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As British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell once quipped, "The first sign of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."
For those who work at home, it's the notion they can put in a full eight-hour day and handle their own daycare at the same time.
For most people, work and home are as separate as church and state or oil and water. But for people who have set up shop in a home office, life can intrude on the job environment just as easily as work can spill into home life. Take the barking dog (please!) that can be heard as background noise on a conference call. Or the client who calls at 3 a.m. and wants to talk about an idea she had.
The solution to keeping the two spheres from colliding is deceptively simple, according to the experts. They say it's just a matter of having boundaries as well as the discipline to enforce them.
On the physical level, that boundary takes the form of a doorway, and ideally, a room that is for nothing other than work. This is important for a lot of reasons, according to Janet Attard, founder of businessknowhow.com, Centereach, N.Y., a Web site for small and home-based businesses.
"It is literally a door between work and home life. You can train the family that when you're in that area that you're working and are not available,"
Having a separate, single-purpose room is also critical in the event of a tax audit, at least for those who take the home-office deduction and pay a percentage of household expenses from the business. While the IRS may have softened a bit on its interpretation of what constitutes a home office as home workers have increased, auditors want to see a space that isn't also a playroom or a guest room, for example. So tax collectors can be viewed as doing the big favor of helping taxpayers maintain those boundaries.
Home workers are also more likely to keep clients, spouses and kids happy if they set and abide by regular hours, starting and stopping at the same times. Maybe that gets built around the children's schedule. Maybe it avoids the clatter and distraction of a garbage truck that arrives promptly at 10:30 am. Or maybe it's a personal pursuit that for which the work-at-home lifestyle provides the flexibility.
But Attard and others agree it's important to set regular hours for starting and stopping work. "You have to set limits for how long you're going to work, otherwise it's very easy to keep working forever if you really like what you do," she said. In parallel, "you set guidelines with clients as to when it's okay to call and not to call."
A separate, business-only phone line is also critical. It gets answered in the business name, either by you or your most sober-sounding voicemail announcement. The point is to impart the air of a professional, not a hobbyist. And by closing that office door at night, you avoid the trap of hearing the fax machine ring at some unspeakable hour, followed by the puzzlement over who could have sent it and why.
But after more than five years of working from home as a single dad, Albuquerque, N.M.-based Robert Spiegel rejects a lot of the common wisdom about separation. "When I first started working from home, I tried to make some distinctions and felt guilty when I tried to get something done while the kids played or watched TV," said Spiegel, author of "The Shoestring Entrepreneur's Guide to the Best Home-Based Businesses."
"But it occurred to me in the middle of my guilt that humans have been raising kids while working for thousands of years -- even retail shops were part of the home at one point," Spiegel said. "It's only a little more than 100 years that we've separated the two with boundaries."
He thinks nothing of working on the living room sofa or spreading out on a kitchen counter. But he's careful when he does and puts boundaries on the clock that effectively create separate workspace. "I segregate work from home more on hours than on space, and that means getting up regularly at 3 or 4 a.m. to work before anyone else is up," Spiegel explained. He tries to reserve that time period for work that requires the greatest amount of concentration. "Then I can also spend tons of time with the kids and leave work behind."
Clearly, boundaries can be drawn physically or virtually, and the beauty of the home office arrangement is that workers are limited only by their creativity, resourcefulness and the ability to balance. That's not always easy, but done right, it can offer up the best of both worlds to clients and families, without making everyone insane.
This was first published in June 2004