DETERMINED to find a way to balance work and family, many mothers and fathers have either gone into business for themselves or persuaded their employers to let them work at home. In fact, some 45 million people have eliminated the daily trek to the office, and by the end of the decade that number is expected to reach 60 million.
Although setting up shop at home requires a tremendous amount of planning, organization and discipline, home office workers can ultimately be much more efficient than traditional office workers, says Bonnie Michaels, president of Managing Work & Family, a Chicago-based consulting firm.That's what Donna Broder, a former marketing manager at the World Almanac Co. in Cleveland, discovered - eventually. After she had her first child, she told her manager she was thinking about quitting. His response: Why don't you stay with the company but work at home? Broder jumped at the chance to spend more time with her son and still bring in a paycheck, but she quickly learned that working with a baby in the house has its challenges.
"At first I thought I'd call clients during my son's naps," Broder says. "I ended up bouncing him on my lap while I was trying to talk on the phone. Then I got a baby sitter and moved my computer into the bedroom, but that just caused other problems." Eventually Broder worked out all the bugs, but, she says, "I now see a lot of mistakes I could have a-voided."
For many parents, working at home is an opportunity to be more efficient and effective on both the family and job fronts. But before you approach your boss with a proposal, make sure you're prepared to deal with some of the issues unique to home office workers.
- Plan for interruptions. Suddenly having Mom or Dad at home, but not accessible, can be confusing to kids, says Dr. Steven Wein, a child psychiatrist in New York City. "Children can become jealous and curious when a parent is busy with activities that don't include them," he explains. "And the feelings of jealousy may be exacerbated if a parent's job involves other people." Kidsare most likely to act out or regress for the first few weeks after you start working at home. Helping your children deal with the transition may mean catching up on work after you've tucked the kids in for the night.
- Hire a baby sitter and set up a schedule. Unless you plan to work for two to three hours a day at your child's discretion, you'll need to find a baby sitter. But hiring help is only a first step. It's crucial to establish ground rules. Think of your caregiver as your business partner. If her job description is clear and she has the authority she needs to do her job, you'll be able to do yours. Otherwise, you'll both run into trouble.
Sit down with your baby sitter and discuss a basic daily schedule. If you want to eat lunch with your child or children every day, for instance, make sure the caregiver knows what time you'll take the break so she can arrange her activities accordingly. Be specific and structured, but not so rigid that you can't accommodate a change of plans. Above all, make sure everyone understands that when Mom "goes to work," she is unavailable except in the case of an emergency.
After you've set up the rules, make sure that you follow them yourself. "It's very difficult for parents to ignore their children," says Annette Whittier, a New York City caregiver who has been employed by four work-at-home moms. "But if I've taught a child that when the door is closed, Mommy is at work, and then Mom keeps coming out to play, it undermines my authority."
- Keep work and home separate. According to experts and work-at-home moms, a door that closes is the most important piece of equipment you'll need. This is especially true if your children are at home during the day. Unless your business is extremely informal, the sound of children playing in the background is too unprofessional for most employers' and clients' tastes. It's not fair to your children to make them be unnaturally quiet; besides, "it's nearly impossible to impose silence on your kids if you're sitting at the kitchen table," says Jennifer Mason of the Boston-based Work/Family Directions. And chances are, if you have to dismantle your office in order to set the table for dinner, you'll lose an hour a day just shifting gears.
If your home or apartment is very small, you can try setting up screens in the corner of the living room or, better yet, your bedroom. If possible, try to conduct business on the phone when your kids are not in the room.
- Establish your own approach to work. For some free spirits, working at home - in their pajamas, without anyone looking over their shoulder - inspires creativity. But many people find the lack of structure distracting.
Take a good look at what it is that makes you the most productive. Do you get more done when you're dressed in a business suit or a sweat suit? Does reading trade publications first thing in the morning motivate you, or are you at your best if you play with the kids until the minute your workday begins? Even if you decide to work in your nightshirt, it's a good idea to schedule regular face-to-face meetings and business lunches; otherwise, you can end up feeling isolated. Subscribing to an online service and communicating with colleagues by e-mail is another way to stay connected.
- Insist that others respect your schedule. "One of the greatest problems of working at home," says Mason, "is that people think you're not working." And when that person is your spouse, it's particularly infuriating. Tell your significant other what domestic tasks (if any) you're willing to do during the workday. For some people, throwing in a load of laundry while waiting for a fax is no big deal. Others need a complete separation between work time and personal time in order to concentrate. And be wary of friends who call just to chat during the workday. Encourage them to leave a message on your home answering machine, and if they insist on calling your office, tell them you'll have to get back to them "after work." Be as blunt as you need to be - after all, this is your career and livelihood.
Working at home? Protect yourself
If you work out of your house, you may need to either add a rider onto your existing home insurance policy or buy a separate policy altogether to safeguard your business equipment. - If your home business grosses less than $5,000 a year, add a rider that provides basic protection against fire and theft. - If your revenue exceeds $5,000, buy a separate policy that offers more comprehensive protection, such as liability, additional auto insurance or compensation for loss of data. - If you're employed by a company but plan to work out of your home, find out - before there's a problem - who pays in the event of business-related losses.
- Julie Bourland