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[November 16, 2008]
Stay-at-home employees: Clark County telecommuters offer tips on finding balance between work, personal lives
(Columbian, The (Vancouver, WA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 16--If you think working from home automatically will ease your stress level, think again.
Depending on the job demands and your personality, telecommuting may be more stressful than reporting to an office, said Tory Johnson, a "Good Morning America" correspondent, chief executive officer and founder of Women for Hire and co-author of "Will Work from Home: Earn the Cash -- Without the Commute."
Despite its challenges, working from home is an option more people are exploring in today's tough economy, as they look to trim child care and transportation expenses, as well as reduce their carbon footprint.
Telecommuting is attractive to professionals who can handle the distractions, lack of structure and social isolation working from home often presents. It's a balancing act that takes practice, as Howard and Melanie Goff learned.
The couple, both real estate agents with Realty Executives Southwest Washington, built their Battle Ground home with work in mind; each has a separate office, and they share an administrative assistant who answers the phone, handles scheduling and publishes their monthly newsletter.
The Goffs have three children ages 2, 5, and 6, and although they have a "mother's helper" who takes care of the kids during the day, Melanie and Howard enjoy the flexibility working from home offers.
"I like being comfortably in my home and available to my kids if they need me," said Melanie, 41.
Melanie's been working from home for eight years, and in that time she's learned to navigate potential pitfalls. She, along with the New York City-based Johnson and other Clark County telecommuters, offer tips on how to make working from home work for you.
1. Get the green light.
The self-employed can skip this step, but otherwise, convincing management is the first obstacle to navigate along the journey toward telecommuting.
"You have to have the guts to ask," said Andrea Kropp of Ridgefield, who telecommutes for her job as a director in the business intelligence group at Corporate Executive Board, based in Arlington, Va. The 34-year-old mother of two started working from home two days a week while still living on the East Coast, then gradually increased her telecommuting to five days a week, making it possible for her to live on the West Coast and keep her job.
She suggests people take this graduated approach, "so they can demonstrate they're as productive working from home as from the office."
It's also a good idea to propose a trial period, Johnson and co-author Robyn Freedman Spizman advise in their book.
"Your boss may be more willing to try a three-month experiment than a permanent change," they write. Propose benchmarks so management can evaluate your productivity throughout the trial.
2. Have a dedicated work space.
A home office is ideal, but "it's important to have someplace you can report to each day and leave each day," even if that place is a desk in the corner of the dining room, Johnson said.
Without a defined work area, it's easy to let your personal life and your career interfere with each other.
"When you're trying to have family time or time away from work, it's easy to get sucked back in if you can't close the door and just separate yourself from the work environment," Melanie Goff said.
3. Be out of sight, not out of mind.
It's important when working from home to remind colleagues that you're available to them, and to let your boss know what you're up to.
"When you're remote, you need to be extra responsive in terms of answering your phone and responding to e-mail quickly," Kropp said.
She works 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., which is a good fit for her children's schedules and her co-workers', since they're in a time zone that's three hours ahead. Kropp said she makes a point of sending out a batch of e-mail first thing in the morning so people know that she's up and on task.
Kropp also participates in conference calls with colleagues in Virginia and uses the computer program GoToMeeting to collaborate on projects remotely.
"It's really the same as, 'Hey, come sit next to me. Let me show you this,'" she said of going over spreadsheets with co-workers in Virginia using desktop sharing programs.
Another way to stay connected with the corporate office is to ask to be copied on e-mail, added Johnson, 38. She also recommends scheduling lunch appointments with colleagues and visiting the office periodically.
In the case of work-at-home employees such as Kropp, who live across the country from corporate headquarters, this is less practical. For the Goffs, however, meeting regularly with their team helps keep the communication channels open.
This connectivity is good not only for the career but also for the psyche, Johnson said. When working from home, some people miss the social interaction of office life.
To help combat this isolation, several people in Vancouver and the greater Portland area have made connections through the Web site Meetup.com, which has groups dedicated to telecommuters. These people get together periodically for networking events and social outings.
4. Set a schedule.
Most offices shut down on weekends and after 5 p.m., but when you work from home, you run the risk of always being on the clock.
"I jokingly tell people I can work whatever hours I want, and I work all of them," said Howard Goff, 43.
The Goffs have a flexible schedule built around their children's activities and their clients' availability, but other telecommuters find it helpful to set specific work hours.
Denise Shorthouse runs a travel consulting business out of her Salmon Creek home. She's also a representative for a California-based women's clothing line.
The 42-year-old mother of two has set aside Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for work. She lists those hours on her voice mail greeting, so clients know when to expect a response. She also suggests setting up an automatic response to e-mail received outside business hours. If resources allow, it's best to have separate computers and e-mail accounts for professional and personal use to establish electronic boundaries. That way, it's less likely that a work e-mail, for example, will infringe on family and personal time, and vice versa, Shorthouse said.
It's also important to schedule breaks into your work day, a time to fix a snack, grab coffee or catch up on nagging errands or chores, Johnson advises.
"It's easy to be distracted by the laundry that needs to be washed and the lawn that needs to be mowed," she said. "Scheduling breaks enables you to put off distractions until an appropriate time."
5. Create a professional atmosphere.
The level of formality needed to work at home varies according to job function and personality, Johnson said. Melanie Goff, for example, finds its imperative to get dressed up every morning as if she were leaving for the office. That's in part because she often goes to meet clients on short notice, but also because it helps her feel more confident.
"Even though you're not going to the office, you still have to look in the mirror every day and say, 'I'm going to do the best job for my clients,'" she said.
But not all telecommuters wear business attire when working from home. Kropp usually works in leisure clothes, since she doesn't have face-to-face interactions with co-workers or constituents.
Having a separate phone line for business calls also helps maintain professionalism, Shorthouse said. She uses a different greeting when answering her business phone than she does the home phone, and her children know not to pick up mommy's work calls. A more affordable option might be having one phone line but a second number with a distinct ring that signals business calls, Shorthouse added.
6. Arrange for child care.
Until children are in school, it's imperative to have a nanny or baby sitter even if you're working from home, Kropp said.
"You want to be fully concentrating on the work that you're doing," she noted. Even though she still needed help with child care while her boys were younger, she liked being around to see the types of food the nanny prepared for them and how much television they were allowed to watch. Telecommuting eliminated the need for a nanny cam, if not a nanny, she said.
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