Working at home: is it (honestly) working?

I’ve been working at home on and off ever since I started my business 6 years ago – and in that time, I reckon I’ve become pretty well acquainted with both the up and down sides.


And yes, I did say downsides. Because in spite of all the major advantages (a 30-second commute and a PJ-friendly dress code to name a few) working from a ‘home office’ does present a few, quite unique challenges – things that can catch the uninitiated quite unaware.


Given the fact that more and more Aussies are at least attempting to work from home (1.3 million at last count, a 10% increase in the last 15 years) I thought it might be worth sharing some of my insights into the whole work-from-home palaver – and some of the tactics I’ve discovered to make things run more smoothly.


Because much as it might seem appealing, there are times working from home does not work. There are times your employer might have very good reason to balk at your request to ‘do a few hours remotely’ (even though you cannot fathom what they may be). There are roles where working from home is really difficult, if not impossible. And there are homes where work is realistically never going to happen, especially if they’re homes shared with other people who like to tempt hard-working souls with Netflix episodes and wine.


But – and here’s the upside – if you can get it right, working from home really can be an incredible solution for many problems, from distracting colleagues, to rigid childcare schedules, to utterly revolting peak-hour traffic.


So! In the interest of public service, here’s what I’ve learned about working from home, and how to make it work better for me.


Your set-up doesn’t have to LOOK like a traditional office. But it DOES have to function like one.

When I’m at home, I’ve been known to work from a variety of locations. They include Coffice (couch office), Floffice (floor office), and on especially slack days, Boffice (bed office). My chiropractor hates it, and constantly shows me images of what I will end up looking like if I continue like this. Needless to say, he is right – and I am doubly stupid because I DO in fact have a very nice ergonomically set-up desk with a laptop stand, a chair at the right height and all that other stuff that you’d normally find in an office (which I really should use more often).


As my chiro will hasten to reiterate, that stuff IS important. But there’s also more to a functional office environment than ergonomics. What I’ve realised is that while not all home offices look the same, the good ones do all have a few essential ingredients – things that not many homes usually have. These include (in no particular order) excellent Wi-Fi, a printer you know how to use, a quiet space for phone calls (more on that later), a complete absence of dead zones where mobile reception mysteriously drops out, a presentable area you can use for clients (if you need to), and a large space you can spread out a horrific amount of paperwork (and potentially leave it without anyone tidying it away, or stealing it to draw on). There are other things that help (proximity to coffee, an IT person on call), but these are my own personal must-haves. Without them, it’ll be an uphill battle.


Quiet is a much scarcer commodity than you’d think.

When I first started working at home I lived in a leafy suburban street populated by mums with blonde ponytails and $3000 prams. I really didn’t think noise would be an issue. But guess what? Unlike traditional offices, home offices are afflicted by a whole raft of noises that are super-invasive, hard to predict, and almost impossible to avoid.


There was the dreaded weekly rubbish collection ritual, which I learned about in the midst of a conference call. There were barking dogs, at least two of which belonged to me. There was never-ending construction work that I’d never previously noticed. There were crying babies (fortunately those didn’t belong to me, but they do trump a jackhammer in the decibel stakes). Safe to say, I became acquainted with my neighbourhood and neighbours on a whole new level – and realised that the aforementioned ‘quiet spot’ might be a bit harder to find than I had imagined. But whether you need it for phone calls or thinking, it really is a must – if necessary, invest in insulation and a loud sign saying SHHHHHH.


If you’re easily distracted, forget about working from home. Or buy locks. Big locks.

When the subject of working from home comes up, a lot of people express reservations – mainly because they think they’ll find it hard to get motivated and stay focused. For me this is thankfully never an issue, because I am grossly motivated by getting paid, and very happy to ignore distractions of the housework variety.


But for most people, interruptions are the biggest killer of home-office productivity. These come in many different guises: from Netflix new releases, to washing that needs to be folded, to neighbours ‘just popping by’. By far the worst offenders (I find) are the people who actually live in your house, especially the small ones who don’t see why you’re showering your laptop with attention instead of them. Unless you live alone, I am not joking about the locks – a closed door works wonders, especially when it can’t be readily opened. I also highly recommend erecting some kind of voodoo effigy in the front yard to scare off both friendly neighbours and doorknocking Jehovah’s witnesses (#twobirdsonestone).


Your hours might be flexible, but your clients’ usually won’t be.

As a writer, a lot of my work just requires me and my computer, so theoretically can be done at any time of day or night. However, when I started my business, I quickly surrendered all those dreams of being some kind of creative night owl who was disgustingly tanned from days at the beach and marched to the beat of my own home-office drum.


Why? Because while I didn’t technically have to work 9am-6pm, my clients all did. So that was when they needed me – and (reasonably) expected me to be available.


I do have some friends who manage to make the flexible timing thing work, but if your job involves much client or colleague interaction (and even a small element of people management) just be aware that you’ll still ostensibly need to be on call in those standard office hours, no matter where you happen to be based.


While you’re at home, no one will ever, ever understand that you’re working.

Of all the points I’ve made in this article, this is (without a shadow of a doubt) the biggest one. Because, whether it’s your boss in the office (who is unfairly sceptical about your output at home), your unemployed mate, or your sick-at-home partner, people really don’t GET working at home.


You can count on basically everyone to miss the memo about the actual work that’s required from you when you’re at home. Work, as in you can’t drop everything and meet for coffee. Work, as in you can’t do those errands you’d never usually be expected to do Monday to Friday. Work, as in you’re probably not mentally available to chat about random things at any given moment – especially when you’re up to your eyes in an Excel table of doom.


This lack of understanding isn’t really anyone’s fault – we’re just not trained to see each other in different ‘modes’ while we’re at home. This is why many people I know tend to have a designated room or space for work, where it’s agreed they’ll be left alone (or at least that’s the idea). If you don’t have this luxury, it can be hard to draw the boundaries you need, and interruptions will be pretty much constant.


My tips? As well as trying to stay in my actual *real* office when others are around (out of sight, out of mind) I have a system with my boyfriend to help minimise interruptions. Whenever he’s tempted to knock on my door or tap me on the shoulder, I ask him to consider whether this is something he’d actually RING me about if I wasn’t physically there. If it’s phone-call-worthy, he’s more than welcome to butt in – but otherwise he needs to hold fire.


So how about everyone else out there? Any working-at-home pet hates or hacks? I’d love to hear ‘em. In the meantime, I’m off to the chiro.