Taking Care Of Business Without Leaving The House

After 3 1/2 years of working for a public-television station in Dallas while her husband ran a vineyard in California's Napa Valley, Pat Perini could no longer stand the separation. So she cut a deal with her employer: She would move to Northern California and continue to work as an executive producer out of her house. "You can live almost anywhere with a phone, fax, modem, and Federal Express," says Perini, who has since become an independent film producer.

Perini exemplifies a familiar trend: More people are making a living by working out of a home office. According to Link Resources, a New York market-research firm, 37 million U.S. households--38% of the total--contain at least one person doing income-generating work at home. Although many are self-employed, the 8.4 million telecommuters--corporate individuals working part- or full-time at home during business hours--represent the fastest-growing segment.

WEB TAMERS. If home is where the job is, technology is helping it become more so by letting people tackle increasingly complex work chores. Computers, software, and other electronic gear are dropping in price even as they get more powerful and versatile. Consider multifunction devices that combine printing, faxing, scanning, and copying in one machine. A compact color portable such as Canon's sleek new BJC-70 can handle your printing needs and then be stored in a closet. Standards are being developed so that you can share digital voice and data simultaneously over a single telephone line.

The use of Internet electronic mail is also becoming commonplace, and small businesses are just learning to tame the World Wide Web by putting marketing or advertising information on Web pages. "What's critical," says Dana Simmons, a managing director at technology-research firm Find/SVP, "are better and better information services--knowing instantaneously where my FedEx package is [via modem] or finding out who's calling me with caller ID."

For his part, Simmons turned a spare bedroom in his Santa Barbara (Calif.) home into a fully equipped office, with a Macintosh computer, two phone lines, a fax, laser printer, and a relatively simple, inexpensive video hookup that lets him hold teleconferences from his office. Amazingly, he is using a regular phone line and modem, a $100 camera, Cornell's CU-See Me software (downloaded off the Internet for free), and a 14,400 bits-per-second modem. Simmons also set up his own computer site on the Net, and he uses GTE's voice-mail service and an 800 number from AT&T.

Environmental, political, and economic pressures also help explain the rise in home offices. Many of the workers jettisoned during corporate restructurings chose to venture out on their own. And companies nationwide are seeking ways to respond to Clean Air Act provisions to reduce the number of cars on the road. In high-traffic areas such as Southern California, companies are fined if a certain number of employees don't carpool, use public transportation--or work from home. Partly as a result, managers are becoming more flexible about letting some of the troops work away from the office, at least occasionally.

Again, technology is helping pave the way. The boss will probably become even more lenient if and when high-speed integrated services digital network phone lines and videoconferencing become pervasive--that way, she can keep an eye on you. At present, Intel's ProShare videoconferencing kit--containing a camera, video cards, microphone, and earphone--costs around $999 per site, provided you simultaneously sign on for ISDN service from your local phone company. The video image is still jerky, but people can catch the helpful visual cues that are absent in a regular phone call.

BOUNDARIES. Whatever technology is in place, the increased flexibility of working at home often boosts productivity. Telecommuters may use the time they would otherwise spend traveling on work chores. Moreover, those without kids who resist the temptation to flip on the O.J. trial or do laundry probably face fewer distractions at home than they might in an office filled with superfluous meetings and hallway schmoozing. Jack M. Nilles, president of the JALA International consulting firm in Los Angeles, and author of Making Telecommuting Happen ($24.95, Van Nostrand Reinhold), estimates that a person working one to two days a week at home can save a company $6,000 to $12,000 a year because of hikes in productivity, reduced office space, and lower turnover.

Those who set up shop at home must think about more than electronic gear. As with a work space on company turf, your home office should be a well-lit room with comfortable, ergonomic furniture. Whenever possible, it should be situated in a garage, attic, or isolated part of the house. If you're telecommuting, you may have to haggle with your employer over equipment. Don't be surprised if you strike out. Tom Miller, a vice-president at Find/SVP, says about 80% of home-office gear is paid for by individuals, not companies. "You buy a car to get to work," he says. "You buy a computer to work from home."

Those who work at home also need self-discipline. The 9-to-5 routine no longer means as much, but it helps to focus on the tasks at hand--and to know when to call it quits for the day. With home PCs, remote access to computer networks, and E-mail, you can pretty much work around the clock. "The most difficult thing is having a sense of boundary and cutting it off," says Perini, the TV and film producer, who nonetheless likes the convenience of walking into her office on a Saturday without getting into a car.

And home work has other downsides. If you like being around other people, you could have trouble adjusting to the isolation. Some home workers join a networking group, invite others to visit them, or communicate online in, say, CompuServe's Working From Home forum. But you may miss out on the kind of spontaneous brainstorms that erupt when you're chatting up co-workers by the water cooler.

Full-time telecommuters may also face real career anxieties. What if being out of sight also means out of mind, allowing you to get passed over for a promotion or bonus? The danger: You could overcompensate and turn into a workaholic. Telecommuters may feel left out of the loop on official company business--or office gossip. And colleagues sometimes resent them, especially if, during office emergencies, the visible bodies are the ones always called upon to put out fires.

To quash these concerns, experts advise telecommuters to visit headquarters as often as possible. Poking your head into the offices of superiors and cohorts never hurts, nor does picking up the phone or sending regular "what's going on?" E-mail queries.

KID CARES. At times, you may need to drop in on a real office, to entertain clients or take advantage of audio-visual equipment. You might want to rent a conference room at a nearby hotel or share office space with other professionals in your area. But again, technology can come to the rescue. You can make a strong marketing pitch to clients with no more than a color laptop PC and software packages such as Microsoft PowerPoint or Lotus Freelance Graphics.

A key benefit of working at home is the chance to be close to your family. But it's a decidedly mixed blessing. Experts advise home workers to set ground rules with the rest of the clan. Paul and Sarah Edwards, authors of Working From Home ($15.95, G.P. Putnam's Sons), recommend "child-proofing" your office rather than "office-proofing" your children--that is, let the kids be kids. Some parents keep the home office off-limits even after business hours. Others design their workday around the child's schedule. Working at home is no substitute for child care, however. You can't hold a baby in one hand and pound away on a keyboard with the other.

At some point, your business may grow to the point where it no longer makes sense to work at home. One solution would be to rent an office nearby. Or perhaps you could turn some of your profits into an addition on your house or a larger home. Once you get a taste of commuting down the hall in your slippers, you might decide that, when it comes to working, there's no place like home.

Keeping Your Home and Office Separate

Home is home. Work is work. Even though you work at home, it's important to maintain that distinction.

-- Clearly demarcate your work space by using a separate room or partition.

-- Set definite work hours.

-- Have a signal that makes it clear when you don't want to be disturbed.

-- Set boundaries. Learn to say, "No, I'm working now."

-- Maintain a separate business phone line and use an answering machine or service.

-- Dress in a particular way when you are working, though you need not put on a suit and tie or heels.

-- Organize your office to keep work materials, paper, and equipment in clearly defined office spaces.

-- If possible, have a separate outside entrance.


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