The reality of home working

An increasing number of people are trading in the cubicle for home working. However, is home working really everything it is cracked up to be? I share what I have discovered after 7 years of home working.

Like many people starting a new business, we begun Headscape working from home. It was a great way to keep costs low and ensure those long hours required when starting a business were more bearable. However the real appeal of home working, was the feeling it provided more flexibility.

The dream becomes a nightmare

To begin with it felt like being set free. I could work in my pyjamas, no longer worry about day time deliveries and get to see my new born son whenever I wanted. Unfortunately, like everything, the honeymoon period eventually wore off.

It did not take long for the presence of my new born child to turn from a blessing to a curse. His constant crying made work difficult and my loud conference calls often brought the wrath of my wife because they disturbed ‘nap time’.

I also found myself craving human interaction. Although my wife and son were around, I found I could go days (or in some cases even longer) without seeing another human sole. In fact there was a period of time when I rarely left the house.

Things weren’t much better when friends and family did come to visit. They seemed unable to grasp that I was at work and I suffered from constant interruptions.

Suffering from a lack of self control

However the biggest problem with my new found freedom was that it required a lot of self control. Many people suffer from a lack motivation when they start home working. They become get distracted by day time TV or making ‘yet another cup of tea’. However, I suffered from the opposite problem.

With work so easily accessible and a new business to worry about I found myself constantly drawn back into the office. For a considerable time all I did in my life was work and sleep. It was damaging to both myself and my relationship with the family. Something had to change.

What didn’t work

I decided that what I missed was the structure of office life. I therefore decided to recreate this structure at home. I started work at 9AM and finished at 5.30PM (at least that was the theory). I even dressed for work and at the end of the business day got changed into my casual clothes.

I set rigid boundaries for friends and family too. While I was at work I was off limits and simply would not interact with others. However, I did try and overcome my feels of isolation by experimenting with a plethora of communication tools. My aim was to enable better communication with other members of Headscape.

However ultimately all of these techniques failed. They failed to acknowledge the very nature of home working and left me with the worst aspects of both home and office.

I became increasingly irritable with family, annoyed by the constant interruptions created by the comms tools I had put in place, and trapped by the rigid routine of the 9 to 5.

The secret to home working

At this point you probably suspect I return to office life. However, that is not the case. In fact where most of Headscape now work in an office, I am one of the few hold outs who refuse to give up home working. I love it. It just took me a while to work out how to make it work.

The secret to home working is finding a balance. You need to put boundaries in place that ensure you strike the right work/home balance. However you must also ensure those ‘rules’ are not so restrictive they suck the pleasure out of home working.

Take for example working hours. I required boundaries. On one hand I needed to limit the hours I worked. However, I also had to overcome the guilt I felt when I believed I wasn’t working hard enough.

The answer wasn’t working 9AM to 5PM. This simply imposed an office model on a home environment. Rather I started tracking my time. Each day I work an 8 hour day. However rarely is that in normal business hours.

I tend to start around 9ish, but as anybody who follows me on Twitter knows I often take a nap in the afternoon. This suits my body clock and takes full advantage of my home working environment.

I also feel free to stop when friends or family come around. I often go for coffee or even see a movie with my wife. I then make up the time in evenings or weekends. Because I track the time, I do not need to feel guilty about these distractions.

I know what you are thinking- what if one of my colleagues needs something from me when I am out? Well, I always ensure I am instantly contactable. I have my iphone and will always answer it even if that means walking out of the movie. Also, I normally carry my laptop and 3G modem so I can act on things immediately if they are urgent.

Of course, I am not naive. If you work in customer support or as part of a closely knit team then this would not be possible. However if you do, then home working is probably not ideal anyway.

I think that is the problem with a lot of home working articles. They fail to take into account the huge variety of factors that can affect how you work from home. It is impossible to tell anybody how they should work from home because…

  • We all have different characters
  • We all have different job requirements
  • We all work in different home working environments

That said, I do think there is at least some advice I can give in regards to working environment.

Your working environment

When I first started home working we converted our dining room into an office. I did at least get one thing right. I realised the importance of having a dedicated working environment. You cannot work from your kitchen table when the room is also being used by the family. It just doesn’t work.

However, what I got wrong was the room I picked. Our dinning room was right in the middle of our house, between the kitchen and living room. Only a partition wall divided it from the living room and so I could hear everything happening in the house and vice versa.

Now my office is a converted garage adjoining the house. Its only link is through a heavy fire door and utility room. It is essentially a separate area exclusively for my work.

My home office

Pick your working environment carefully. Ensure you have a room away from the rest of the house. It will make a world of difference. Also, spend time and money to ensure it is as nice a place to work as possible. Lots of daylight is the key for me. That and nice furniture. If you don’t make your home office a nice place to work, it will become a prison you learn to hate.

Of course, no matter how nice your home office it will eventually drive you crazy. When you work and live in one place, you eventually feel the need to get out. That is where I am grateful we have a company office too. I have found myself really enjoying the change of environment and the opportunity to speak to real live human beings!

If you don’t have an office, then try working from a coffee shop or even break free from the office model entirely.

Beyond the office

While most companies are considering allowing their employees to home work I am beginning to experiment with leaving the idea of an office behind entirely.

The realisation that there is no need for me to be constrained by any kind of office first struck me when reading ‘The 4 Hour Work Week‘. Although there is a lot in that book I disagree with, I do think it gets one thing right – most of the work we do does not need to be constrained to a particular location.

Take for example this post. I am currently flying at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic on my way to SXSW. I can still blog. In fact Dave and Craig (two of our developers at Headscape) are sitting in front of me installing .net on a mac and Marcus is sitting beside me building a wireframe. As long as we have a computer, we can work anywhere.

This is even easier when I am on the ground! For £15 per month I have a 3G modem that allows me web access too. Combined with my iphone and laptop, I have a complete mobile office. I could work from anywhere.

Of course this approach is not without its challenges. My modem may give me web access in the UK, but using it abroad is expensive. That said, there are a growing number of wifi spots internationally so it is a problem that is diminishing.

As with home working the more significant barrier is a mental one. In the same way I had problems working out how best to work from home, I am also having problems knowing the best approach while travelling.

Over the summer I did an experiment in ‘road’ working when I went on holiday to the Highlands of Scotland with the family. I took a week’s holiday and decided to work for a week too, as an experiment. I have to say it didn’t go well. The temptations of the great outdoors and family fun was just too great. I did my weeks work but only just and it was not a pleasurable experience.

View from my window in Oban at Sunset

That said, I know of others who have got it working for them. I just need to find the right way for me. Perhaps I should get up early but stop after lunch. Perhaps I should take a long siesta in the middle of the day and work later into the evening. The possibilities are endless and one of them will strike the right balance between working and living the life I want to live.

What I am convinced of is that mobile computing has opened up limitless opportunities to work where we want and how we want. All that is holding us back is the status quo and outdated ideologies.

If you recognise that the mobile web is important and you need help deciding on a strategy, then book a mobile consultancy clinic.

Book a consultancy clinic or contact Rob about a more in-depth review.

  • Mark Jones

    I find it hard to get past this stage:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk_IEk2kAwc

  • http://www.semibad.com Andi Farr

    I left my nice secure job at Christmas and have been working from home since then. Despite not yet having any children to contend with, I found the first month incredibly difficult for a lot of the reasons written here – especially that people have a real difficulty getting their heads around the fact that being at home doesn’t mean you’re not working! I’ve now got myself into a much nicer rhythm, although I think I’m probably still in the early stages (working 18 hour days without human contact is still a reality for me).
    I’m also glad that you mentioned the ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality of most home-working articles. I too spent several weeks getting dressed for work and trying to stick to an office routine, as suggested elsewhere, and found it absolutely pointless.
    Anyway, thanks for a very thoughtful (and helpful) article. Much appreciated!

  • Clare

    I have been home working since 1998 when I moved 150 miles away from my office, went in to resign and was told to stay but work from home.
    Those early days were fraught with difficulties, including a dial up modem and no general understanding from colleagues of WFH. I had to work twice as hard to prove I wasn’t slacking, even taking the phone to the loo to be sure I was always contactable.
    Now of course, things have changed. Some organisations positively push home working although others are still wary of it.
    Generally, I would say, as Paul outlines, work the hours to a timetable that suits, always be available where possible by phone, stay in touch with colleagues and shut yourself away in a home office.
    In addition, I think a trip into the office every now and then holding other forms of face to face meetings sometimes keeps you sane ….

  • http://www.naturalranks.co.uk Chris

    Great advice Paul. Several months too late for me though!
    After a few months of home-working I found I got easily distracted and became less productive. I tried imposing time limits and dress codes but nothing seemed to work.
    In the end I went and rented a desk in a nearby Serviced Office. For about £40 a week I can work from there whenever I want, or I can choose to work from a coffee shop or from home.
    This set-up is much better for me as working from home is more of a perk than the norm, meaning that I respect the boundaries and can work fairly productively; regardless of distractions.
    I like the idea of time tracking too. I’ll look into that.

  • John

    When I started my business I worked from home, like Paul. I too had a young family. I found the whole experience liberating. I liked being at home and sharing lunch with my youngest and mowing the lawn when I was stuck for inspiration rather than idly surfing yet another website pretending I was having a break from photoshop or dreamweaver.
    I agree that work on tap means you work more and that friends and family don’t always get it. My Dad always visits me Mon – Fri which effectively means at least a day off work when he comes to down.
    Where am I now? Sadly I’m “in the office” and not at home. Space meant that I gave my office to my eldest as a bedroom. On the plus side I now actually go out to work and sometimes meet people on the way. I think the social side of home working is where the problems can happen. I would often see no one (apart from my family) for weeks. I’m ok with that, but I know some people would go mad if they didn’t have a chance to chat with someone else.
    I disagree about the distractions, Paul. You say the family distracted you but then suggest working in a coffee shop or as you are on a plane. I think the problem is that the family is a pretty compelling distraction whereas elsewhere you can train yourself to ignore the outside world. Ignoring your family doesn’t really make for good family relations.
    I am able to work on the kitchen table while the world goes on around me. I can’t do everthing there, but most things.
    Downside has to be that my children, having grown up with me working from their home, often think that’s all I do. In a way it was/is but their view has been distorted by the fact that they actually see Dad at work. I never saw my Dad at work – where he went to do what he did was always a fantastic mystery I never quite knew.
    Anyway, nice post. Interesting as I totally agree one size does not fit all. I’ve been doing this for over nine years now and I’ve no regrets.

  • http://www.liptrot.org Adam Liptrot

    One of the benefits of home-working should be to choose your own hours, but that ignores a couple of points. For example, if your partner/spouse works too, how happy are they going to be when you have to work until 8 or 9pm because you had a kip in the afternoon? Similarly getting up at even 6am to start early can be unpopular if they don’t have to wake until 7.30. I’ve been home-working for a few years now and I still find it tough to balance everything.

  • http://www.startworkfromhomenow.com/ Start Work From Home

    I know what it is like to be fed up working for someone else. You spend 8 or more hours a day making someone Else’s business successful and probably don’t get the credit or pay that you deserve. The best way to start making the transition is to set goals and have a thorough plan. Do not quit your job in the hopes that you will have immediate success. More often than not, it is not the case.

  • Steve D

    I agree with the comments there Paul, similarly to an earlier podcast in which you said that sometimes you have a really good day creatively and should work all the hours god sends, wheras if you are having a bad one it’s probably best to nip it in the bud.
    I work form home for half of the week, and I may well be enjoying my honeymoon period, but the benefits for me are huge. In an open plan office I often get distracted – people come up and ask me for advice on design and the web. I enjoy this role, but I always end up losing track of what I am doing because of this.
    What I can offer my clients when working from home is complete dedication to the job. I rarely get distracted, and can focus on the problem 100%. The environment in turn allows me to work when the mood strikes. If I think of something at 7pm, chances are I can quickly focus for a few moments to get my thoughts/designs/code down. I can then happily move off and play Fallout or whatever I fancy. Likewise, if it’s not happening at 2pm I can go for a walk unlike in the office.
    I know this approach isn’t for everyone, and who knows it might not be for me long term, but the freedom that is afforded working from home in my case seems to stimulate creativity more than an open plan office. I do completely agree with buying a nice desk and chair to make the best possible environment as it is as much an investment as you computer.

  • http://kaledavis.com Kale

    Paul, how do you track your time? I have been trying different ways (using online apps and old-fashion paper/pen), but haven’t found something that really fits yet. Any suggestions? Thanks and great write-up. One thing that I am planning on doing in the future is building a small office in the back that would be seperate from our home. I think it will be a fun project and it will create the best of both worlds for me.

  • Steve D

    @Kale have you tried iBiz? I find it….. OK (I have it on trial) I was quite impressed with the time tracking app.

  • http://john.onolan.org JohnONolan

    Great post Paul, I’ve now been working from home for a month and a half and I’ve encountered a lot of the problems which you’ve mentioned here. The biggest of all of them for me is the “working 18 hour days” one – the problem is that when it gets to 10pm… I don’t WANT to stop. I feel the urge to work on a personal project or WordPress theme, so where does that leave me? Right back here in my home office again.
    Like pretty much everyone has said, I guess it just takes time to find a balance – but I also think people probably work really long hours to start off with because they’re desperate to get themselves established and make sure that they’re going to have enough work to cover all their bills for the first couple of months.

  • http://tomuse.org thismat

    I work a normal 8-5 job as a programmer, then I do freelance web design on the side, I actually do use the kitchen table and it has worked alright for now.
    I find that I am a heap more productive at home with low lighting in comfortable clothes, than I am in the cube farm.

  • http://www.computing.dundee.ac.uk/acstaff/gcoleman Graeme

    Great post.
    My job means that I can work from home should I choose to, but on the odd occasions that I have, I simply cannot focus in the same way as I do in an office environment, particularly if the work I’m doing requires a lot of report writing, in which case I normally switch off and find myself on Facebook.
    I’m staying with the folks just now, which means my “office” is effectively either the kitchen or sitting on my bed, neither of which are particularly comfortable. While writing up my PhD, I even tried working in different rooms of the house (except the smallest one, obviously…), but I ended up dragging myself back into uni.
    When I have been able to work at home, it has usually been on web design projects, in which case I enter my own wee world where nothing else matters – I’m completely focussed on my text editor. Bizarrely, I’m also able to work at home at night after a full day’s work in the office if a deadline is looming, or if I don’t feel the day has been productive enough.
    And, of course, there’s no TV or a fridge full of (my own) food at work…

  • http://www.duckonwater.co.uk Duncan Michael-MacGregor

    As always Paul, you have hit the nail on the head!
    Even after nearly 2 years im still finding a balance with working from home.
    Some times you have to take a step back or you end up loosing that freedom that it should give you because your working 80hr weeks! not good!
    The biggest thing is making sure you feel that your on track with projects and that you have done a good days work.
    That way you don’t end up nipping back to do ‘a few bits’ then end up finishing work at 4:00am!
    Also learning to accept that you will have ‘off’ days where you don’t achieve what you wanted and that you shouldn’t feeling guilty about them.
    After all how many people can say that they worked 100% productively all the time when they were in an office?

  • frankie

    Excellent discussion and analysis of this new option that technology brings. It is like cell phone etiquette. Danny Meyer of NYC restaurant fame (Gramercy Tavery, Union Square Cafe, etc) wrote years ago in the now defunct,The New York Observer,concerning the opportunities and problems technology brings. His point was that we had not developed rules of etiquette concerning cell phone use.
    We don’t have the cultural/social structures/habits that would define and support your choice. Your story and analysis are exactly what we need to help people understand how to make this particular opportunity work for them. It is definately not “a no brainer”. Thanks,f.

  • http://www.armitage-online.co.uk Andrew

    Reading this post has made me think about all the things I know I could (or even should) be doing differently.
    The first part of your article really struck a chord – I’ve been working from home for 3 years now and still haven’t got the balance quite right. Relationships become harder and there is no release from work.
    I’m thinking about getting an office right now – but I know thats not going to be a solution to the seemingly endless hours I work. It could even make things worse. So a better work/life management must be the answer (although more human interaction would be welcome!).
    I like the idea of tracking the time over the week – we got a dog 6 months ago and I guess like a child – this can be a distraction. But a walk over lunchtime does break up my day and I keep telling myself not to feel guilty about being out of the office. I have a phone, can answer and if need be call the person back within half an hour. I get back to the office with a clear head – and find I have a much more productive afternoon.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts – its nice to see how others approach this.

  • http://www.youknowwhodesign.com Sarah ‘No Last Name’

    I started my business at home in my parents spare room, this quickly became ridiculous as although it was great at keeping overheads low, you couldn’t very well invite a client back for a meeting, I was only 18 at the time though.
    I then decided to get an office, which I had for 4 years – this was great, a perfect place to entertain clients and the perfect working model however, as it was a communal office space (we had our own office but the hallways and exterior etc) when they changed the decor to a throwback from the 80′s, it didn’t exactly suit “web designer” and it coincided with me buying my house so I thought, why not move it back there. I have a dedicated office, the largest room in the house infact and I agree, if you’re going to work at home, it needs to be your own space.
    The only downside is everything is so readily accessible your clients may not understand that if you send an email at 9pm at night, it doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea to call you at that time.
    I have also always been the opposite to the norm, I can put my hand on my heart and say I’ve never put the TV on during the day, nor any other normal distractions, I’d say I’m too disciplined for my own good and should perhaps use your idea of clocking up 8 hours a day and not feeling guilty for the pattern in which I use those 8.
    Great post Paul, hope you’re having a fab time.

  • http://www.phoresia.org lawless

    I found the same issues you mentioned working from home. Eventually I settled on a task-oriented schedule where I would set tasks to be accomplished for the day. Usually I would bust ass and finish up 8 hours worth of work in 4-6 hours and shorten my workday. I wasn’t “milking the clock” so much and focused on getting work done knowing that when it was done it was time to play with the kids or go to the beach.

  • http://www.concisecontent.co.uk/ Helen Baker

    Thanks for another great article, Paul. I became freelance last year, when I moved from the UK to Spain, and also began to work from home. I’m pretty self disciplined about it, and am usually happy with my own company, but I began to miss that human interaction too.
    However, I think I’ve found a good balance. I work from home three days a week and them work from the office of a web agency here for the other two days a week.
    It has a number of benefits, including that I get to meet some people, I can practise my Spanish, there’s a dog in the office, plus I get to eat something interesting for lunch (rather than my own boring concoctions).

  • http://www.gradualism.co.uk Emily Heath

    Great post Paul and interesting comments too – I really appreciate the other views that your articles tend to generate. I will be even happier when you switch to WordPress and install the ‘subscribe to comments’ plugin ;)
    I have been working from home full-time for 1.5 years (part-time for 5 yr) and lately I’ve been forgetting to appreciate the freedom it gives me – thanks Paul for reminding me to enjoy how it fits my lifestyle. On the whole I’m incredibly motivated, so if anything I need to make sure I remember to fit life in around my work. But even so, I had been starting to find myself feeling guilty for starting work at 11am after doing some yoga practice or going out in the afternoon to run errands – but the fact is at the end of the day I will put in the hours I need to and am always easily contactable by clients.
    What has really helped me manage my flexible work schedule is http://www.bubbletimer.com which is based on David Seah’s paper based Emergent Task Timer. This online version tallys up your work time as you go and tracks sub-totals for the individual tasks that make up your day so you can quickly see how you are making progress and when its time to clock off.

  • http://www.gingerbeardman.com Matt Sephton

    My experience was exactly the same as Paul’s up to the point where he stayed at home and imposed some boundaries upon himself. In my case, I simply moved to a shared office space not far – but just far enough – from my house in London.
    This setup gives me the things I missed most about working from an office, I am still as free to do what I want other than work and whilst it obviously costs per month, it doesn’t cost too much. I really enjoy a short commute by overground train, I get to socialise and talk with people during the day (this was the most important thing for me), I keep more regular hours (though not a 9-5) and I still do great work. Another interesting thing for me is that I no longer have a computer at home – my iPhone is enough – and I find I now do more with my evenings, too.
    Thanks for all the other comments and suggestions, they were an interesting read.

  • Shaz

    Like most of you, I have been struggling with working from home for a few years now.
    I have a short attention span and am easily distracted, which for me meant working absurdly long hours to compensate. And still I felt guilty. It got a bit better, but to be honest, I’m not there yet.
    Great article, Paul. I’ll give some of your suggestions a try.
    I also liked @lawless’ task-based approach. Might give me an incentive to stay focused.
    Failing that, I’ll follow @Andrew’s example and get a dog…
    Thanks, Paul!

  • http://richclarkdesign.com Rich Clark

    Paul, I’d be interested to hear how this ties in with your role as Creative Director at Headscape, how do you get around working with designers and developers over the phone or IM. I find that it can be quite difficult for me to get my point across (or vice versa) if it isn’t face to face.
    I also find it much easier to talk things through when we can all sketch ideas out and have something to huddle around and discuss.
    Cheers
    Rich
    PS – Come on Paul, you’re a brit, surely it’s going to see a ‘Film’ not a ‘Movie’!

  • http://blog.locusmeus.com Els

    Good article, and good to see you can get away from the standard list of ‘what should be good for everybody’. However, you’re still saying “You cannot work from your kitchen table when the room is also being used by the family.”. This is also something that doesn’t need to be true for everybody :-)
    When I started working for myself, I did so out of a separate room. This worked okay, but after a year or two, I moved my office into the living room, and although this wouldn’t be good for most people for all the reasons you explained, it is for me.
    My motivation was actually that the other people (two kids, then aged 6 and 7) were in the same room. When I was in a separate room, anything they needed me for, had me get up and walk to the living room. Now I only have to turn my head. (and having me in the same room has the side effect of them behaving better!)
    Also, during winter, I now have to heat up only one room, while the room I was in before, never really got warm.
    Distraction? I have no problem concentrating on code while Super Mario Kart is being played on my left, and the cheats are found on Mariowiki on my right. Phone conferences? I don’t do those, and on the rare occasions that I do need to phone with a client, I tell kids to be quiet or go to their own rooms. Need to concentrate more than usual on a certain task? There’s quiet school hours and late nights. Really, for me this is the best solution – we all live in the living room, including me when working.

  • http://boagworld.com Paul Boag

    @Els – You are totally right! I should not imply that working from a kitchen table is ALWAYS wrong. However, I suspect in the vast majority of cases it is.

  • http://blog.locusmeus.com Els

    @Paul, Yup, agreed, my suspicion too :-)
    (and I would even suspect any table being better than the kitchen table, but who knows, some kitchen tables might be large, clean, empty…)

  • http://ebay-success-kit.weebly.com/ eBay Guy

    Distractions are definitely killers for any home business. It’s so easy to get distracted with kids, Televisions and even being on the computer in the first place, you will find yourself way out of what you were supposed to be doing.
    That’s why I create lists of things I need to get done and set time frames on them. Also say “I will write 3 articles or blog posts a day” and stick to it.

  • http://www.minnowwebdesign.com Paul

    Having the home “office” separated from the rest of the house for me is a MUST. We have a sun room that I love to be in and I’ve tried working from there but it is right next to all of the activity in the house. I’ve had to move to a room down in the basement with no view. But also no distractions.
    Thanks for the post.

  • http://www.lifestyleincomeretirement.com/ Home business opportunities

    Wow, thanks for sharing your experience with us Paul.
    I used to face the same problem too. I find that I can’t seem to stop myself from continuing to do work day and night.
    Look forward to read more good stuff from you.

  • Chris

    I really enjoyed the working from home section of this podcast
    I struggled working from home, so your insights into what has/hasn’t worked for you was all good info
    Cheers! – first time listener

  • jw

    @Paul,
    When I first read this post, I also wanted to quantify how much time I spent on things. I started looking around and have been using this free gadget on IGoogle from http://www.tsheets.com/ I am not paying for any services from them and it seems to track enough info for me thus far. Similar to a time card, I clock in and out of categories I create and it allows me to track the following: Date, Day, In, Out, Hours, Day Total, Week Total, Job Code, Location (ISP), and Notes. Whether you use IGoogle or not, I still think you can do the same on the site. Not sure but thought maybe you might like it also for yourself and maybe your team since it allows for multiple accounts.
    @Paul … Looks like they have an IPhone app: http://blog.tsheets.com/iphone_touch_time
    jw

  • http://www.replicon.com/time-bill Time Billing Software

    Working from home is always fun, but the thing is we need to keep track of everything, especially time tracking. I am currently using Replicon Time Clock for tracking my time and work.

  • http://www.replicon.com/time-bill Time Billing Software

    Working from home is always fun, but the thing is we need to keep track of everything, especially time tracking. I am currently using Replicon Time Clock for tracking my time and work.

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