Home Is Where the Job Is. The pros and cons of being a work-at-home parent.Emily Mendell
“Ok, fellas. Mom has to take this one. Scoot. We’ll finish later.”
On cue, they both roll their eyes and leave the spare bedroom that functions as my office, shutting the door behind them. They have learned to always shut the door. It will be another two hours before I can hear the rest of their day’s events. I feel a wave a guilt wash over me followed by another wave of responsibility as the phone rings for a third time. I pick it up and get back to work, answering a series of questions from a reporter on deadline. It’s a balance I have come to embrace over the last decade. Since 2000, I have worked full time from home.
I manage the communications for a multi million dollar trade association in Washington D.C. from Philadelphia where I average a 50-60 hour work week. More and more I am coming into contact with professional parents like myself who make working from home work for them, their employers, and their families. Gone are the days when you can’t have a serious career if it doesn’t all go down in an office building. Over the past decade, thanks largely to the Internet, you can hold a high powered job from your extra bedroom or basement while spending more time with the kids. But it isn’t easy.
7 Lucrative Stay-At-Home Careers*
1. Marketing Manager
Average Salary: $104,400
2. Software Developer
Average Salary: $83,130
3. Financial Analyst
Average Salary: $70,400
4. Sales Representative
Average Salary: $68,270
5. Personal Financial Advisor
Average Salary: $67,660
Average Salary: $57,060
7. Web Designer
Average Salary: $47,000 to $71,500
– via Yahoo! Hotjobs
*based on average salary
To find out what other people in your field and zipcode are making, hit these sites:
Sure, it sounds heavenly but it’s not the cake walk many assume it is. When I tell people about this arrangement, they often give me a look which I interpret as politely dismissive. I imagine them thinking to themselves that “work” must not be the operative term in “work from home” and that my job must be mindless enough to perform while watching my children and soap operas all at the same time. Judging by the unsolicited email offers I get for “home-based employment opportunities”, these lighter jobs must exist, but mine is not one of them.
Sharing time between work and family is difficult enough; now imagine sharing time AND space. All the stars must be in alignment to effectively work out of your house but the two most important factors for a successful home office is 1) having the right job and 2) solid buy-in from your employer. Without those elements, you are doomed to fail. The good news is that there are an increasing number of jobs that can be performed well almost exclusively via the web and telephone. One good way to test if your job might be suitable is to ask yourself whether your work output can be produced and delivered to your customer (client, boss, or colleague) electronically. Public relations, marketing, writing, consulting, computer programming, law and even accounting are conducive to work at home arrangements. However, if your job requires you to manage large groups of people or meet face-to-face with colleagues, clients, or other stakeholders every day, you may be out of luck unless they can come to your house. Conference calls work very well for occasional pow-wows, but using them in place of daily meetings can become disengaging.
Speaking of disengaging, the second major criterion for a happy work from home arrangement is concurrence from all company stakeholders. It goes without saying that your boss has to be on board with the deal but more importantly, so do your peers. Jealously can be a huge factor, especially when one colleague has to brave rush hour and bad office coffee while the other gets an extra hour at home with the family and can wear sweatpants everyday. Your arrangement must be justifiable to your team. No one can complain that you are getting favored treatment if you live several hours away from the office. If you live close to the office but are working from home, it’s a good idea for everyone with a similar job description to be offered the same arrangement.
Don’t Try This at Home
Once you have found the right job and the right employer to work from home, success is up to you. Some of the best pieces for advice I have come from my experience of doing it completely wrong in the beginning. After almost ten years of the daily grind within my own four walls I’ve learned what not to do.
Don’t go solo. If you think you can get your work done and care for any of your children under the age of nine on a regular basis, you are fooling yourself. Assuming that you can bang out what you need to do when the kiddos are napping or watching Caillou seems like a good strategy until the first time they won’t go to sleep or the cable goes out. Get real childcare. Having a responsible babysitter who can take care of your children’s needs while you are working takes the stress out of your day. This doesn’t mean they can’t pop into your office to say hello. That benefit is probably the nicest perk of all. But the earlier that your kids understand that Mom or Dad are working and need to be left alone, the more natural it becomes around the house for everyone.
Don’t be a sloth. Living the stereotypical dream of working in your pajamas is a bad idea. Get up, take a shower, and put on day time clothes every morning. There is certainly no need to dress up, but changing into something suitable to be seen in public changes your energy level. I wear jeans and hoodies most days at my office – but they are clean and fresh feeling each day and, therefore, so am I.
Trying to maintain the illusion that you are in the company’s office when you’re not is untruthful and unnecessary. Don’t share space or devices. Working at the kitchen table will be an exercise in complete frustration. Try to find a place in your house that will be known to all as your office. Ideally this space has a door you can close to shut out the joyous ruckus that occurs on a daily basis but if not, perhaps a screen or divider which creates a barrier between work and home. This area should be as far away from the kitchen, playroom or other high traffic areas as possible. You should also have a dedicated phone line and computer if your company will fit the bill or you can afford it. Everything should be off limits to the kiddos and spouse.
Don’t watch TV. Unless watching TV is part of your job, don’t do it during the workday. You wouldn’t watch television if you were in an office. Even though no one will ever know, you need to imagine that your boss is there. Besides, you will be distracted enough with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all day long; don’t handicap yourself any further.
Don’t dive in. Every morning, I take my boys to school at 8:30 a.m. and return home to start my workday. It seems inconsequential but leaving the house and returning to the office gets me psychologically ready to transition from Mom to Vice President. I heard of one woman who worked from home who literally walked out her door each morning, around the house once, and back inside again for the same effect. Brilliant! It may sound goofy but it works.
Don’t be a recluse. After working from home for a long period of time, you do start to get a little stir crazy. I know that I need to get out of the house when I start asking my dog for her opinion on strategic work decisions. I am lucky that my job requires travel every few weeks when I can be among the living and have real human contact. If you don’t have these opportunities, be sure to make lunch dates locally every now and then so that you don’t feel like a total shut-in. Weather permitting, get outside and breathe fresh air once each day. Walk the dog, get the mail, or go once around the block. Otherwise, you may never stand up from your chair.
Don’t miss phone calls. I am a fanatic for answering my phone when it rings, sometimes to my detriment. Yet, I feel that working from home is a privilege that I will not abuse; and to prove that to all with whom I work, I pick up my phone a great deal after hours. This commitment served me extremely well, especially in the early days of my arrangement when I proved to everyone that they could count on me even if I wasn’t in the office next to them.
Don’t be in the closet. Trying to maintain the illusion that you are in the company’s office when you’re not is untruthful and unnecessary. When I am talking to a reporter on the phone, I don’t offer that I am working from home but I don’t hide it either. Sometimes I will warn them that I may be briefly interrupted by my “lunatic nine-year-old” who is home that day with a fake illness. Most react in a good natured way. Not only does this relieve the pressure to keep things quiet but it makes you human and most other humans have an appreciation for the universal challenges faced by working parents provided it doesn’t get in the way of doing a good job.
Becoming a Permanent Homebody
Even if you follow these tips, working from home may not jive for you. It is the ultimate balancing act and crossing the streams of work and play do not always turn out well. Sometimes the challenges outweigh the benefits. (see pros and cons) And situations change as you move through your work and home life cycle. When my boys were toddlers, it was wonderful being nearby all day long. I could have lunch with them and give out multiple hugs and kisses throughout the day, which easily trumped any office professional relationship I could ever imagine. Now, that they are older and in school all day, I sometimes feel lonely. Admittedly, working from home may have served its purpose as far as my children are concerned but other benefits endure, especially higher productivity. It takes a certain personality to manage this delicate balance. Those who can’t are truly better off in an office; but those who can, will find themselves in the enviable position of being able to bring home the bacon without ever leaving the house.
Working from home is not a walk in the park but it has certain inalienable perks provided you can deal with the challenges.
Energy Saver. Not only do you save on automobile gas when you don’t drive to work, you also save a ton of personal energy. You don’t realize how much effort you exert getting to and from the office until your commute involves a few short steps. You can use this found time with your family, relaxing, or getting ahead of the game when needed.
Home Economics. Gas, parking and lunch money add up. I estimated that I saved more than $500 each month when I didn’t have these embedded costs in my workday. I also save money on work clothes, because I basically don’t wear them unless I am traveling and have to clean myself up.
As long as you don’t abuse the flexibility, it is something you can, and should, enjoy. Extreme Productivity. It is amazing how much you can accomplish when no one is popping into your office to share the latest gossip or there is no water cooler around which to talk about the movie you saw last weekend. Without interruptions, I can work at an exponentially higher speed without sacrificing quality. Since meeting and exceeding deadlines is critical to working from home, productivity is one of the most important benefits.
Maximum Flexibility. Once you have proven yourself to be able to handle the arrangement, you are indeed able to get household chores completed during the day. I fold laundry on conference calls and take my lunches at the kid’s school. As long as you don’t abuse the flexibility, it is something you can, and should, enjoy.
Guilt. When you work at home it becomes very difficult to leave your problems at the office. Be prepared to be drawn to work when you should be drawing a bath for your kids. Inevitably there will be moments when you are being pulled in two different directions. For those of us parents who feel as if they are never doing either job – parenting or working – very well, the work from home arrangement exacerbates that guilt because they are sharing the same time and space.
Isolation. Working by yourself out of your home can be extremely lonely. If you are the only one on a team that is not physically together regularly you need to be at peace with not being part of the daily party. Even if everyone is working remotely the probability that you will feel like an island is high. It is an acquired taste to which some folks never adjust.
Glass Ceiling. If you aspire to be the CEO, President, or Grand Pooh-bah of any kind in a large company that you did not start yourself, chances are that you will have to be in the office eventually to reach that final rung.
Stigma. There are enough work from home scams and bad experiences that many people write you off before they give you a chance. You need to prove yourself and earn respect from those around you, more so than you would if you showed up in the office every day. Working from home does not mean you are any less committed, but it could be wrongly interpreted that way.