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Feature Profile published in the Rhode Island Parents’ Paper

Working at working from home

Instead of sitting down at my computer to begin writing this article at a brisk, energetic, efficient and focused 9:00am this morning I flopped down at a decidedly harried and fatigued 1:45pm, only to have what little concentration I could muster shattered by the yells of my 2-1/2 year-old daughter fighting her afternoon nap in combination with the moans of my five-month-old daughter waking up from her all-too-short late-morning nap. Such is the way things go when you’re a parent, and you work from your home.

“Working from home can be marvelous or monstrous.”

Working from home can be marvelous or monstrous depending on any number of factors: your home, your line of work, your personality, your family, your ability to concentrate, your ability to either meet or make deadlines, your ability to change gears constantly, your ... Well, for quick reference I shaped this list for you to use to quickly assess whether you could work at home -- or whether you’d even want to. It’s certainly not right for everyone. To get as broad a perspective as I could on the subject of working from home I talked to a large selection of Rhode Island parents -- among them a video producer & writer (myself, a mother of 2, and why not), another writer -- a mother of a 20-month-old, a couple with three children ranging in age from 2-16 who jointly sell Shaklee products from their home, a father of an 8-year old who sells life insurance, a mother of three under 9 years of age who not only runs a daycare center at home but also supervises a party plan from home, a mother of 3 who used to do piece work from home, a mother of a 2-year old who makes wedding and party cakes in her home kitchen and is expecting her second child, a mother of one teenaged son who designs and builds costumes, and finally a father of two toddlers who designs and makes jewelery at home. I also talked with a weaver, a dressmaker, and a young man who stuffs envelopes.

At present, according to statistics from the RI Department of Employment and Training there are approximately 32,300) self-employed people in Rhode Island as of April this year. Joyce Dorsey, Principal Research Technician, did emphasize that this figure was “ball-park” and that it was impossible to determine how many of these self-employed people actually work from home. But it’s a useful statistic anyway because from it you can easily see that the figure is growing. In April of 1980 a documented 26,300 were self-employed, and in 1985 it was 31,000.

“Why do people want, or need, to work from home?”

Why do people want, or need, to work from home? The reasons for working from home are many and varied but the one I heard most frequently was: “I like to have control of my time.” Almost everyone I talked to said they wanted this control in order to spend as much of that time as possible with their families. And the second most-voiced reason was the desire for flexibility. A lot of work is suited to the home environment and can be readily performed from there.

Certain technology has made this even easier and more acceptable -- the emergence of computers, modems, fax machines, and the internet for instance. Some work, however, cannot legally be performed at home. The state of Rhode Island has outlawed certain of this homework. Bruce Butterfield published an article recently entitled: “For many at home, ‘helping out’ means piece work.” In it he says: “They call it homework, jobs people take into their kitchens and living rooms to complete nights and weekends -- often with family and children. It has been prohitibted in Rhode Island, the center of the costume jewlery industry in America, since 1936 because of rampant wage and child labor violations.” Two industries in particular spring to mind -- the jewelery industry and the lace industry, both of which are very active in this state. I spoke with Jackie Cugini of the RI Labor Department who specified why work in these two industries, and others, is not allowed: “It’s often unsafe, young children are all too often involved, it’s hard to ensure that the minimum wage and overtime is paid, and it’s too hard to control.” Paula Berman, a mother of three used to do piece work putting incense sticks in plastic bags and then into boxes. She confirms what Cugini says: “I’d have been very hard pressed to make the minimum wage. I’d have had to do it eight hours a day every day, and then I don’t think I’d have made it.” She says the work would be “sprawled all over the living room. The fumes were awful, and the dust would get everywhere.” Berman did this home piece work for 4 months for the extra money, but when she became pregnant with her now 4-year- old she stopped. She feared the health risks of “inhaling incense all day long.” It’s important when examining the pro’s and con’s of working from home to differentiate between parents who work from home without the presence of their children -- either they’re in daycare or they’re of school age, and parents who work with their children in the house. The latter may or may not have the assistance of a spouse or babysitter on hand to deal with the children. The presence of the children and the age of the children adds some interesting challenges, or benefits, to working from home. Berman, for instance, who now writes for a newspaper, says that she finds the frustration of having the kids underfoot seems to translate into a kind of creative energy, She finds she works better and faster.


“It’s a two sided-sword sometimes.”

When I asked Paul Hoyt about the pro’s and con’s of running the Shaklee business from his Portsmouth home he answered very succinctly: “It’s a two-sided sword sometimes. I often ask myself, where did the last three days go? And I realise I’ve spent them playing with Katie, our two-year-old.” Hoyt works at home alongside his wife Kathy, because he wants to be around to see Katie grow up, yet he admits there’s always that temptation to “goof-off” and play with her.

Let’s examine both sides of the sword. First, the bright side -- the pro’s of working from home, then the con’s, and finally, what it takes to work from home, and how to do it. You will see, however, that for each pro more often than not there’s a con attached at its waist.

First and foremost you are definitely your own boss. You create your own flexible schedule and so you are free to do whatever you want with your time -- your work, hug a child, schedule business meetings to fit in with your child’s naps, be there when your child needs soothing, nurse a baby, do laundry (god forbid!), and work before or after “office hours.” Julian Twardzik, a father who sells life insurance for John Hancock from his Newport home says: “I can be playing with my 8-year-old daughter on the street at 2:30 and then meeting with a client at 7:00 -- my hours are very unorthodox.” You can even do some kind of volunteer work in your “free” time. I work with abused and neglected children. This means that I have to appear in court sometimes, spend time on the phone, and visit the child or the parents of the child in question. Because I work from home I can do these things more easily than if I worked in a more structured office setting.

“I can be playing with my daughter at 2:30 and meeting a client at 7:00.”

Because you’re in control of your own time you may decide to take an impulsive day off, and you don’t have to check with anyone. You create your own working environment. My office is set up in what used to be the “sun-room.” This is off the living room and as the name suggests it gets a lot of light and sun. The space is a pleasure to work in after years working in what I call “hermetically sealed” multi-storey office buildings, all of which seem to suffer from the “sick air” syndrome. Michael Ferrazzoli creates his custom designed gold jewelery in a workshop behind his North Kingstown home where his jewelery designer wife (who is expecting their third child), his 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son are able to visit any time of the day, as long as they keep their hands off the valuables. “I spend a lot of time with my kids,” says Ferrazzoli, “but they know that when I’m in my workshop I’m working and they can’t disturb me. If I’m setting small diamonds I can’t have a child needing attention. I ask my wife to take them for an hour, and then I’m finished. That’s all it takes.” Julie Chapin works in the kitchen of her North Kingstown home, designing, baking and decorating upwards of 200-person wedding and party cakes. Here she can keep an eye on her two-year-old son when he’s not in daycare, although she admits that it’s not satisfactory. “It’s detailed and messy work. Having a child underfoot can be very frustrating.”

As your own boss you may be able to set your own deadlines. Hoyt sits down with his co-worker wife Kathy at the beginning of each month and decides on the goals and deadlines they want to set for that month selling Shaklee products. And if you can’t actually set your own deadlines then you can at least structure how you’re going to meet deadlines that are set for you.


“My office is set up in what used to be the sun-room.”

You make your own rules. Do I or don’t I want to work today? Do I or don’t I reply to that phone call? Do I or don’t I go after that project? if you’re not in an office, or working for someone else, you don’t have to deal with those elusive, time-consuming and all-pervasive “office politics.” Not only that but you don’t have to deal with office administration -- filling in forms and such like. Furthermore, people I talked to who used to work in an office or other structured environment find that they actually get far more “real” work done at home. As Ferrazzoli says, “I use my time much more efficiently at home.” A variety of activities fill your days -- both work and family related, so you’re rarely bored, if ever. You can work in the morning and go to the zoo in the afternoon. And, if you so choose, you can structure your day to work in one concentrated slug, or in fits and spurts as I seem to. Amazingly, the latter can sometimes be both refreshing and stimulating.

“Office clothes” can be a thing of the past, unless you like getting up in the morning and donning your three-piece suit just to set the mood. Most people I talked to said they often work all day in comfortable jeans and sneakers. And no client is going to see what I’m wearing as long as I am businesslike on the phone. The office clothes become fun to wear because you do it infrequently such as when you have to meet a client. You can set the limits, or lack of same, on your income. You can choose to work very hard and earn a lot, or work just a little, which may also mean that you earn just a little. Sanni Connery who runs a daycare center in her Tiverton home also supervises a home party plan. But for her the latter is “play money. If I don”t want to do the party plan I don’t. The daycare is my main source of income.” You meet a wide variety of people who are not in your line of work. For Instance, I’ve met some very interesting people at the supermarket, at a cafe, a clothing store, playgroups, toy stores, the Children’s Museum, and at the playground. Of course having children with you lends credibility to this sort of interaction -- after all, you’re not just “picking up” people you meet.

“ 'Office clothes' can be a thing of the past”

I hardly ever get bored with my work, even if individual projects are boring. Projects don’t often last a long time, and when they end I’m on to something else, and dealing with a new set of people. A day’s work can be a mixture of working on specific projects, networking, searching out future work, reading work-related periodicals, reading baby magazines, or simply staying in touch with friends and colleagues. As a writer I find my work occupies a great deal of my waking day. I think and mentally organize most of the time so that when I do get to the computer it’s a relatively easy exercise to do the actual writing. And finally, there’s no commute to work! Not only does this eliminate stress, it’s more efficient.

Well, as I said before, for almost every pro there is a con. Working from home is not for everyone. Costume Designer Mirjana Mladinov says quite emphatically: “I hate it -- working from home! Because you don’t work in an office people are inclined to dismiss what you do. In fact they often don’t take you or your work at all seriously. And, friends and neighbors think that because you’re home you’re always available for social interaction. People tend to drop in unannounced while you’re working but don’t think to leave to let you work. Twardzik says of his neighbors: “They can’t figure out what I do -- they know I work but they’re not sure at what because I’m around during the day. They’re so programmed into the 9-5 mentality...” And Connery adds: “My son will say, ‘Mom, you’re home all day, why can’t you come and help out at school?’ And I have to say, ‘Yes I’m home but I’m working.’ Some of the parents even say the same, and I have to say, ‘Yes I’m at home, but I’m working.’ It’s hard.” Furthermore, if you have out-of-town guests it’s very difficult to entertain them during their stay. When you’re working away from an office or similar work setting you are sometimes out of your business loop. It’s harder to stay informed about what’s going on in your field. There’s no coffee-room chat to keep you up to date on changes and advances in your field. It becomes necessary to spend a lot of time networking and reading related magazines and journals to keep yourself informed. This, of course, is time for which no-one pays you.


“Working from home is not for everyone”

If social interaction and stimulation with your peers is something you value then working from home can leave you feeling somewhat isolated. Connery admits she does feel confined at times. Others I talked to confessed to feeling cut-off. I even know some who start climbing the walls after seven or more hours in the company of people under the age of 3.

You may not meet many people through your work, or people with whom you have work in common. As Hoyt said: “I meet Kathy and Kathy meets me. That can be it for our day.” In their line of work Hoyt meets very few men. He has to compensate for this in other ways and playing basketball once a week is one of those ways. Because you’re home there’s always the temptation to do the laundry, straighten up, put dishes in the dishwasher and go grocery shopping before you sit down to do your work. Your work can sometimes get short shrift.

Focusing on your work can be a supreme effort of will. Because the home is not a structured environment there are constant interruptions with things other than your work -- plumbers, non-work related phone calls, demands for attention from your children, babysitters who can’t find things. So, concentration is often a problem for those working at home. Focusing on your work can be a supreme effort of will.

There are mixed demands on your time which necessitates changing gears often, erratically, and at a moment’s notice. You may have to work when you don’t feel like it. This can certainly be true for a fulltime job outside the home. too. But as a home-worker you may find yourself working when the majority are not -- Memorial Day or July 4th are good examples. If you have a deadline these may simply be work days for you.

“When you work from home there’s no separation between workspace and playspace.”

In order to get time to work it falls to you to organize daycare of some description. It can be in or out of house. If it’s in-house babysitters that you prefer you may find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time organizing and directing them. This can be as time-consuming as actually looking after your children yourself. With in-house care it can be difficult continuing with your work when you hear your child in the next room having fun with the babysitter, or crying “I want my Mommy.” As tough as it is, emotionally, to drop your child off at daycare and go the whole day without seeing them, it’s just as tough to be in the same physical space and yet have to put your energies elsewhere. You may not have a space in your home that is suitable for an office. Remember Berman with her incense sticks and packing stuff strewn all over the living room? Before I was lucky enough to get the sun-room I had a desk set up in the master bedroom. This is definitely not conducive to romantic marital relations.

When you work at home there’s no separation between workspace and playspace. As Hoyt said “You live, breathe and eat together. Sometimes it can be too much.” This also means that you may find yourself working allthe time. It’s hard to stop working and start playing when you work where you play. Your desk is always a step away, and it’s so easy to interrupt an activity with your children or your husband to “just do something at my desk for a few moments.” This is fatal.

As jeans and sneakers are the dress code, and you never have to get dressed up, you can start to feel very boring. I know that if I don’t put on at least perfume during the day I feel frumpy. But that’s personal. In terms of income freelance work often falls into the “feast or famine” category. You’re either working too hard or not working. So you either have time to play, or you have money. You don’t always get both. You have time, but no money to play with. If you’re working it’s too much, and when you’re not working you’re worried about never working again.

A lot of your time is spend on activities that are not revenue-generating, i.e. there’s a lot of work that doesn’t pay anything -- looking for work, networking, reading... Furthermore, it costs you. “Sometimes,” says Hoyt, “you get so into what you’re doing that if you don’t plan to get out socially, you don’t get out.”

If you haven’t already figured out whether working from home is really for you, here’s what you need to either do or be in order to do so. Without exception everyone I spoke to agreed that the most important personality trait needed to work independently at home is self-motivation.

“Focusing on your work can be a supreme effort of will.”

The second thing you need is confidence -- oodles of it. Unless you pay someone to do it for you the job of selling yourself and your skills falls to you. And if you don’t think you’re any good why should anybody else. Your skills should be excellent. In most fields freelance work is pretty competitive. You’ve got to be able to focus on whatever task is at hand. If you’re unable to concentrate it’ll be impossible to get any work done. The upshot of that is that you’ll miss deadlines and clients will stop calling you.

Get a good accountant.

You’ve got to be able to keep good records of business-related expenditure and activities. You may need to keep documented track of hours, mileage, phone calls, purchases, and so on, that your accountant will need at the end of the year. Keep your work area as separate as possible from your living area so that the IRS knows you’re not pulling the wool over their eyes when you claim home/office deductions. Make sure that what you’re doing can legally be performed at home.

If you want to incorporate make sure you know how to do it and do it correctly. Get a good lawyer to advise you.

You’ve got to be able to change gears at the drop of a hat in order to embrace both family and work demands.

Be disciplined about separating out housework tasks and work tasks so that you don’t spend all day doing housework when you should be doing your work.

Set up your work space properly -- do it for real, don’t just pretend to have a work space. It’s important mentally as well as physically. You may spend hours a day here. Spend the money for a comfortable chair, or a good reliable computer and printer, if that’s what you need.

You’ve got to be comfortable working alone.

Make sure you have a supportive family. It can be hard on them, or they can make it hard on you.

If deadlines are not set for you by a client, set them for yourself -- it’s too easy to procrastinate.

Make rules for yourself, such as: I do not work in the morning -- that’s time for the children. Or, I will not take my work to bed with me -- that’s time for my husband.


Decide what you want to earn in any given month, or year, and go for it. But, don’t be disappointed if you don’t make your self-imposed “quota.” You only have yourself to answer to -- well, maybe the family checkbook, but...

Be aggressive about going out and meeting people. If you don’t chances are you may end up living the life of a hermit.

Be strong about turning friends and relatives away -- or closing the door on them when you’re working.

Be enterprising about advertising yourself.

Be energetic about reading up on your field, or talking with colleagues.

Don’t do housework when you should be doing your work.

Organize the kind of childcare that best suits you.

Don’t let anyone bully you into suiting their needs.

Balance the revenue-generating work with that which does not generate revenue.

Know when to stop working!

Ask yourself the following questions and if you answer “Yes” to more than 5O% there’s a good chance that you could make a go of working from home.
Are you self motivated?
Are you confident?
Are your skills excellent?
Are you able to concentrate?
Do you have a good accountant?
Do you have a good lawyer?
Are you good at keeping records?
Can you separate house work from work?
Is your work legal?
Can you change gears often and easily?
Do you have a work space? If not, can you create one?
Can you work alone?
Is your family supportive?
Can you set deadlines?
Can you meet deadlines?
Can you make rules for yourself?
Are you comfortable setting your own income?
Are you good at initiating business relationships?
Can you turn people away when you’re working?
Are you good at blowing your own trumpet?
Do you know when to stop working?