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Working in a Home Office

Benefits, problems, and tips learned the hard way.

by Mike Hartnett (August 3, 2009)

It was 20 years ago this month that I received a phone call at home in central Illinois from Phil Miller, the owner of a small Chicago publishing company that had recently purchased Craftrends. I was editor of Profitable Craft Merchandising, a competitor, at the time.

"Mike," he said, "I'd like to talk to you about becoming editor of Craftrends."

"Uh, you're in Chicago, right?


"Well, thanks but no thanks. My wife is a tenured college professor, so because of her career I wouldn't want to move to Chicago."

"We heard you were going to say that," Phil answered, "and we talked it over and think you could edit the magazine from your house."

This was long before the advent of email. "How would I do that?" I asked.

"Oh, you know, fax machines, the mail, and you're only a three-hour drive from the office."

"Well, under those circumstances, sure, I'll come talk to you."

To make a long story short, I took the job and set up a home office and haven't left it in 20 years. Phil was ahead of his time in visualizing an editor could work at home. Now many people do, and I suspect many more will do so in the future.

Modern technological innovations such as email, webinars, GoToMeetings, conference calls, and others allow at-home workers to be in direct, almost constant contact with the main office.

There are numerous advantages for the employer and employee. Employers need less office space and perhaps can give smaller raises because the employee's costs for commuting, dry cleaning, etc., are much lower, and there's a tax benefit to having a home office. Plus, in a tight economy, employers may use more contract and/or part-time workers.

In addition to lower commuting costs, at-home employees avoid most of the office politics and don't have to leave work early to return home to wait for the plumber or the cable guy. They also avoid a lot of germs. I have been almost cold- and flu-free since I began working at home.

Another advantage for me was the ability to care for an elderly parent. My mother reached a point where she couldn't live alone any more. Since my wife worked out of the house, we never would have been able to care for her if I, too, was gone all day.

We quickly learned that she was in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and she lived with us for four years. I edited Craftrends from my home with an Alzheimer's patient in the house; damn, it was not easy, but now that Mom is gone, we're glad we did it.

Now I can laugh about it.

Mom wanted to do her share around the house, so one night she said she would walk her dog, Sam, in the morning. So the next morning I got up and Sam wanted to go out, but I said no; mom always felt better if she thought she was contributing.

So I started working. I was doing a phone interview with Michael Rouleau, then CEO of Michaels, when Mom came in and whispered that she wasn't feeling well, and maybe I better walk Sam after all.

Now Sam really needs to go out and gives me that look that says, "Dad, I'm going to pee in about 30 seconds. Where I pee is entirely up to you."

So I'm trying to sound intelligent on the phone, taking notes, and petting/distracting Sam. (Yes, Sam held it for me.)

Then there was the time the water heater went kablooie, and I'm down in the basement mopping up the water when the phone rings. I run upstairs. It's a reporter for the Wall Street Journal doing a story about this new phenomenon called scrapbooking.

Again, I tried to sound very intelligent, business-like, and knowledgeable. But about halfway through the 20-minute conversation I realized I was still holding the mop.

One day I was working when one of our cats, Calamity Jane, jumped up on my desk and peered at the computer monitor as if she was reading what I had written. She turned and looked at me as if to say, "That's the best you can do?" and then proceeded to walk all over the keyboard.

I learned that Calamity is not a very good speller.

Tips learned the hard way.

1. Set up your office in a fairly isolated area of the house with a door, so at the end of the day you can close the door and say, "Honey, I'm home." Otherwise, you'll never be away from the job, and that will lead to burn-out.

2. Your office will probably be a spare bedroom, and bedroom carpeting is not meant for an office chair to be rolling back and forth for years in the same area. Buy a plastic floor guard from an office supply store.

3. Make friends with a teenager so when your computer goes down, you have someone nearby to call.

4. Don't hesitate to take breaks. When you first start working at home, you may be paranoid, thinking people assume you're not working very hard. So you work constantly. You'll accomplish much more because there won't be the common little interruptions endemic to every office. But you'll be much more tired by day's end, because those little interruptions give you a mental break, which you need every once in a while.

So stop periodically to play with the dog, throw a load of laundry in the washer, or take a short walk. Otherwise you'll burn out.

(Note: Do you have any work-at-home stories or advice? Email them to CLN at mike@clnonline.com.)



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