Insights on business -- and life.
Working in a Home Office
Benefits, problems, and tips learned the hard
by Mike Hartnett (August 3, 2009)
It was 20 years ago this month that I received a phone call at
home in central Illinois from Phil Miller, the owner of a small
Chicago publishing company that had recently purchased Craftrends.
I was editor of Profitable Craft Merchandising, a competitor,
at the time.
"Mike," he said, "I'd like to talk to you about
becoming editor of Craftrends."
"Uh, you're in Chicago, right?
"Well, thanks but no thanks. My wife is a tenured college
professor, so because of her career I wouldn't want to move to
"We heard you were going to say that," Phil answered,
"and we talked it over and think you could edit the magazine
from your house."
This was long before the advent of email. "How would I do
that?" I asked.
"Oh, you know, fax machines, the mail, and you're only a
three-hour drive from the office."
"Well, under those circumstances, sure, I'll come talk to
To make a long story short, I took the job and set up a home
office – and haven't left it in 20 years. Phil was ahead of his
time in visualizing an editor could work at home. Now many people
do, and I suspect many more will do so in the future.
Modern technological innovations such as email, webinars,
GoToMeetings, conference calls, and others allow at-home workers to
be in direct, almost constant contact with the main office.
There are numerous advantages for the employer and employee.
Employers need less office space and perhaps can give smaller raises
because the employee's costs for commuting, dry cleaning, etc., are
much lower, and there's a tax benefit to having a home office. Plus,
in a tight economy, employers may use more contract and/or part-time
In addition to lower commuting costs, at-home employees avoid
most of the office politics and don't have to leave work early to
return home to wait for the plumber or the cable guy. They also
avoid a lot of germs. I have been almost cold- and flu-free since I
began working at home.
Another advantage for me was the ability to care for an elderly
parent. My mother reached a point where she couldn't live alone any
more. Since my wife worked out of the house, we never would have
been able to care for her if I, too, was gone all day.
We quickly learned that she was in the early stages of
Alzheimer's, and she lived with us for four years. I edited Craftrends
from my home with an Alzheimer's patient in the house; damn, it was
not easy, but now that Mom is gone, we're glad we did it.
Now I can laugh about it.
Mom wanted to do her share around the house, so one night she
said she would walk her dog, Sam, in the morning. So the next
morning I got up and Sam wanted to go out, but I said no; mom always
felt better if she thought she was contributing.
So I started working. I was doing a phone interview with Michael
Rouleau, then CEO of Michaels, when Mom came in and whispered that
she wasn't feeling well, and maybe I better walk Sam after all.
Now Sam really needs to go out and gives me that look that says,
"Dad, I'm going to pee in about 30 seconds. Where I pee is
entirely up to you."
So I'm trying to sound intelligent on the phone, taking notes,
and petting/distracting Sam. (Yes, Sam held it for me.)
Then there was the time the water heater went kablooie, and I'm
down in the basement mopping up the water when the phone rings. I
run upstairs. It's a reporter for the Wall Street Journal doing
a story about this new phenomenon called scrapbooking.
Again, I tried to sound very intelligent, business-like, and
knowledgeable. But about halfway through the 20-minute conversation
I realized I was still holding the mop.
One day I was working when one of our cats, Calamity Jane, jumped
up on my desk and peered at the computer monitor as if she was
reading what I had written. She turned and looked at me as if to
say, "That's the best you can do?" and then proceeded to
walk all over the keyboard.
I learned that Calamity is not a very good speller.
Tips learned the hard way.
1. Set up your office in a fairly isolated area of the house
with a door, so at the end of the day you can close the door and
say, "Honey, I'm home." Otherwise, you'll never be away
from the job, and that will lead to burn-out.
2. Your office will probably be a spare bedroom, and bedroom
carpeting is not meant for an office chair to be rolling back and
forth for years in the same area. Buy a plastic floor guard from an
office supply store.
3. Make friends with a teenager so when your computer goes
down, you have someone nearby to call.
4. Don't hesitate to take breaks. When you first start
working at home, you may be paranoid, thinking people assume you're
not working very hard. So you work constantly. You'll accomplish
much more because there won't be the common little interruptions
endemic to every office. But you'll be much more tired by day's end,
because those little interruptions give you a mental break, which
you need every once in a while.
So stop periodically to play with the dog, throw a load of
laundry in the washer, or take a short walk. Otherwise you'll burn
(Note: Do you have any work-at-home stories or advice?
Email them to CLN at email@example.com.)