Working from home

Think you'll be able to earn a decent income while saving big bucks on daycare and keeping your spotless home running smoothly? Better think twice

All I had to do was make one super-quick work-related phone call. Neither my husband nor my part-time sitter was around, so I gave my 10-month-old daughter a snack and a toy, and sat her on the floor of my home office. I dialed the number; I got my guy. While I asked him my one question, my daughter crawled under the desk and deftly snapped off my phone’s power bar.

This is what it’s really like to be a parent who works at home.

It’s not perfect, and it’s sure not easy. Yet, somehow, many parents are still seduced by the myth that they can make good money, spend oodles of time with the kids, whip off batches of homemade tomato sauce, and pay down the mortgage with what they save in gas. Get real. “If you want to make money, you have to treat it like a business or a job. You have to take it seriously,” warns Leslie Truex, a Virginia-based entrepreneur and author of The Work-at-Home Success Bible.

Thinking of making the leap to working from home? Read on for a good hard look at what that might entail.

Illusion: You have no need for child care.

Reality “That’s fine if you don’t need to sleep,” quips Karen Kerk-Courtney, who has run an organic skin care company out of her home in Thunder Bay, Ont., for the last three years. “I realized very early that I couldn’t get a day’s worth of work done during a one-hour nap.” You can check email and run errands with young children around, but serious concentration or in-depth phone calls require kid-free time.

Solution Half-day preschool, co-op daycare, part-time sitters and kid swapping with neighbours — all these low-cost approaches to daycare are perfect for work-at-home parents with young kids. Older children might not need care, but they need distraction while you work. Lynda Menegotti, a website designer and virtual assistant from Fergus, Ont., gets her nine- and 12-year-old working on research and writing projects every afternoon — she home- schools them — and then fires up her own computer and works too.

Illusion: You can do housework during the day.

Reality Dust and grocery shop at your own risk: Domesticity can eat away at your worktime and leave you with little income. But it’s tempting when you’re at home — you’re eating more from the fridge and making more mess. “The moms I hear from say hiring someone to come in and clean is the first thing they look forward to doing as soon as they feel they can afford it,” says Menegotti.

Solution Schedule your work, child care and household tasks — and make sure you stick to the plan. During the day, slot in quick chores, such as wiping down the bathroom sink. Conny McRiner, a mom of three who runs a home daycare just outside of Halifax, zips in and out of her laundry room — which is close to the playroom — throughout the day, doing loads. For serious housecleaning, such as vacuuming or scouring the stove, either delegate the tasks to someone you pay or do it weekends or evenings like everyone else with a “real” job.

Illusion: You’re free to hang out all day.

Reality “That is one of my biggest pet peeves,” says McRiner. “People think because I’m home I can chat on the phone all day.” Playing hooky to go on playdates or visit the zoo is not great for a business, and certainly won’t wash if you’re working from home as an employee.

Solution Menegotti now screens all phone calls. Kerk-Courtney has set times during the week when she and the kids are free for outings. Lesley Pyle of Spring, Tex., who runs the support website Home-Based Working Moms (hbwm.com), suggests saying you have a deadline when they call. “The word ‘deadline’ has more weight than ‘work,’” she says.

Illusion: Life will be less stressful.

Reality “I didn’t like getting up in the morning, getting in the shower and getting dressed so I could get to a job. That was stressful for me,” says Pyle of her life before home employment. But running your own business or being under extra scrutiny as a telecommuter is no day at the beach either. “I think it’s 100 percent more stressful,” says Menegotti. Not only do you need to make work-related deadlines and expectations, but you do so in plain view of piles of laundry and kids who want your attention. “Your life isn’t as neatly compartmentalized as if you were working out of the home,” says Kerk-Courtney.

Solution Being realistic about how much time you’ll need for work can help you avoid facing an important deadline with no time or no child care. It also helps to have a local teenager or friend who will provide emergency care if you hit a crunch. Plus, you’ll feel less stressed if you don’t demand perfection from either your work or family life. “I used to want everybody to like me,” recalls Pyle. “I still don’t like it if someone is not pleased, but I don’t take it hard, as I used to.”

Illusion: You’ll save money on that working wardrobe.

Reality This myth is not too far off. “I can count on one finger the number of days I have to wear pantyhose,” says Kerk-Courtney. “And that’s a good thing.” However, while stay-at-homers save serious bucks on clothing, dressing like a slob can mess up your self-esteem. Menegotti used to work in retail and gussied up daily, but now she’s all about the jeans and sweatshirts. “I think I’ve let it go too far the other way,” she admits.

Solution “I have a passion for Lululemon,” says McRiner. “I buy nice activewear so even though I’m home, I still look pretty good and, when the delivery man comes to the door, I don’t look like the frumpy old housewife.” Some do well working in their PJs. But Pyle says she needs to shower every morning, dress in comfy but stylish clothes, and do her hair and makeup. “I want to have the appearance that I take what I do seriously,” she says.

Illusion: No more office politics!

Reality True, you don’t have to deal with daily bickering from co-workers, workplace gossip or hovering bosses (although you may still catch glimpses of such things if you’re telecommuting). But don’t forget office work provides you with a social life. Colleagues share news, offer tips on which books to read, and inspire you to work harder to come up with new ideas. Meanwhile, you’ll still be working with clients, colleagues and customers — and those interactions might not all be great. “There are difficult people in every environment; I don’t think you’ll ever get away from that,” says Menegotti. She finds that doing contract work can lead to more conflict and frustration, as those who hire you sometimes don’t fully understand what you do and how long it takes.

Solution Meet people you work with face to face as much as possible, for socializing and for the benefits to your business. Truex says social media sites (Facebook, Twitter) can help you stay connected to friends and colleagues throughout the day. But you also need to get out and away from work and family. McRiner hits the gym a few times a week and has outings with friends in the evenings.

Illusion: You’ll save tons of money.

Reality You won’t be dropping as much on gas or lunches out, and you’ll save on your taxes thanks to extra deductions, ranging from the cost of a new computer to the interest on your mortgage. But working at home, like working outside the home, costs money. First, you may have to invest in key work tools like a top-of-the-line sewing machine, a solid drafting table or a speedy laptop. As well, you may have to upgrade to high-speed Internet (no big deal for most, but this runs $100 in rural areas like where Kerk-Courtney lives), up your cellphone minutes, get a second phone line, buy a fax machine, increase your insurance coverage or get an air conditioner. The most serious cost for the home set: extra space. Kerk-Courtney, Menegotti, McRiner and I all desperately need larger homes, mainly because of our workspace needs.

Solution “It’s not automatic that you’ll save,” says Truex. “You have to know your money — what’s coming in, what’s going out.” If your goal is to cut back expenses, you’ll have to avoid ordering takeout, resist splurging on the kids, drive less, buy used office furniture, and take advantage of free web-based services for your business (online applications exist for creating websites and accepting and sending faxes). And don’t let those tax savings distract you: If you work for yourself, you need to save up for your end-of-year tax bill and sock away more in RRSPs to make up for having no workplace pension plan.

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