When friends and colleagues find out that I work from home, most of them are immediately jealous. Telecommuting positions sound like dream jobs to many people, with ideals of working in pajamas, playing loud music, and keeping a fresh pot of coffee right next to the desk. As a successful business person who takes pride in my work, I know telecommuting isn’t just the pleasure of a home office. It takes a lot of prep work to build a professional environment, and it takes a lot of mental toughness to work effectively without letting work invade the rest of my life.
Whether you are making money as a freelancer, or whether you are telecommuting three days a week doing work for your employer, you need to make sure that you are physically and mentally ready for some major changes. Don’t commit to a remote project for the wrong reasons; it can be a damaging career mistake that can be tough to recover from. Think about your personal, professional, and family needs before you get started.
Telecommuting is more than just being able to reach your laptop from your bed. You need the right equipment, services, and setup. Being in control of your workspace is great, but maintaining a healthy and effective home office takes thought, planning, and year-round attention.
First of all, you need room to work. As a telecommuter working from home, you should set aside a defined workspace to help you get in the right frame of mind for your work, and to separate professional time from leisure time. Additionally, dedicated office space sends a clear message to others in your household that you are doing work. But you don’t need to give up an entire room of your house or rent a bigger apartment. You can convert an unused closet into office space (there are even kits now that can help), or just set up in a quiet corner of the house.
My home office is only about fifteen square feet, but it’s clearly defined as a work area. It runs along one wall of a room we mostly use for storage. I face the wall, with a window to my right, so I don’t have distractions, but I do get natural light and a pleasant view. I created a professional environment by hanging my diplomas on the wall, along with some award plaques. I keep a plant on one side of my desk, and an all-in-one printer on the other. I have a pencil jar, telephone, and picture of my husband and son next to my computer.
I know some telecommuters who use folding screens to create a partition, blocking a portion of a large family room. Others set up a card table and a laptop in the basement. Whatever your preference is, the idea is to create a physically and psychologically distinct space for your work.
2. High-speed Internet Access
If you’re going to be a successful telecommuter, the most obvious and important piece of equipment you need is a computer with high-speed Internet access. A slow machine and a dial-up connection certainly won’t do it, and you need something more reliable than stealing your neighbor’s Wi-Fi.
Additionally, make sure your computer can handle your workload and make computer hardware upgrades whenever necessary. You need a fast processor, adequate disk space, and plenty of RAM. Secure your Wi-Fi connection so you don’t give up bandwith to neighbors stealing your connection.
Personally, I need a workhorse computer that can withstand constant use for anywhere from five hours to eight hours a day. I once burned out a cheap desktop in less than a year. Though my current machine was a big investment, the painfully obvious choice was between spending more on a new computer that would last three years and buying a cheap computer every nine or ten months.
Further, if you know that you will be participating in meetings from your home office, get a high-quality camera and microphone or headset. Make sure your desktop or laptop has enough USB ports to connect all of your devices, or get a hub if you need more capacity. Ensure that you have adequate disk space and RAM, and that you have adequate bandwidth from your high-speed Internet service provider.
A slow computer makes a slow worker, and old technology means low-quality output. If you want to succeed and be a valued telecommuting employee or contractor, make sure your technology equipment can keep up with you.
Find out what programs you need to effectively accomplish your work. Freelance graphic designers and telecommuting architects, for example, need customized design software. Video producers need cutting-edge editing software.
Decide whether or nor you’ll need applications and programs for text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, design, drafting, or FTP file transfers. Ask your employer to provide or reimburse you for professional versions of relevant software. But if they won’t license programs for you, take on the expense yourself. Don’t cut corners and skimp on software. You’ll only end up turning in shoddy work or wasting time. You can try out some free cloud-based applications (i.e. 25 online resources for freelancers and small businesses), or if you have to shell out the cash, research your opportunities to claim tax deductions for business expenses.
Don’t forget that to participate in meetings from your home office, you may need company-specific meeting software, as well as Adobe Reader so you can open and read any important documents you receive.
4. Traditional Office Equipment and Supplies
You might not have a supply closet that’s as big as the ones in corporate offices, but you must equip your home office with the same supplies you’d find anywhere else. You’ll need the big stuff, including:
- A printer and professional-grade paper
- A scanner (and related software)
- A copier
A fax machine isn’t as crucial as it used to be, but your industry may still depend on that technology. Most all-in-one printers cover everything from scanning and copying to faxing, so you should be able to get everything you need in one affordable, space-saving device.
Get a business phone that can handle conference calls. Using your cell phone as your primary office phone may be acceptable, but think about how clear calls sound in your home and how often your carrier drops the call. If your family uses the phone a lot, a dedicated business line will prevent embarrassing pickups that can hurt your business. Alternatively, Skype, Google Voice, and other VoIP services are low-cost and often free methods of maintaining a business line. Particularly if you make a lot of international calls, consider your digital options or home phone landline alternatives.
Also, I use a headset with my phone, so I can type notes while I conduct interviews and keep my hands free during long calls. If you have a cell phone, a Bluetooth headset can be a real convenience in your home office.
Your checklist of smaller traditional office supplies should include:
- Pens and pencils
- Paper clips
- A stapler and staples
- Rubber bands
- Document clips
- Filing folders, binders, or even a file cabinet
To stay organized, I have dividers on my desk, as well as a bulletin board and a small whiteboard to help me diagram my workflow and keep up with task lists.
5. Back-up Office
Finally, you need a back-up office. This might sound extreme, but you don’t want to first think of it in an urgent situation. For example, I’ve experienced sudden Internet outages at incredibly inconvenient times, so I know how long it takes to get to the local coffee shop with free Wi-Fi access. I also know that there are days when my house can be particularly noisy, and I’ll need an alternate location for some quiet work, like the library.
The key is to know your options and be ready to use them whenever necessary. You don’t need two of every supply item you own, but keep a laptop bag stocked with crucial items so you can grab it and go without missing much time.
Now that you’ve properly set up your physical surroundings and developed your backup plan, it’s time to prepare emotionally and mentally to be a telecommuter. The psychological differences between a home office and traditional office surprise a lot of telecommuters, and when you’re trying to do good work, you don’t have time for unexpected trouble. Get to know these non-physical aspects of a telecommuting lifestyle.
Especially if you’ve recently left a traditional office setting, you may feel isolated and alone in your home office. It’s easy to get used to the social aspects of working in an office, even the distractions and annoyances that might have bothered you some days.
Before you commit to a telecommuting role, think about how you’d feel if you had to work alone all day. If you need the social contact of the office, you might not be ready for working from home. But you don’t have to just turn down an opportunity. There are a few ways to ease those feelings. Some people choose to work a few hours at a local Wi-Fi hotspot a couple times a week. You can also schedule some lunch meetings to get some human interaction and say goodbye to loneliness. Other people feel that online interaction, especially video chat, is enough.
Depending on your schedule, you can also take some breaks to spend time with your family, or just take pleasure in how quickly you can be with family members as soon as the work day is over.
2. Knowing When to Quit
Figuring out when the day is over, however, is another challenge. In fact, it was the toughest thing I dealt with when I began freelancing from home. Especially as a freelancer with a sporadic schedule, it’s tough to find the cues that let me know when it’s time to quit. Without leaving an office building, getting in the car, and driving home, it’s very difficult to experience that “quitting time” feeling. It’s too easy and too tempting to just pop back into the home office to do a little more work.
It takes time to get used to separating work time from free time, but eventually you’ll realize that it’s okay to simply stop working for the day. Otherwise you’ll face problems in your family relationships, and you’ll deal with higher levels of stress than you ever did in a corporate office. If you’re running your own business, set a schedule and stick to it. That schedule should include your start time, specific blocks of time for certain projects, short breaks, and an official end time. If you fall behind, it’s fine to “stay late,” but sometimes you just have to set the project aside and relax and spend time with your family.
Remember, it takes just as much discipline to end the day as it does to start it.
Sure, large offices have plenty of distractions, but not necessarily the more pleasant distractions that lurk around a home office. At home, you have books, movies, TV, and video games, not to mention friends and neighbors and other potential surprises. There’s also the inviting comfort of your bed and sofa and the temptation of a quick nap. Without the threat of a boss looking over your shoulder, it’s easy to give in to disturbances and disruptions.
Children can be a particular challenge, since they’re very persistent and may in fact need your attention. Separating your office area from the rest of your home makes it a lot easier to teach kids that work time is “do not disturb” time.
Try to build your schedule with your kids’ routines in mind. Plan to accomplish your toughest tasks during your baby’s naptime or while your older kids are in school. Take advantage of times when your children are entertaining themselves. Before my son reached school age, I found it helpful to send him to a sitter twice a week for a few hours, just to get a solid block of time to get work done. That also made it easier to know when to stop working, because after the sitter I could focus all of my attention on him.
Most telecommuters have to be self-motivated. If you’re telecommuting as a full-time employee, your company may require you to “clock in” at a certain time – just as you would if you went into the office. But if you’re self-employed or on a flexible schedule, you need the internal motivation to make yourself work, even when you may not want to. Though you’re saving time on your commute, you don’t have time to lie in bed or veg out watching reruns when you’re on a deadline.
Part of telecommuting is forcing yourself to keep working, or trying to find work, even when you don’t feel like it. Figure out what drives you, and keep some reminders around your office space. If you’re in it for the money, remember that your paycheck depends on finding work and completing it on time. If you’re doing it for your kids, keep their pictures nearby. If you’re an artist, surround yourself with your favorite work. In my case, the fact that I am the primary breadwinner served as a great motivator.
Finally, whether you’re a stable full-time employee or a less secure freelancer, you need to carefully review the business aspects of being your own manager.
If you’re starting a home-based business, study up on the different organizational options available to you. The most common means of registering legally are as a sole proprietorship, LLC, S-Corp, or C-Corp. Talk with a lawyer and your accountant to figure out what meets your needs. Think about payroll needs, tax implications, legal liability, and bookkeeping.
Taxes are going to be a big deal. The good news is you can take home office tax deductions, and if you own a business of course there are even more deductions available. But it’s not all tax deductions and fun when you work from home.
When you’re employed by a company, you only end up paying half of your Social Security and Medicare taxes. The business takes care of the rest. When you are self-employed however, you have to be prepared to pay both halves on your own including self employment tax. Additionally, prepare to pay quarterly estimated taxes. If you don’t, you might end up being charged interest and other penalties on top of what you owe.
The IRS does not look kindly on home business owners who set the money aside in a high-yield savings account for the entire year and then pay taxes after earning interest for twelve months. Instead, break down how much you would owe each month, and put that aside in a high yield account. Then, each time quarterly taxes are due, you can make your payment. You’ll still earn some interest, and you won’t upset the IRS.
3. Health Insurance and Retirement Plans
If you’re a full-time telecommuter, you’re probably not worried about any special health insurance circumstances. But if you’re self-employed, you’ll need to get private health insurance, unless you have a spouse who can include you in a health plan. Private insurers offer group plans for families and individual plans, and premiums are usually tax-deductible. Combine a high-deductible plan with a health savings account, and your out of pocket expenses can be deductible too.
Similarly, if you don’t have access to a company-sponsored retirement plan, you have better options than just forgetting about savings. You can open your own accounts, like an IRA or solo 401k. You can even open more than one IRA and take advantage of options like SIMPLE and SEP IRA accounts, which are designed for business owners.
4. Marketing Yourself
If you’re self-employed, marketing yourself can’t be an afterthought. It’s a vital part of your work day. Learn how to use online options like a personal website, digital networks, blogs, social media, and offline strategies including advertising and attending events.
Also, figure out how much you want to charge for your skills. Research what someone with your skill set and experience can expect to earn for different jobs. You want to set reasonable and competitive freelancing rates, but you also want to make what you are worth. Consider what you need to make it “worth it” to put in your time, and what you can reasonably expect. Then, begin to set your rates for your work, or price your products.
Be a student. Take affordable classes at a nearby community college. Keep learning and honing the skills that will make you an attractive vendor or new hire. You’re going to face a very competitive marketplace, so the better you communicate and network, the more you’ll stand out from similar professionals.
Telecommuting can be a great asset for the modern workforce. From freelancing to joining a “virtual office,” proving that you can succeed as a remote worker can make you attractive to potential employers. There are plenty of personal fringe benefits to telecommuting, like saving on commuting costs to working in sweatpants. But in the end, you have to be ready to shoulder the responsibility of telecommuting. You need the right equipment for setting up an effective home office, and the mental strength and stamina to dedicate yourself to high quality work from home.
Once you’re physical and mentally prepared, you can explore the exciting business aspects of telecommuting too. Only after you have given the downsides as much thought as the advantages will you really know whether or not you are ready to telecommute.
Do you work from home? What’s your office setup like and what kind of work are you doing? What challenges do you face when you try to run a business from your home office day to day?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)