The Thrill and Agony of Working From Home

By Christopher Hawkins •  Updated: 08/04/05 •  8 min read

I’ve been running my consulting practice from my home office for about 2.5 years now.  Primarily, I interact with my remote team members via email and IM. After spending the previous 10 years in actual office space, it’s been quite a change. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about myself and my work style in my few years of working from home. Perhaps these things will apply to you too.

These points should apply to both entrepreneurs or freelancers working from home and people who telecommute to work.  Just pick out the items that apply to you and ignore the rest.

If your family is unwilling or unable to respect your work time, you are in deep dip.

For about the first 4 months of my working from home, my wife would pop in to my office for a visit once an hour. She’d pop in to tell me about some interesting fact she just heard on Oprah. She’d pop in to tell me about some cute thing our son did. She’d pop in to tell me who she just talked to on the phone or to tell me about something cool she just read. She didn’t understand why I got so upset about the interruptions. I broke out a copy of Peopleware and explained what it takes to go into a productive zone.  I explained how much time and ground I lost every time I was interrupted.  That didn’t really have the effect I wanted.

Then I showed her my billable reports for the days when I was interrupted and the days when I was left alone.  She understood that.

Now she’s a champ about respecting my office time when I’m working from home. She does a better job of playing defense against my 5-year old son coming to visit me too. In return, I make it a point to take a break in the middle of the day every day to hang out with them for a little while. But those first few months…I was working WAY too hard for my billables.

If you are unable to respect your own work time, you are in deep dip.

Family aside, when working from home everything is a potential distraction. The fridge is ten paces away. So is the cookie jar. And the beer. And the TV. And the PlayStation. And so on. There’s always something that you could be doing instead of working. And some days, that’s a tough obstacle to leap. When you have a regular office, you’re surrounded by work stuff, so at a certain point you just give up and do some work. When working from home, it’s orders of magnitude easier to say “forget this” and go for a swim in the backyard.

Laser-like focus is a must. As for how to get laser-like focus, well…all I can say is you better be doing work you really care about, or at least be doing work that has a payoff you feel passionate about.

Dressing the part is a big help.

I have absolutely noticed a difference in both my demeanor and my productivity when I dress like I’m going to work in a real office. When I roll out of bed and pull on the nearest sweats and T-shirt, it’s not quite the same. Sure, it’s nice to be able to work in sweats and a T-shirt in the privacy of my own home.  But without fail, if I get dressed like I have a real office to go to, I am more professional and more productive.

It might sound silly, the idea of getting dressed “for real” just to work in your third bedroom, but it really does help. There’s an old saying:

“Dress for a dance, and you dance. Dress for playing football, and a game breaks out.”

I believe in that saying completely. In my case, it’s more like “Dress for work, and you’ll work. Dress for lazing about, and you’ll end up lazing about.” Besides, the process of showering, shaving, and dressing is a nice ritual for helping me get into my game-state.  I don’t have a problem with comfortable or even casual dress – I’ve billed plenty of hours wearing jeans and a T-shirt (clean and ironed, of course).  I do have a problem with people being slobs when working from home, which is what “casual dress” usually devolves into.  Dress sharp, feel sharp.

I’m not advocating wearing a suit & tie just to work in your spare bedroom.  This post is being brought to you by Levis and a plaid shirt.  My company isn’t not a formal operation by any means.

Getting OUT of the home office with regularity is a must.

It is easy to shut yourself away and go overboard on the billables. It is also easy to slip into a state of deep depression and apathy while doing so. Some of my highest-grossing weeks while working from home have also been the most agonizing.

I make it a point to go to lunch with colleagues a couple times per week.  I visit clients a couple times per week (even when I technically could deal with them via Skype or some such).  I take a break to play with my son daily. I’m a relatively social guy, and I found that being away from the interplay of an office environment was difficult for me.  Getting out regularly was a non-negotiable “must have” for my work schedule. Even the most introverted of the introverted will stagnate and grind to an intellectual and emotional halt, being shut up in a home office all day every day.  As distracting as it sounds, even a few hours working from your local coffee shop can go a long way toward combatting feelings of isolation.

Even if you’re not a people person, regular changes of venue and human contact will keep your engine at a higher idle than pulling a Kaczynski will. And for the love of all that’s holy, open the damn window and breathe some fresh air!

Getting IN to the regular office with regularity is a must, too (if you have a regular office).

This one is for you remote workers who have an office you could go visit – not only can you begin to feel detached when working from home, but your co-workers can begin to feel detached from you.  This is not good and can result in people forgetting to tell you about meetings, it can leave you out of promotions due to lack of visibility, and in the worst case scenario it can create resentment amongst your co-workers who work in the office full time.  So pop into the office once a week, even if it’s only for an hour.  The social aspects of the workplace are very important to your career and your mental health.

At my last job, I was one of the people who ended up working at the satellite office because it was closer to where I lived than the corporate HQ was.  What a mistake that was!  It didn’t take very long for poor communications to render everyone in the satellite office out of the loop.  The additional overhead of fighting to make sure people remembered to include the satellite folks in things that pertained to them added an un-needed burden to our daily workloads.  Now, this was 2 professional offices having such difficulty.  Can you imagine how the issue can be compounded when working from home?

Don’t skimp on tools!

Just because you are working from home does not mean that you can get by with an old laptop on a folding card table, sitting in a chair you stole from the dining room.  Crawl off the dime and make sure you have dedicated space – or, at the very least, comfortable, quiet space that you can have reasonable control of during work hours.  Make sure you have a development-class machine (if you are a developer), and a printer – hey, sometimes you really can’t avoid printing some things out.  Get any non-work-related stuff out of the room if you can; it will only serve to distract.  When I first began my consulting career, I was working from a $99 computer hutch from Target, stuffed in the corner of the dining area of our 700-square foot apartment.  If that’s all you have to work with, that’s one thing.  But you need to be looking to set up a real workspace as soon as possible.

Please don’t take this as an excuse to go splurge on an Aeron chair and the highest-end machine you can find.  Your gear must be appropriate, not splashy – splashy will drive you into the poorhouse.

Set expectations for yourself.

Have regular work hours.  Take regular lunch breaks.  Set performance benchmarks for yourself, and stick to them.  If you need to, publicly commit to some goals in order to motivate yourself.  And when you’ve hit your goals for the day or the week, stop and re-evaluate.  Can you knock off for the day?  Are you ahead or behind?  Working from home means working from home, not “hanging out in front of the home computer,” so treat it like you would treat office-based work, and adhere to good performance standards.

Be thankful for working from home.

You don’t “have” to work from home, you get to work from home – never forget that.