Wednesday, May 04, 2011

On Working From Home

So in my recent post on working with chronic illness, I mentioned a forthcoming piece on working from home.

Now, before I launch into my experiences with and take on working from home, I should point out some illness-specific benefits: There is more flexibility to schedule doctor appointments, tests, and daily chest physiotherapy. On “bad” days I can still work, even if means moving my home office to the couch and typing over the nebulizer mask. On days when other conditions flare and I can’t move my legs well (for example) I don’t have to worry about how I will get from point A to point B. Less commuting on public transportation and less time in crowded places during the peak cold/flu season means less opportunity for me to catch things that leave much sicker for longer than the average person.

And of course, when I am in the hospital, my laptop and wireless access mean I can keep on working.

I must admit that there are a lot of positives in working from home when trying to manage a career and chronic illness. It doesn’t mean working less—in fact, one of the biggest challenges is that there is little separation from work life and regular life—it just means it is a little easier to work better when my body gets in my way.

I’ve worked from home in some way or another for nine years now, whether it’s a couple days a week during the semester or full-time doing freelance work and writing books. This Boston Globe piece on working from home did point out some relevant challenges and opportunities of working home. I particularly enjoyed the response to the claim that it is easy to take care of children and get work done—sure, bring your child to your office sometime and see how much work you get done!

Anyway, I think the key to working from home successfully is knowing your strengths and weaknesses and finding a routine that works for you. It’s not for everyone. It can be lonely and isolating. It can be really hard to focus and self-motivate. It can completely usurp your home/family balance. Some people get strength from social interaction and do best when they draw from the energy of a group. Some people need regular check-ins and accountability for best results. The point is, know the conditions that allow you to succeed.

For me, it doesn’t matter how sick I feel or how late I was up working or with the baby; I sit down at my desk in my home office every morning, coffee in hand, and go through my inbox/headlines/social media check-in. I break for a brief lunch. I don’t make or take personal calls during my designated work hours: those hours are scarce and precious to me, and I try to make the most of them. Sometimes I need a change of scenery and go to a coffee shop; other times I know I just need to plow through it without any distractions or stepping away from my computer. I make to-do lists every night before I go to bed.

Oh, and before my daughter was even born I knew I wasn’t going to try a full-time course load with a full-time writing career, a large part of which happens from my home office, without some child care. As I mentioned before, even if it means working many hours late at night and very early, my time with her is about her, and when I am working, I just want to focus so I can get it done more efficiently and therefore, have more quality time with my family.

Boundaries are also fundamental. I think many of us, whether we work from home or not, struggle with knowing when to “shut off” work, and this is especially true when our office is in our home and our deadlines are often self-imposed. It’s no secret that balance is hard for me, and I do think working from home exacerbates that.

But creating our own boundaries is just one part of it. The other part is reinforcing those boundaries with the people in our lives. The expectation we can chat whenever, we can make plans any time of day, etc simply because we are working from home can get frustrating, and if I don’t hold up those boundaries (nicely) I can’t expect others to respect them, either.

Sometimes I feel there is an inherent value judgment that other people’s time is more valuable than mine if they happen to work in a traditional office setting and I am at home, that my time is more expendable.

And in a way, it is—that’s both the challenge of it. If I need to or want to, I can step away more easily. I can take my daughter to music class, or go to another doctor’s appointment, etc and make up the time later in the day or the week (or weekend). I don’t work from home a large part of the time for this—it just so happens that writing, editing, being a professor, and consulting lend themselves to a non-traditional work situation—but it is a major positive that is more important than ever now that I have a child. Yet if I am not vigilant and disciplined, flexibility could become a detriment.

Lastly, working from home leaves me in a weird place when it comes to play dates, making friends with other mothers, etc. I am not away at an office every day of the week (during the semester, 2-3), but I am not at SAHM, either. I don’t make plans for evenings often, even on weekends, because I am usually trying to keep my head above water, work-wise.

These are not complaints, merely observations. I’ve made decisions to bring me to this point, ones I hope set me up for the most success in terms of my health, my careers, and my ability to be the mother I want to be. Like everything, there are compromises but for me and in my personal set of circumstances, the compromises are worth it.

Anyone with tips or observations to share? If you’ve made the switch to working from home, are you glad you did? Did you do it for your health?

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