24 January 2012

Tips for the Work-at-Home Mom

At this point in my life, I have done it all ways: I have worked outside of the home, I have been a stay-at-home mother, and, most recently, I have worked from my home.  At the request of a few of my readers, I'd like to share a few things I have learned along the way about successfully working from home.  These tips are not just for at-home professionals like myself; many of them can be adapted for stay-at-home mothers (who, as we know, work just as hard as anyone else) and for work-outside-of-the-home moms (who often are in great need of organizational tips because of the stress of their lifestyles).

So here we go: some modest tips and suggestions for the work-at-home mother.  Whether you sell scarves on Etsy, unload clutter on Ebay, run a catering business, or write briefs for the Supreme Court, these tips are for you.

1.  Create your space.

The most important part of working at home, in my opinion, is having a viable and dedicated place to work.  If you work at the kitchen table, and you need to do the dishes and move everyone's stuff before you can settle in, you are adding unnecessary extra time and effort to your day, and you run the risk of your paperwork becoming marred by rings of orange juice and bagel crumbs.  Set up a corner, or a whole room if you can, and designate it as your work space.  Make sure there is room for all your equipment, like a computer and phone, as well as a place for your papers to live without being constantly shuffled around.  I have a desk in the basement with a computer, a printer, a phone, and a filing cabinet.  A friend who sells crafts on Etsy has an entire room dedicated to her craft, with not only a well-lit workspace, but also ample storage for her tools and completed projects.  If you can't have a whole room, have a corner of a room.  Make it a friendly space that you look forward to spending time in; your chair must be comfortable and your lighting must be good.

2.  Embrace technology.

This one seems obvious to me, but it's important.  You cannot expect to be successful in your work in this day and age if you are not keeping up with technology.  You must have a reliable internet connection in your home, but you must also have a smartphone that remains charged, on, and connected when you're not at your desk.  You must be reachable by your coworkers, clients, and/or customers.  If that means you have to splurge on an iPhone or a Blackberry, so be it.  Have the equipment you need, and learn to use it efficiently.  I took a free online legal research course offered by Westlaw when I started working at home, because it had been some time since I had practiced that skill, and times had changed.  Your business, whatever it is, surely also has free tutorials that will help you bring your skills into the 21st century.  Take advantage of everything that's out there - apps, videos, online courses, meetings with people who know how it's done.  Time spent learning is never wasted.

3.  Get organized.

I'm not just talking about your work-related paperwork here (time sheets, contracts, and orders); I'm talking about your whole life.  As you know if you are a mother, your kids' report cards, sports schedules, and vaccination records can take over your life if you are not careful.  It is absolutely essential that you become a master of organization.  Create a place for everything and put everything in its place.  Visit friends' home offices for ideas.  My friend Laura, a stay-at-home mom of five, is one of the most organized people I know, and she has given me many, many ideas.  As a result, I have a binder on my desk called "Mom's Master Binder."  It contains tabs labeled "Invitations," "Gift Cards," "Home Improvement," "Important Receipts," etc.  Each child has a tab too.  Everything worth saving goes into the binder.  I also have a file cabinet with a million folders - health care receipts, home improvement receipts, user manuals for various appliances, personal correspondence.  This is in addition to the file folders I maintain for each client and each case.

4.  Communicate with the boss and/or the support staff.

I work for a small law office.  I am in daily touch not only with the partner for whom I work, but also with the office manager, who is an invaluable resource for me.  She e-mails me faxes that come in on the office machine, collects my time sheets and organizes them, and prints out my work and places it on the boss's desk for his review.  In this day and age of telecommuting and working at home, the people in the office who were once considered "underlings" have become invaluable resources for everyone.  Never before has support been so crucial to success.  It is absolutely essential to make friends with the people in the office, as well as any other at-home workers or telecommuters, and to work with them as a team.  Doing so will make life infinitely easier.

5.  Scout out your alternate space.

There will be times when you will need to get something done, and doing it in your home will not be practical.  For example, I recently had some work done on my house, and I could not concentrate with the banging and yelling that were going on.  For those times, you need to have a secondary workspace.  Where this workspace is will depend on your needs and the amenities available at your location.  If moderate noise is okay, maybe a local coffeeshop will work.  Stop by and see whether there's a comfortable table in the corner with an electrical outlet for your laptop.  Check out the crowds; what time do you have to arrive to get your choice space?  I need quiet, so I usually use a carrel in the local public library as my secondary space.  The light is good, the noise level is (usually) within my limits, and the electricity and internet connection are reliable.  When school lets out around 3 P.M., the library becomes a noisy zoo, but that's okay for me because I am usually wrapping up my workday at that point.  Assess your individual needs and find a place that works.  Then, little inconveniences will not throw you for a loop.

6.  Turn off the phone.

A lot of people don't understand that working at home is working.  People who would never keep you chatting on the phone for an hour when you were in the office think nothing of doing so when you're in the basement.  To avoid having valuable billable time sucked away from you, you need to set limits.  Do not answer personal calls when you are working.  Let your voice mail pick them up, and then set aside some time later to check the messages and call people back.  I use e-mail far more than I use the phone, because I can e-mail people at my own convenience.  While my phone is always on (see #2 above), it is on for business purposes.

7.  Confront the food monster.

If you're like me, constantly battling weight gain, one of the biggest pitfalls of working at home is the presence of the refrigerator within arm's reach of the workspace.  Snacks are available at all hours, and it's hard to resist the temptation to munch while working.  There are several ways to deal with this.  First, I eat breakfast every morning, clean up the kitchen, and close it down until lunchtime.  Sometimes I make a cup of tea and take it downstairs to my desk, but I never, ever work in the kitchen, and I never, ever eat solid food at my desk.  At lunchtime, I either meet a friend for lunch outside of the house or warm up some soup and eat it in the kitchen, and then return to my desk.  If I am working at the library, I pack a lunch just as I would if I were going to school or to the office.  I eat it somewhere other than in my carrel (the library's no-food rules support this plan), and then I return to work.  Keeping a bright line between food and work also avoids another problem I have: my constant, clumsy, and expensive habit of spilling food and drink on my laptop.

8.  Put your blinders on.

There is always something that needs to be done around the house.  The rug needs vacuuming.  There's a pile of dishes in the sink.  The paint on the wall of the bathroom needs to be touched up.  It is important that you be able to turn off your critical housekeeper's eye and focus instead on the fact that you are working.  The dishes will still be there at break time, and you can take care of them then.  During your working hours, you must turn a blind eye to all the other things you could be doing, even if their not-having-been-done drives you nuts, and remain faithful to the task at hand.  This is extremely difficult for me, as I am not only obsessive about my house but also easily distracted.  But it is essential to success.

9.  Get help if you can afford it.

There is no such thing as Wonder Woman.  All the perfect housekeepers you know either spend all their time tweaking their homes or have significant help.  If your children are young, your house will be a mess. No one expects it to be otherwise.  If you have young children and you work all day, God bless you.  You are entitled to all the help you can afford.  If you're rolling in money, by all means hire someone to clean, cook, and cater to the children's and Fido's needs while you are working.  However, most of us are not rolling in money but still need help.  Be creative.  Make a neighborhood friend and take turns doing the shopping and the dog-walking.  Carpool.  Share a cleaning lady or a babysitter.  Do whatever you need to do to get it all done, and do not feel guilty about it.  If you pretend you can do it all without help, you are perpetuating the myth that such a thing is possible, and you are doing your daughters a disservice.  Maintaining a home and a job and a family are team efforts.  Identify your team and work with them.  Use the resources available and do the best you can.  That's the best lesson you can teach a young woman.

10.  Take scheduled breaks.

Everyone needs a social life and ample exercise.  It is completely okay to have a lunch break and to spend it chatting with someone you like.  It is also okay to take an exercise class, or to spin your bike around the local park now and then, or to walk downtown for a cup of coffee.  It is also okay to spend some time alone doing something you enjoy.  For your own sanity, do not treat yourself like a prisoner in your home office.  Working at home is a great luxury, and it's not an option available to everyone.  Take advantage of the fact that you have more flexibility than most workers.  If it's a nice day, go outside.  Meet a friend.  Do some yoga.  When you get back to work after a good break, you'll have more energy to apply to the task at hand, and you won't resent the workload as much, knowing your day is within your own control.

11.  Have realistic expectations and goals.

To meet my financial goals, I'm supposed to bill 20 hours a week to paying clients.  I am still struggling with whether that's realistic, given the millions of other things I do (free legal work for friends, administrative stuff, knitting, blogging, practicing my guitar, and tending to my kids).  I think it may be more reasonable for me to work a project-based schedule.  When something needs to be done, I do it well by a defined deadline.  Depending on deadlines, some weeks will be busier than others.  The key is to assess what needs to be done and to be realistic about how much time I can spend on it, and when.  Cash flow is a big consideration, too; can I live with having "dry" weeks and "liquid" weeks, based on my work hours?

Working at home is always a work in progress and a learning experience.  I think of new tips and coping strategies every day, and as I do so, life gets easier.  I hope that by sharing my thoughts, I have made a little difference in the life of another mom out there.  Have a great week!


laxsupermom said...

Great tips! My husband works from home, and I think that #10 and #7, especially, need to be implemented here. Thanks for sharing.

Shel said...

Jennie, if you ever think about giving up law, you could be a motivational speaker or life coach!

I'd add just one thing to #9: by getting help, we're showing our sons that they need to have reasonable expectations for their future partners. (I try to help my sons become "fully evolved" with respect to women!)

Jane said...

A fabulous exposition, Jennie! Well done. I'm bookmarking this one - thanks. J x