For eight years now, I’ve been working from home, sitting in front of a computer all day long. Telecommuting is an option that is increasingly common, especially in certain professions, and certainly represents a step toward reconciling professional and family obligations, perhaps especially for women.
In my case, as the mother of a large family, being able to work from home was a breath of fresh air after many years — and a few bouts of depression — of fighting every day to keep the house in a decent state, fulfill my work obligations, and all the while, raise my children.
I know what it’s like to rush out of the house without breakfast, and to be apologizing day after day for arriving late to pick up the kids from school.
The option of working from home is great and it should become more common. Mom is home when there’s a child with a fever or when it’s time for homework. There’s less need for after-hours school programs and a greater change that you won’t be constantly running, trying to make it to everything.
Nevertheless, while it is a valuable option for professionals in many situations, it also has its challenges.
At a psychological level, there can be loneliness and isolation, the feeling of “never clocking out” and even one’s self-esteem can take a hit, which affects the whole family’s health. Children often don’t understand that even though Mom’s at home, she’s actually at work, meaning she is not available at every moment. Their needs can add a pressure to the home office environment that becomes difficult to endure.
After these years of experience telecommuting, I’ve discovered some tips for those who might be considering this option, first of which is learning about the pros and cons — especially how this work situation will affect your relationship with your spouse if you’re married.
1. You’re still not Superwoman. Flexibility has a limit. It’s important to get things clear with your family from the start. You’re working, even though you’re home. This means that, for example, your sister can’t drop in for a surprise coffee date and you can’t take your mom shopping at any hour of the day.
It also means that during your work time, you won’t and can’t be cleaning the house or overseeing homework. Just like any other professional, you have to focus on your job. You’re the first one that has to be realistic with your schedule. Don’t presume that you’ll get all the housework done now that you’re working from home. You might need a house cleaning service just as much as your neighbor who goes into the office.
2. Find a spot in your house where you can establish your office, separate from the buzz of the household and with a door that locks.
Your office supplies are just that — office supplies, not a spare computer or printer for the 6th-grade science project. Establish boundaries so that your children are aware that your documents and materials are for your job, and aren’t available for their use.
3. Establish a schedule. Respect it and make sure it’s respected by others. This is the hardest tip of all because not having the chance to walk out of the office and commute home means that it’s harder to “disconnect.” Your work will invade everything if you let it. Being in your house doesn’t mean 24-hour availability for your boss or your business. If you’re sick or on maternity leave, don’t start working. When you’ve done what you need to do, shut off the computer and cell phone.
At the same time, the kids have to realize that they can’t count on you during your working hours. One of the biggest battles with my kids is getting them to understand that when I have my office door shut, that means they aren’t to come in (unless there’s an emergency).
One thing that’s helping in my family is that we set a schedule together, and we all are committed to trying to respect it. This helped them see that if I have to take time away from my work to attend to their needs (if that’s even possible on a given day) then I have to make up that time afterward. At the same time, if I work overtime, then I owe them that time back.
Making a scheduling pact such as this helps you to not work endless hours and it helps the kids to understand that if you can’t pay immediate attention to their every request, it is not because you don’t want to or because their problems aren’t important for you, but simply that they’ve approached you in the wrong moment. Your family needs quality time. If you’re working from home, it’s probably at least in part because you believe your family is more important than your work. Don’t forget that.
4. Don’t work in your pajamas. This might seem silly but it will help your attitude about yourself and others if you take time to have breakfast and get ready for work — do your hair and makeup and get dressed. Even wear heels if it helps! You still need time for you. That means eating well and exercising. If the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night is check your email and your cell, then you have a problem.
5. Commit to activities that will force you out of the house. One of the most overwhelming experiences of telecommuting is the feeling that not only do you never clock out, but you also never interact with the outside world. For vacations, try to go to a different city. Take some time each week for a coffee date with somebody. Go shopping (at least grocery shopping). Take a walk. If it’s possible, join a gym or some other group activity. Don’t get used to being shut in.
6. Avoid complete silence. Turn on some music or listen to a podcast. This will help you to avoid feeling isolated.
7. Realize that this work arrangement doesn’t have to be permanent. Working from home can be a temporary set-up. Perhaps you want to telecommute now because of your family situation. That doesn’t mean you’ll have to do it forever. Knowing that later on you can look for a different job, or renegotiate this one can also be a way to keep yourself from getting stuck in a professional rut.
[Translated and adapted from the original Spanish]