable WiFi access. If you crave the productivity-lifting background noise of a buzzing cafe, but don't want to spend $5 on a cup of tea, try the free audio stream from cofficity.com.
Use Household Chores as Mini Breaks
Let's be honest, when you are stuck on a frustrating work problem, bored with an assignment or procrastinating a deadline, just about anything qualifies as a distraction. This is where working from home can get downright dangerous. With a project deadline looming, you might feel it's the perfect time to reorganize your vacation photos from the past 10 years. Instead of finishing a financial report, you might decide to iron all of your daughter's doll clothes.
The smarter tactic is to recognize the human need for a quick break and pair it with a household chore that can be finished in 10 minutes or less. Before you sit down to work for the day, make a list of a few quick chores that need to get done: two loads of laundry, washing and chopping vegetables for dinner, dusting and vacuuming the basement, etc. When you need to stand up and get your blood moving, check off a chore from the list then get back to work.
Devise a Snack Resistance Plan
Snacking in the office is its own minefield — unhealthy vending machine options, a microwave that smells like tuna-flavored popcorn — but snacking at home is even worse. Your kitchen, with all of its delectable choices, is just a few steps away. Working from home, there is a constant temptation to wander there every time you're bored, anxious or frustrated with an assignment, which is pretty much all the time. To avoid putting on 20 pounds (9 kilograms) in two weeks, you need a snack resistance plan.
If you have excellent self-control, confine your eating to scheduled meals. For example, lunch is every day at 12:30 and dinner is at 7. Aside from caffeine breaks, vow to avoid the kitchen outside of those prescribed meal times.
But if you're like the rest of us, working without snacking is like working without breathing. In that case, the best game plan is to stock your shelves with lots of healthy snacks. Fresh fruit, carrots, celery, unsalted nuts and dried fruit are all great options. Personally, I go through a lot of sugar-free gum; some would say too much gum (my dentist, mostly), but it's better than the bag of Nestle Toll House dark chocolate chips that's calling to me from the freezer.
This is a good tip for folks trying to work from home with school-age kids. Instead of working a straight daytime schedule of 9 to 5, divide the workday into two sections, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., then from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. We call this the "Spanish method." In Spain, the traditional work schedule includes a midday siesta in which families return home at 2 p.m. for a long lunch and even a short nap before returning to work at 5 p.m. and continuing late into the evening.
Although siesta culture is fading in southern Europe, it's a useful schedule for parents trying to juggle working from home with taking care of school-age kids. With this schedule, you can be with the kids for a few hours when they get home from school, make dinner, eat together, then go back to the office for a few more hours in the evening. If both parents work from home, you'll want to swap duties every night so that one parent can help get the kids to bed while the other works.
Working from home poses different challenges to different personality types. As a card-carrying introvert, I could go months without communicating with coworkers beyond e-mail and IM. But if you are a social butterfly, you might find that you miss the face-to-face feedback and water cooler conversation of office life. To avoid feeling isolated and stifled, you need to devise strategies to get your social fix away from the office.
The technological reality is that you can continue to communicate with the standard office tools — e-mail, IM, phone and videoconferencing — from home. But if you really miss the personal interaction, try to schedule a lunch or two a week with a work colleague or another work-from-home friend.
There are also organizations in most major cities that offer shared office space for rent. It's called co-working and you buy a membership on a monthly or weekly basis. Co-working "spaces" (they're always called "spaces") market themselves as collaborative cafes for independent workers who don't like the isolation of working from home. At the very least, co-working is a good option if you need access to fax machines, copiers and other equipment you may not have at home. Even a coffee machine.
Have a Backup Plan
In my decade of working from home, I've learned the hard way that technology has feelings, too. My cable Internet modem, for example, is very sensitive to heightened anxiety levels in my home. When I have a particularly tight deadline for an article, or am about to conduct a very important interview on my Internet-powered phone, the modem senses my panic and responds the only way it knows how: It crashes.
Just a few months ago, I found myself knocking on my neighbors' door at 10:30 p.m. to hijack their Internet connection so I could upload and e-mail an important file. They seemed less than thrilled to see me.
If you are going to work from home, you need a "plan B." There are any number of mini-crises that can erupt at home and threaten to derail the workday: loss of power/Internet service, unscheduled playdates, or a neighbor chopping down a tree a few feet from your office window.
So, you need an alternative workspace. It should be someplace close to your home with a reliable Internet connection where you can work in peace. It can be a friend's apartment, a library or even the backseat of your car parked within WiFi range of a coffee shop (useful for after-hours emergencies).
For lots more tips about working from home and striking a healthy work-life balance, see the related articles on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at the pros and cons of coworking spaces.
Author's Note: How to Work From Home: 10 Real-world Tips
Despite the rising number of Americans who work at least part-time from home, there is an enduring suspicion that to say, "I work from home" is a fancy way of saying, "I don't have a real job." I think this skepticism is fueled by dubious e-mails promising "$10,000 a month working from home!" (Sure, if you have a crystal meth lab in the basement.) And then there's the assumption that real work has to happen at a real office with reserved parking spots, nameplates, secretaries and a conference room that nobody uses. If you choose to work from home, here's a tip for avoiding awkward explanations when asked, "So what do you do?" Steer clear of the actual phrase, "I work from home." Call yourself an "independent contractor" in whatever field you specialize in, or a "small business owner" if the label remotely applies. Or just tell them what you do and keep the whole "home" thing to yourself. Think of it this way: if everyone found out how good you have it at home, no one would want to go to the office. Think about how lonely the water cooler would get. As we know, they have feelings, too.
- Bloom, Nicholas et al. "Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment." Stanford University. Feb. 22, 2013. (Sept. 13, 2013) http://www.stanford.edu/~nbloom/WFH.pdf
- Noonan, Mary C.; Glass, Jennifer L. "The hard truth about telecommuting." Monthly Labor Review. June 2012. (Sept. 13, 2013) http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/06/art3full.pdf
- Orsini, Patricia. "The Great Shrinking Office? More Companies Hire Remote Workers: Survey." CNBC. June 14, 2012. (Sept. 13, 2013) http://www.cnbc.com/id/47815587
- Wilcox, Ryan. "The Beginner's Guide to Working from Home." Lifehacker. July 10, 2013. (Sept. 13, 2013) http://lifehacker.com/the-beginners-guide-to-working-from-home-733412770