Editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan, who has been working from home for the past four years, shares her advice with entrepreneurs (as well as her newly-virtual colleagues) on how to do it right.
Inc. Magazine lives in New York City. I live in the Boston suburbs. So for three years I’ve been working out of my home office with nothing to look at but the Ozark-esque compound across the road and nothing to listen to but squirrels striking the back porch when they miss the bird feeders. It gets lonely at times. My house lacks both a water cooler and peers to engage in conversation around one. I miss the random hallway conversations that unexpectedly ignite ideas or forge alliances. When I know my colleagues are staying late to close an issue, I work late too, out of solidarity. The managing editor offers to order in dinner and sends out a link to the menu. I mentally place my order.
On the whole though, working at home has been a satisfying experience. I’ve managed to remain productive, and the stress reduction from not commuting has probably added a year to my life. So, as my New York colleagues embark on their telecommuting experiment, I offer them—and others new to working from home—eight lessons for thriving away from the mother ship.
1. Language is important. Tell people you “work out of my home office” or that you “work from home.” Never say, “I work at home.” That suggests you create window treatments freelance in your spare time. “Home office” sounds more professional when you’re giving someone your phone number for work. Also, if friends and relatives believe you are less than seriously employed they will start adding you to their lists of People Who Can Easily Host a Last-Minute Book-Club Meeting or Pick Up My Child After School.
2. Some people like to dress for work, even though they never set foot outside their houses. Others like to lounge around in sweats or pajamas. It’s a matter of personal choice. But if you prefer the latter, change clothes at least once at night and once in the morning. Casual is fine. Crusty isn’t.
3. Talk to someone from the office at least once a day. Long silences are nervous-making. After three days I start to feel like a kid at camp: worried that in my absence the rest of the family has moved away without telling me. Managers are best because they know when there’s reason to panic. Their calm becomes your calm. (I find Dan Ferrara, Inc.’s deputy editor, the most soothing person to talk to. A conversation with him is like half an hour sitting in the Lotus Position.)
4. Gossiping, Web surfing, popping out to do a little shopping at lunch—those are healthy ways to decompress when you’ve spent an hour commuting and another three hours sitting in an uncomfortable chair drinking pallid coffee from the kitchenette and trying not to overhear the conversation in the next cubicle. At home, where all is relative peace and luxury, such activities seem to me Caligula-scale decadent. Still no one can work eight hours without pause. So establish some useful, non-fun things to do during work breaks that don’t induce guilt. Do your laundry or clean your gutters or catch up on your work reading. Stock your bathroom with the collected oeuvre of Peter Drucker. If you have exercise equipment, work out. Unless you enjoy working out, in which case avoid that at all costs.
5. If you have children, explain that when your door is closed they should not disturb you. If they fail to comply, explain that if they continue to interrupt then you will miss your deadlines and lose your job, which will force the family to live on the streets and sell all their toys for food.
6. Larks will love working from 4 AM to 1 PM; owls from 3 PM to midnight. But remember some commitments (interviews, teleconferences etc.) will likely fall outside your preferred work hours. For the first few months I worked at home, I got up before dawn every day and put in a solid five hours before most people had arrived at the office. But often I still had people to talk to in the afternoon, and by that time I was seriously dragging. So while it’s tempting to create a routine customized for how you like to work, instead schedule yourself fresh every day based on how the world requires you to work.
7. At our house we have three phone numbers: one for the family, one for the kids, and one for my work calls. When someone calls the family number the phone rings once. When someone calls one of the kids it rings twice in quick succession. When someone calls for me at Inc., it rings three times in quick succession. That way no one else ever accidentally picks up my work calls (“Hey Mom, it’s for you. Some guy named Steve Jobs. Can I have Julia over?”) Also, I always know whether to answer in professional mode (“This is Leigh Buchanan”) or personal mode (“Yeah, what?”)
8. Stay caffeinated. The Saeco Incanto Sirius is a totally awesome espresso maker, even if it does sound like something out of Harry Potter.