by Myrna Beth Haskell
When acquaintances hear that I have an office at home, the typical response is, "You're living the good life!" After all, I don't have to fight traffic each morning, spend a small fortune on hosiery, or dodge casual office gossip. Instead, I make myself a cup of coffee after dropping the kids at the bus, and head upstairs to my comfortable and cozy domain, where I have seven hours of uninterrupted work time. Yeah, right!
Let's try that again. I drop the kids off at the bus and the minute I walk through the door, the phone is ringing. It's my friend down the street. She's been leaving messages and I haven't gotten back to her. Naturally, I don't want to cut her off as she is telling me that her kids are home sick with a nasty virus. I start upstairs when the doorbell rings. It's a UPS delivery. I take the box and look at the return sticker. I'm elated because it's from the Oriental Trading Company. Only a mother planning a birthday party for her seven-year-old could get excited about this. With my daughter's party looming, I get sidetracked and start to open the box to separate toys for the "goodie bags."
Finally, I head back up ready for some serious work. I have only been working a short while when that lousy ring breaks my concentration. It's the school nurse. I learn that my son has a temperature - must be that nasty virus! So I get dressed (that's right...I'm not dressed yet) and drive to the school to get my son. He is nine. So I figure the couch, a warm blanket and a couple of chewable Acetaminophens will do just fine. Now it is almost noon - thirty minutes until he is hungry for lunch. So at twelve thirty, I head down to scrounge something up. Shortly afterwards, while I'm absorbed answering some e-mail, I hear a distant call from my sick nine-year-old. "Maaaaaaa! The dog made a mess on the rug!" The dog! I forgot - I have a dog! So I take the dog out for a walk and spend the next half hour scrubbing the stain out of the carpet.
Now I'm stressed out and tired. I have a scant hour to get my daughter from the bus stop (one of the reasons I like working from home), but I've accomplished almost nothing! There's that ring again. This time it's the PTA President to tell me that a copy of the minutes that I took at the last meeting is passed due. Did I forget to mention that someone twisted my arm to volunteer for the PTA? I type up the PTA minutes and glance at the clock. It's three forty-five and time to get my daughter. My exuberant seven-year-old hops off the bus and insists on my undivided attention so she can fill me in on her day. We still have to eat dinner, do homework and get to gymnastics by six thirty. So much for my day at work!
Thankfully, my workdays do not always follow this tangled path. I have, however, learned to accept inevitable interruptions and to modify my day with a sense of balance and sanity as I schedule my personal and family time around my work schedule.
Is A Home Office The Right Choice For You and Your Family?
What are your expectations for a home office? Do you envision having flexible hours and unlimited refrigerator access? This all sounds great, but having a home office and utilizing it to its fullest potential is easier said than done - especially when you have children. I decided to work from home because I knew that the flexible work schedule would allow me to volunteer at my children's school and be able to pick them up at the bus or from after-school activities without having to rely on neighbors and carpools. I have to admit that I had unreasonable expectations about how many hours I could actually put in before their return home from school. Certainly if you are a parent with preschoolers you can count on your time being cut in half.
First you need to set priorities and choose to become comfortable with the outcome. I decided that it was important for my kids to come first. So if I miss two hours of work because I decide to help out at a Christmas party, or I miss an entire day because I sign up for a field trip, I chalk it up to the fact that I will only be raising my children for a short while. I often make up for those hours by working once the children are in bed.
There are many things you can do to reduce unexpected as well as scheduled interruptions. After all, working from home does grant you many amenities that a position at a downtown firm could never offer.
A Space of Your Own
Your children need to understand that your "office" is a private workspace and that it is off limits to them. Therefore, it is best for this space to have a single purpose. Although multi-purpose rooms are the rage these days, having a space for your business that is yours and ONLY yours is best. If your space seconds as a playroom or family gathering area, you can count on problems. This space should preferably be in an area of the house with low traffic flow (a wall adjacent to a staircase or your front door will not suffice). An area of a finished basement or a room with a door to section it off from the rest of the house will be the most practical.
Ideally, all of your supplies should be located in your "office" so there is no need to run to other storage areas in your home to fetch things. Even if this area is not a separate room, make sure that you are equipped with plenty of shelves, file cabinets and a large desk with lots of drawers to house all of your necessities.
Keep Interruptions To A Minimum
Are you the type of person who is easily distracted by external influences? The telephone can prove to be a big problem. Your best bet is to have a separate line for business and emergency calls. If your other phone rings, let an answering machine pick up. If purchasing a second line is not in the budget, perhaps a "caller ID" service will work. You should also tell your friends that you are unavailable for social calls during the day - they will understand. Don't let yourself get distracted by the doorbell either. The UPS delivery will be left at your door and you can get it when you decide to take a break.
It is also easy to commit yourself to too many volunteer activities. Folks will be apt to ask you because you are home and your time, therefore, seems flexible. My best advice: Learn to say no. Choose only those things that are most important to you and your family.
Another major distraction can be the beckoning housework. The dust balls on the furniture and the laundry piled up in the hall seem to nag "clean me" and "wash me" incessantly. When you work from home it's extremely tempting to try to catch up on the housework, but you need to shut the door and pretend it's not there. Keep in mind that whether you work from home or in an office outside of the home, there will always be distractions.
Scheduling That Works
Set a work schedule and stick to it. If you decide to work from nine to four, for instance, give yourself thirty minutes for lunch and abide by your start and end times as much as possible. Obviously, if you have a preschooler or two at home this will be a lot more difficult. In this case, your workday will be scattered, but it still can be consistent. Schedule hours during nap times and evenings when your spouse can help with the children. You may also want to consider hiring a "mother's helper" for two hours a day or planning a "play date swap" with a friend once a week. When possible, plan all errands for the same day. Several jaunts throughout the week are much more disruptive.
One of the obvious rewards you reap when you work from home is that you can fit in time for your children's activities without having to ask someone else for permission. My children look forward to a monthly "lunch date" with Mom in the school cafeteria - something that would be hard to arrange otherwise. Working from an office at home can be a convenient and rewarding experience for the whole family. Creating and sticking to a reasonable work schedule that allows for flexibility will enable you to balance work and family better than you ever imagined.
Myrna Beth Haskell is a freelance writer and mother of two. She writes
for parenting, women's and home and garden magazines. You can access
her website at: http://home.hvc.rr.com/haskellfamily/myrna/
to view a list of her available work and for more information.