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Working from home not always so sweet
By Susan Bowles, Special to Gannett
Fed up with the office environment and its countless demands? Think working from home will give you more control, more flexibility and more balance in your life?

Think again. A home office isn't the work/life panacea many people think it is. For one thing, you never really leave your worksite, meaning an assignment's Siren song can screech through your home 24 hours a day. Home responsibilities surround you, making their own noisy demands. And you never quite get away from that pool of people who assume "at home" means "on vacation."

"I live in a typical suburban, pedestrian neighborhood. My neighbors think because I'm home, I'm just home having fun," says Barbara Farnsworth, a freelance writer and editor in Boca Raton, FL, who has worked from home for eight years. Neighbors still come over, stand in front of her office window and wave for her to come outside.

"That's been a huge challenge," she sighs.

True, working from home can be highly rewarding. And it's growing in popularity: According to, more than 88 million workers do business out of a home office. They include full-time entrepreneurs (12 million-15 million); moonlighters (9 million); teleworkers (22 million-24 million); and day extenders, those 40 million-plus people who open a briefcase or access the corporate network at home.

"It just sort of 'is' today," says Jeffrey Zbar, owner of the website and a South Florida-based author and consultant. "You don't need to be married with kids to find balance in working from home."

But assuming a home office inevitably creates a balanced home life is nave.

"There is a perception that working at home is nirvana," Zbar says. "But those who think they're going to find more work/life balance by being in a home office just aren't going to find it."

Interruptions. Living with your office. Feeling guilty about that break or your failure to do the laundry, dishes, bed it's enough to make you chuck those home-office dreams and run screaming for your company cubicle.

Don't. By setting some boundaries and approaching a home office with care, you can make it part of healthy, balanced life. Here, the top 10 strategies from those who know.

1. Structure your day.

"Obviously, we can all be workaholics," says Tim Kane, president of the International Telework Association & Council in Silver Spring, MD, and the national lead of Deloitte Consulting's virtual workplace practice. "But there's something liberating about leaving the office and going home."

To find liberation with a home office, try to mirror a traditional work environment as much as possible. Adopt the same rules for dealing with interruptions, but work in some social time. After all, Kane says, you don't sit at your desk without any human contact when you're at a company. Put some down time into your home-office day by getting up, walking around and making a social call or two.

Above all, says Alice Bredin, small business advisor for OPEN: The Small Business Network from American Express and author of The Home Office Solution: How to Balance Your Professional & Personal Lives While Working at Home, set structured office hours. You'll avoid burnout and know when you can and can't commit to work.

"If you don't have hours," she says, "you're never really going to be able to say no."

2. Honor your rhythms.

Now that you're working from home, you don't have to follow a 9-to-5 schedule. Are you an early morning person who suffers a slump mid-morning then revs back up in the afternoon? Honor that. If you want to begin work at 5 a.m., no one's going to tell you the office isn't open.

"You can work within the realm of your own circadian rhythms," Zbar says. "It's personal. We have to find our own level of balance."

3. Structure your office.

Forget working at the kitchen table. That pile of breakfast dishes or the dingy linoleum floor will vie for your attention. Instead, Bredin says, design an office space that's free of personal clutter, conducive to work and makes you feel professional.

4. Eliminate distractions.

Sunday night is home night for Farnsworth. She makes sure all her home chores are complete so by Monday morning, "I commute to the office, and I work."

To eliminate distractions while she's working, Farnsworth depends heavily on her telephone's caller identification feature. She can ignore calls from people she doesn't want to talk to, and she can control when she speaks to friends and family.

Zbar, too, relies on an office feature to help control distractions, but his is a little less high-tech.

"The door that closes is the power tool of the home office," says the father of three. "A closed door means Daddy's working."

5. Prepare for the unexpected.

Of course, distractions are going to occur. Remember Farnsworth and her friendly neighbors? Sometimes she has to go outside, say hello, then gently remind her visitors she's on deadline.

"You have to be able to go with the flow," she says. "You have to be able to switch gears easily in order to be successful working from home."

6. Find child care.

Zbar tells the story of interviewing a high-powered executive early in his home-office career. The interview was going well until his 6-month-old, who'd been sleeping behind his chair, woke up screaming.

"The man on the phone said, 'What?! You work from home?' Immediately the chemistry went south," he recalls.

True, that was in 1992, and the home office is much more common today. But children in the background can still be an issue. Hire someone to watch your offspring during your work hours, Bredin says. Otherwise, "it's not really fair to anybody if you're trying to do both."

7. Know your company.

If you work in a traditional office but want to talk to your company about teleworking from home, be sure you'll get the support you need.

First, be sure your manager understands that "out of sight" doesn't mean "out to play," Kane says. Then check out the training offered by your company's human resource department. Businesses that telework successfully offer training programs that focus on communication -- "and communication in an environment where people may never see each other."

8. Have backup.

Even if you're a one-person shop, you've got to take a break if you want some semblance of work/life balance. Line up an answering service or someone who can check your voicemail or take emergency calls, Bredin says.

9. Laugh.

Not everyone is going to understand a home office. Sometimes, they'll mull it over silently. Other times, they'll say the darndest things.

"'Oh, you work at home. It must be great to take a lot of naps!' That's the one I always got," Bredin says.

Forget the snappy replies. A sense of humor is your closest friend.

10. Be flexible.

You've followed all the advice, your at-home work and at-home life are humming along then it falls apart.

Welcome to the real world. Balance is a tricky thing, Zbar says. It shifts. What works today may need tweaking tomorrow and a wholesale revamping next year.

"It's not that you reach nirvana, and you have landed. Your flight's going to take off again," he says. "But it's fun. I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC. She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today,, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post.