I can recall the excitement I felt three years ago when my employer (a national advertising and communications firm) agreed to let me work exclusively from home.
I had gotten the ridiculous idea in my mind that my move to work “remotely” would somehow magically transport me back to the 1950’s, and I would instantaneously become the perfect wife, mom, and employee.
I’d have my hair coiffed, dress pressed, pumps and pearls in place, and I’d finally give that Martha Stewart a real run for her money. I would be a superstar at work and a domestic goddess at home. My children would be the kindest, most well-adjusted people on the planet, my husband would be termed the luckiest guy in the world, and, well, I’d be oozing nothing but personal satisfaction.
Naturally, it didn’t take long before my “Leave it to Beaver” dream started to unravel. The fact is, working from home IS a tremendous blessing. But, it also comes with some unique challenges. And while everyone’s personal situation tends to be a little different, here are five important work-at-home lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Create a Dedicated Office Space in Your Home
It is important to set aside a specific space in your home that will serve as your office. If you are blessed enough to have an actual home office, that is great. If not, one of those computer armoires or computer friendly secretary desks will come in handy. Not only will this help you get into the right mindset when your workday begins, but, it will help you to leave your work behind when you need to switch gears and focus on your family life or personal time.
Within the first few months of my work-to-home transition, I noticed I was starting to feel emotionally and mentally fried. Since there was no physical separation between work and home, my Type A personality just stayed in “go mode.” I’d catch myself tuning out or disengaging from my family, because I was replaying in my mind a difficult client call I had during the day, or rehearsing the conference call I was going to be facilitating the next day. I soon realized I was missing the psychological and emotional closure I had experienced at the office when I’d shut down my computer, grab my purse, turn off the light, and head home for the day. By setting aside an official office space in your home, you can make it a point to “shut down shop” — physically and psychologically — once your work day is done.
2. Establish Your Work Hours
Setting a defined work schedule was one of the best things I did for myself while transitioning to my home office. Since my office was so oh-so-conveniently located 15 steps away from my bedroom, I figured I would maximize my time by popping in before everyone was awake to check a few emails, or, hopping online after dinner to finish up a quick proposal, or staying online until midnight, so I could finish up “just one more thing.” Before I knew it, I was working 12-15 hours days during the work week and several hours on most weekends.
Just as conventional workplaces have basic hours of operation, it is important for you, your family, your colleagues, clients, and vendors to establish when you will be working … and when you won’t. Of course this will vary greatly depending on the work you are doing, number of hours per week that you are working, the level of accessibility you need to have for your family and/or your work, and etc., but, having a work schedule and trying to stick to it helps to establish a healthier separation between work and life.
3. Set Proper Expectations With Your Family
Take some time to really think about what you are going to need to be successful in your work, what you are going to be able to realistically accomplish in your home, and then sit down to discuss the expectations accordingly with your family:
- Are there particular times when you cannot be disturbed?
- What is an acceptable volume level for the house when you are working?
- What is off limits while you are working?
Everyone has their assumptions about how this work at home arrangement is going to pan out, and unfortunately, they can sometimes be quite different. Like my little “Leave it to Beaver” fantasy, my husband had some misguided expectations about what our home was going to look like, or what sort of food I would be cooking for dinner once I started working from home. I had to explain to him that in my particular situation, my day hadn’t changed all that drastically. I was pretty much consumed with my work the majority of the day, and when I did have a few extra moments between calls or tasks, I was usually spending it reconnecting with my kids. So, the house did not more closely resemble a model home from Better Homes and Gardens, and the food that eventually hit the table looked nothing like something Julia Child would whip up.
I ran into a similar situation with my 10-year old. She confessed to me that she was really angry that I was spending time on phone calls or typing on my computer once she made it home from school. She felt like I was purposely ignoring her by continuing to work. In both situations, we needed to sit down and discuss what the expectations were, what I could realistically accomplish, and make some adjustments. Now, I work with the kids to help straighten up a bit and get some decent dinner going before my hubby gets home, and I try to spend about 15 minutes of one-on-one time with my daughter when she gets home from school.
4. Have a Solid Backup Plan
One of the most beneficial aspects one enjoys about working from home is that there is more flexibility available. For work at home moms, this gives us the opportunity to stay more engaged in our family’s lives. But, no matter what sort of work you do, chances are there is going to be at least one instance when you will encounter a scheduling conflict. And when that happens, it is absolutely critical to have a backup plan.
For example, I have set my hours so that I take my lunch break each day at the time that my children are getting out of school. I pick them up, we sit down for a snack, and we spend some time chatting about their day. Typically, this works out just fine. However, there have been a few occasions when a big pitch or some serious problem has put me in the situation where I need to accommodate my client’s schedule, and unfortunately, it has directly interfered with my children’s school dismissal times. After a few VERY stressful, frantic afternoons, I have learned the hard way to make backup plan arrangements with a couple of family members, trusted friends AND competent colleagues. Everyone is prepped in advance (including the kids and the school when needed, for obvious safety reasons), so, when I have to ask for a stand-in, I know I have people who I can rely on to help me be in two places at once.
5. Ditch the Guilt
Women who work are infamous for heaping loads of gut-wrenching guilt on ourselves. Whether it is guilt for not spending all our waking moments with our kids, or guilt for not being more driven or working longer hours for our employers, we seem to be caught in the middle … seemingly unable to please anyone, least of all ourselves. In Marcus Buckingham’s book “Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently” he talks about a very interesting study about our children and what they really want from their working moms.
A national survey was conducted with over one thousand kids in grades 3-12. They were all asked the question “If you were granted one wish that would change the way your mother’s/father’s work affected your life, what would that wish be?” The parents were then asked to guess what they thought their kids would say. An overwhelming majority of the parent’s (56%) guessed that the children would wish for more time with their parents. In actuality, the children wished that their mother’s (34%) and father’s (27.5%) would be less stressed and tired.
Buckingham says it best: “Your kids don’t want more of your time; they want more of your happiness.” And happiness eludes us if we are too busy beating ourselves up. The funny thing is, it is the multi-dimensional aspect of being a working mom that makes us so great in both situations. We are great employees — organized, compassionate, integrity-filled, detailed, adaptable — because we are also moms. We are great moms — strong, decisive, intelligent, great problem solvers, street-smart — because we work. Cathy L Greenberg and Barrett S. Avigdor, in their book “What Happy Working Mothers Know” summed it up well by saying:
“As working mothers, we perpetuate our own guilt by feeling that we are somehow letting down our children, our partners, and our colleagues at work. Because we divide our time between work and family, we feel like we are somehow cheating both. When we learn to let go of that useless and often debilitating feeling of inadequacy, we can embrace a feeling of peace and contentment in our lives. The prize is boundless energy to invest in doing things we love. We then can do our best as mothers and build on that success to improve our performance in our jobs, too — and vice versa.”
One thing I know for sure is that I still have a LOT of learning to do before I master the work-at-home balancing act. Each of us must craft an arrangement that suits our own individual career goals, family priorities, personal values and financial needs, so there is certainly not a “one size fits all” scenario. I also know a little something about myself: many of the most important work-at-home lessons in life I have learned the hard way.
What about you? What work-at-home lessons have you learned as a work-at-home woman? Anything you’d add to the list?