Saturday, October 13, 2001

Home, Not Alone

About twenty years ago I decided to give up my staff job and go into business for myself.  I remember that on my first day of independence, I slept late, took a leisurely walk to the store, and a nap in the afternoon.  I did much the same on the second day.  However, things changed on the third day, when I woke up in cold sweat and realized that I was totally, completely unemployed.  I had no regular income, no systems in place to support a business, let alone the business it was to support.  Thankfully, the tide turned... though it was three years before I stopped picking up my phone every hour to make sure there was still a dial tone.

Part of that paranoia was related to the tenor of the time.  At that juncture, the business economy was just beginning to shift from a staff model to a freelance model.  Sure, there were consultants who went from company to company, but they were generally fielded by some big firm who employed legions of them.  They adhered to a certain model in their own right, and had a home office with all of the trappings. None of them had their international headquarters on a butcher-block bar on green shag carpeting at the end of the living room.

Added to my own personal lack of infrastructure was the reality that many of the tools we now take for granted were unavailable or unacceptable.   Email didn't exist.  Answering machines and voicemail were seen as evidence of someone not prosperous enough to have a receptionist or secretary.  An address not on a major street or in a downtown business center marked you as a minor leaguer at best.   And a technology called telefax was the only way to move paper short of a messenger... but no one had the machines.

Well, a lot has changed.  Between mergers, acquisitions, downsizing and telecommuting, not to mention the technology of the internet and wireless, the state of the art has been stood on its head.  No longer are the lone rangers of the business world operating against the grain.  Rather, more and more people are proud to call themselves independents, freelancers, self-employed or contract workers.  Indeed, it is the staff person who seems more and more to be an anachronism in the current economy.

Those us who have made the transition to being our own bosses have learned along the way how to function efficiently.  The good news is that we've had time to evolve the model as our businesses have grown and changed, and the world along with it.  But that's not the case for tens of thousands of workers displaced by the events of September 11.  Research analysts are looking up historical models from the computers in their kid's rooms.  Directors of marketing are recreating quarterly launch plans from an end table in their bedroom next to the TV.  Heads of sales are banging our proposals from a new laptop in between the ping-pong table and the Nintendo.   Throughout the metropolitan area, white-collar refugees are streaming to CompUSA for computer tables like Afghans through the Khyber Pass.

And so as a public service, let me pass on to those affected some tips accumulated over years of working out of a home office.  Sure, there are the purely practical matters... find a workspace you can call your own, put in an extra phone line dedicated to your business, make sure your computer and printer are up to snuff.   But there are many others that aren't so apparent on first blush, methodologies that only emerge after a few years of doing battle in your flip-flops and tee shirt.

Wherever your office is, make sure there is a door between it and the rest of your life.  Remember that great feeling your had at 5PM on a Friday when it was time to go home, and you realized that you could walk away from your desk and all the problems it held?  Well, that's impossible to achieve if every time you lay down on the couch to watch TV or sit down in the den with a book you see a mound of paperwork staring you in the face.  All the experts talk about being able to achieve a balance in your life between work and play.  And that's impossible to do if your quarterly plan is staring you in the face when Michael Jordan's first game back is on the tube.

Find the grocery list in your house and add baby carrots and no-fat pretzels to the bottom.  That's because if the second casualty in war is fidelity and the third is sobriety, in this new war the fourth is most assuredly your waistline.  At the office, when you needed a break, you took a stroll to the water cooler or the coffee machine.  You lost time, not gained calories.  But when you're working at home, the destination is more likely to be the refrigerator.  Don't be surprised if you gain a few pounds while working on that new business proposal.

Train your family that when you're in the office or on the phone that you are off limits.  TV commercials would have you believe that one of the benefits of having a home office is that your kids can come in and strike adorable poses while you're having a conference call.  It doesn't work.  Nor does having your dog bark or the guy cutting the lawn or the electronic mayhem of Final Fantasy IV in the background.  Maybe you could concentrate on your paper in college while your roommate was blasting the Stones and dancing around the room in his underwear.  But odds are, your powers of concentration have diminished somewhat over the years.

That being said, there are lots of positives to working from home, once you get the hang of it.  You can play hooky to take a hike or shoot some hoops at 2PM, knowing that you can make up the time at night.  If the forecast for the weekend is lousy, you can time shift to play a little tennis on Friday and catch up on Saturday during the monsoon.  And you can dress for comfort, taking business casual to new highs... or lows, depending on your point of view.

It's a matter of adapting to a new environment.  That process has been known to drive some to drink.   But done correctly, to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, you can work at home again.


Marc Wollin of Bedford gets lots done in his office while "Friends" is on in the other room.  His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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