by Michele Shapiro
photo by Jessica Porter
When I left my windowless office for the last time this past April after six years of booking celebrities for the covers of a prominent women’s magazine, I immediately felt a freedom that I hadn’t experienced since a brief stint as a freelance writer in the early ’90s.
My plan was to launch a business from the confines of my Manhattan apartment that involved matching the stars I’d booked so often for magazine covers and features with appropriate nonprofit organizations and corporate initiatives. After buying a laptop and spending days on the phone with tech support to iron out the kinks, I reveled in spending hours at a time typing memos, proposals, and the occasional book idea while the sun streamed in through a nearby window. For the first time in over a decade, I owned my schedule.
But within days, I noticed a worrisome trend developing: My husband, a lawyer for the city, started asking me to run errands for him. Could I bring his trousers to the tailor, his shoes to the cobbler, his camera to the shop to be repaired? In his eyes, my being home meant that I was on call 24/7 to do all the things he couldn’t. In addition, on the days I was backed up with work or simply exhausted after knocking out a 30-page proposal, I was the one expected to make dinner (and empty the dishwasher … and pick my daughter up from her after-school program … and put away the shoes, clothes, and other random items everyone else left lying around the apartment) simply because I had chosen to work from home.
That’s when I realized that a home-based business is both a blessing and a curse. The upsides are plenty: flex-time, better lighting, sweats and slippers in lieu of dry-cleaned office garb, etc. But there are definitely downsides, too. As Christine Comaford-Lynch, CEO and founder of Mighty Ventures and author of the New York Times bestseller Rules for Renegades: How to Make More Money, Rock Your Career, and Revel In Your Individuality, advises, the secret to successfully working from home is establishing parameters. “It’s key to have boundaries,” she explained. “For instance, at the end of the day, I turn the light off, the phone volume down, and shut the door to my home office.” Without those boundaries, you’re likely to become as chained to your desk as you were in the corporate world, and you’ll no doubt fall prey to constant distractions and interruptions.
It’s important to spend some time hammering out your own set of ground rules—from what your office hours will be to who’ll pick up the kids if you’re away on business—so that you can communicate your needs to your inner circle and avoid ugly confrontations down the road.
I learned quickly that one needs these guidelines in order to make work life and home life co-exist peacefully. Below are some suggestions that will help you set ground rules…
1. Create a cozy workspace–and keep it neat! Kimberly Silk of Toronto, who started her own business, BrightSail Strategic Marketing , after she was laid off from her corporate job in March 2001, has thrived in a home-office setting. “The best tip I can offer,” said Silk, “is to carve out a place all your own to be your home office.” She adds that, if possible, the space needs to be entirely yours, not shared or compromised. Silk turned a third bedroom into BrightSail headquarters. “I designed it to be my creative space, with brightly colored walls, good lighting, and a south-facing window. Even when work stresses me out, I love it here.”
Once you’ve established your headquarters, try to keep it neat. “Organize your work space so you’ll be inspired to work, not overwhelmed by junk that can so quickly pile up,” said Britt Michaelian of San Francisco, founder and CEO of Responsible Family Company . Joanna Scaparotti, a Reiki and wellness practitioner agrees: “A clean office is like a fresh piece of paper waiting for a story. It’s relaxing and full of potential, which is a big motivation.”
2. Dedicate yourself. When launching a business from home, the image you present to prospective clients is critical. Dedicated phone lines and business e-mail addresses can help. “I recommend establishing a separate phone number for your business to keep clients from calling outside of office hours and to limit personal calls during the workday,” said Silk. A dedicated number, whether it’s a land line or a cell, is key to projecting a professional image, as is an e-mail address that’s separate from your personal account. “It’s important for any business to own a domain name that reflects your brand and what you do,” Silk added. “Using the domain name for your e-mail address—even if you don’t have a Web site—makes you appear professional, and it’s a great marketing tool.”
3. Define your hours of operation. What are your office hours? 8 a.m.-4 p.m.? 9 a.m.-6 p.m.? Whatever you decide, try to be at your desk at that time. And when the end of your workday rolls around, stop working. “You have to limit the times you work,” said Lone Schneider of San Francisco, who runs Lolo’s Boudoir from home. “Make sure you have time to be home and relax with your lover or family.” Schneider, who says that at one point her house became “more a work space than a space for us to come home to relax in and enjoy together,” has learned over time that you need to respect your relationships and your family enough to know when to call it a day.
A tip that’s proven helpful to Courtney Hammons of Nashville, who runs her wedding and event-planning business, A Magical Affair from home, is to open e-mails at two set times every day to avoid getting sidetracked from the task at hand. “I never open e-mails first thing in the morning. Otherwise, I begin to work on and worry about those challenges and don’t necessarily focus on what needs to be done for the day.”
4. To dress up or not to dress up? “I often wear jeans or sweats because to me professionalism is a state of mind,” said Comaford-Lynch. Still, many women surveyed on the Ladies Who Launch Web site think dressing the part of a professional is important. “I shower and get presentable every day,” said Michaelian. “It makes me feel more motivated, and if I need to run out to a meeting, I’m ready.” Even if you don’t have any appointments scheduled, parting with your PJs can give you an edge. “Getting fresh air, walking around the block, or having a lunch date are all important ways to refresh your mind and rid yourself of that isolated feeling,” Schneider said.
5. Brief your loved ones. In 2004 when Sharon Stenger of Westport, CT, cofounded Ourhopeplace.com, a Web site that helps friends cope after miscarriage, friends and family immediately thought, “Oh, you’re home, so you must be free.” She quickly realized that if her business was going to work, she needed to set a few guidelines. “I thought about what I needed to be effective, and then I approached my husband.” Stenger created a family calendar on which she puts all key appointments, and she and her husband review the calendar each week. “Each morning I gently remind him of any meetings or trips I have planned,” she said.
Bari Nan Cohen, a freelance writer based in Park City, UT, agrees that communication is key. “My husband and I debrief each other every morning and evening about the specifics of a given day’s or week’s schedule. We try to be as considerate as possible of each other’s work commitments, and accommodate accordingly,” which can mean having your spouse take junior to his doctor’s appointment or little league game on occasion. But it’s difficult to divide responsibilities and conquer if you don’t speak up.
6. Keep distractions at bay. Whether you work from home or not, life is full of distractions and interruptions. The trick is figuring out how to stay focused despite the circus that surrounds us. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I screen calls,” Cohen said. “I reason that when I was a magazine editor, I had an assistant who answered my phone, and I returned calls at designated times during the day. Now I just have to be my own gatekeeper.” Stenger says she tries to separate herself from the chaos by working on a separate floor from her family. But Gayle Forman, a freelance journalist who lives in a loft in Brooklyn, NY, doesn’t have the luxury of a door that closes. Instead, she relies on self-discipline to carry her through her day. “My work time feels like a gift to me, so as soon as I have a free moment, I totally focus. I often go to work at 8:30 and don’t look up till 2:30 when I have to pick my daughter up at school.”
Rather than hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign on her home-office door, Comaford-Lynch ties a bright scarf around the knob. “This means I may only be disturbed if someone’s bleeding or there’s a fire,” she said. And what does she recommend for loft dwellers like Forman, who have no doors? “Wear a certain baseball cap or jacket that signifies you’re ‘invisible.’ I’ve tried this, too. It takes a little training, but then you’re home-free.”
7. Give yourself a break. As busy as life gets, don’t forget to relax every once in a while. “Make sure to build regular ‘wellness breaks’ into your day,” said Julia Searle of Indianapolis, who runs Soul Fruit, LLC The breaks allow you to set aside a little time (i.e., 15 minutes) for yoga, stretching, or reading a chapter in a pleasurable book. “Just set a time limit and make it a routine so you always know that you have [the break] to look forward to tomorrow.”
At times when her focus flounders, life coach Melissa Grossman, CPCC, of Atlanta (www.freshapproachcoach.com), takes what she calls a “focus break.” “I simply step away from whatever I’m working on. Sometimes a 30-minute walk to and from my neighborhood coffee shop makes all the difference. And if that fails, I play a short game of hide-and-seek with the dog. After a little break, I’m usually ready to tackle the task at hand with a newfound energy.”
If a mid-day coffee, late-morning physical, or volunteering for the book fair at your child’s school seem decadent (or impossible, given your workload), remember why you launched in the first place. “One of the main reasons I keep a home office is the flexibility,” said Silk. “I want to be the mom who can help out at school, attend trips, and be there for my son if he needs to come home.” So let go of the guilt and take time every once in a while to truly enjoy what your home office has given you—and your loved ones.
Michele Shapiro is a freelance writer living in New York City.