Working From Home vs A Home Office

A few weeks back Mashable ran a post entitled “Can Employees Be Trusted to Work From Home.” The post was really just a wrapper around an infographic created by OnlineDegrees.com. I must say that some of what they present I find at least mildly offensive. Perhaps “offensive” isn’t quite the right term. Let’s just say that it doesn’t apply in my case, and probably doesn’t in yours either.

They report as follows:

“One recent study found that more than 40% of employees who work from home pull double-duty watching TV or a movie. More than a quarter nap or cook dinner while on the clock, and 20% play video games on the company dime…”

Wow. This certainly doesn’t describe my working life. But then again, over many years I have constantly been reminded that I’m not normal.

It later occurred to me that “working from home” is not the same as being based out of a home office. These are, or at least can be, very different things indeed.

 

The infographic presented has a main title that says, ”Clocking In From The Couch.” While I can’t speak for anyone else, I’ve simply never done such a thing. When I “go to work” it means making the trek across our back deck to the home office located in our garage.

Now don’t go thinking of “the garage” as some quasi-finished man-cave with a pool table, girly posters and a beer fridge. Nothing could be further from reality.

When we bought our house it was in part because the one-bedroom garage apartment was ideally suited for use as a home office. It’s comfortable and physically separate from the house, which lends a very real separation of work and personal activities, even though the commute is only a dozen yards.

I’m not working until I get to my desk. When I’m in the office I am working. I’ve constructed a home office that supports my personal sense of productivity, which may actually be beyond that of some of my office-bound co-workers. That’s no slight against them. The home office is my personal workspace. It’s my own personal distraction-free zone. The walls are adorned with art from a past life. The fridge is full of wine.

my-workspace-2

My attitude about working from a home office stems from the point where my home office became my only office. I was working for a company based in the Toronto area, but spending much of my working life traveling to customer sites in the US. When I decided to marry and relocate to the US I took my boss to lunch to break the news. I offered two options; I would work from a home office in Texas, occasionally visiting Toronto as needed, or they’d simply have to replace me.

That was fifteen years ago.

When working from home full-time is your idea, forced upon your employer, there is an absolute requirement to bring some discipline to the situation. Your productivity needs to be equal-to-or-better-than your corporate peers. That’s not a difficult as people sometimes think.

In my case, being in my home office means that I am literally the master of my domain. To be more specific, it’s my network and not related to corporate domain at our corporate HQ in the UK. That means that I have complete control over IT infrastructure. It also means that I’m completely responsible for local IT infrastructure.

To have admin rights on everything I use makes me very productive compared to when I’m on the corporate network. I can be independent as long as I can also be self-sufficient. It occasionally presents the opportunity to establish new standard operating practices.

When paying SBC (pre-AT&T merger) for multiple analog phone lines became offensively expensive I transitioned my office to IP phones and a hosted PBX. I was careful to do this is a manner that ensured constant productivity. When my employer eventually noticed a sharp drop in my telecom costs they inquired, and later used my home office as a model for other offices in the US.

It happens that we don’t yet make much use of video calling or video conferencing, so my working attire isn’t really a factor when I’m at home. If we did use video then I would be sure to dress appropriately for a visit to HQ.

There are practical considerations to working from a home office, especially working alone. I occasionally have to bolt to the front gate to receive shipping. Couriers can be very quick to ring the bell and depart. I’ve tried to build relationships with our regular UPS and Fedex drivers so that they know how to tell when I’m home or away.

We have two Labrador Retrievers. During my work day they tend to hang around the office with me, only occasionally wandering out into the yard. In the summer it helps that I keep the office cooler than the house. A new doggie door to the office lets them come and go without bothering me in the least. Quite often they report the arrival of deliveries, informing both me of the arrival and the driver that I’m home.

Occasionally, one of the dogs will hear something in the yard and report with a loud bark. If I’m on the phone at the time I merely explain that we’re under attack by Martians.

Much to the dismay of my wife, I don’t do household chores while at work. No debate. No exceptions. After all, she doesn’t take the laundry with her to the office.

I don’t have a TV in the office. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do have a 26” Sony Bravia HDTV in the office, but it’s company provided for use to view HDTV signals from my employers products. I don’t have cable TV or an antenna connected to it, so I can’t watch TV as I work. Furthermore, I don’t want to.

This brings me to something that drives my wife nuts. I prefer a quiet working environment. I don’t usually like music playing unless I’m doing something mindless, like expense reports. In contrast, after a career in TV production, she is uncomfortable with silence…and will turn the TV on just to have some background noise.

One of the most important factors that I have found in working from a home office is to not be a burden on my coworkers. The fact that I work from home should not impact them at all. When they call, I answer. When they call after hours, I answer…although it may be on my cell phone as I’m walking the dogs or cooking dinner.

On the flip side, I’ve sometimes struggled with defining the work day. I’m not much of a morning person, but I always reach my desk by 9am, coffee in-hand, ready to go. Lunch may be a brief break to fetch something from the house or a nearby eatery. I’ve been meaning to try to ride my bike out to get lunch, taking a bit longer break and getting some exercise in the process.

To not work too much is also part of the discipline required for home office dwellers. This is where I sometimes falter. My day typically ends some time between 5 and 6pm. I occasionally find myself still working at 7:30pm, and I just need to push away from the desk for the evening.

Teknivorm-MoccaMaster.jpgHere’s a tip for the home office dweller: It’s been my experience that keeping the work and personal space separate is a very good thing. I’ve also read that people who get up and move around as a matter of their daily routine are often happier in their workday than those who stay at their desk.

I’ve ensured that I will get up from my chair at least occasionally by keeping certain critical resources at a distance. For example, the coffee machine is in the kitchen, in the house. This even though I am the only one who drinks coffee in the household, and I have the facilities to host the coffee maker right in my office.

It makes life just a little better to get up and go for a stroll now and again. Even if it’s only fifteen yards to the kitchen for a refill.

It’s clear to me that “working at home” and having a home office are completely different things. If you have a well-considered home office then you are very likely a lot more serious and disciplined about working at home than someone who merely co-opts the dining room table now and then.

  • Bill Heiser

    Here’s a good counter-argument to the Mashable article…
    http://lifehacker.com/5940580/why-remote-workers-are-more-yes-more-engaged

  • Greg Cording

    Great blog.. this is so my world including dog barking through conference calls 🙂

    I’ve been working from home for the last 7 years for a large US Telecommunications Company in the UK and extremely grateful to the company for enabling me to work from home, it has allowed me to live in one of the most beautiful county’s of the UK, relocate back to my home town and to share more time with my young family whilst continuing to follow my passion of surfing and sailing.

    I like to think my productivity is much better than my peers located in the “interruption factory” however I would concede that I do tend to miss out on the Cooler / Corridor Conversations where a lot of ideas are floated.

    Another down side to working from home is finding a new job that
    allows the same level of flexibility, having relocated 255 miles from
    London (but 10 mins from the beach) some 7 years ago, I am now
    struggling to find a new career opportunity that also allows me to work from home
    and the reality is I expect I will have to commute between London and
    Cornwall for the next role or at least until my new employer trusts me
    enough to let me work from home.

    I don’t have the time to watch TV even if I wanted too and the use of Unified Communications such as using an IP Phone at home Presence, Chat and Video mean I’m hyper connected to my colleagues and business communication’s so there is no escaping their interactions..

    I have a dedicated office in the house which indeed is very important for the home/work distinction but have fallen prey to working longer hours than I should.

    All in all if you want to work from home and do get the opportunity then you will make it a success for both employer, you and your family including the family pets.

    http://www.about.me/gcording

    • mjgraves

      I have also found that to be very comfortable in my home office circumstance has in fact bound me to my present employer. I put up with things (management behaviors, assignments, etc) that would give me pause if I were a more typical cubicle dweller.

  • Trimline

    Great post. 

    As I write this, my 2 Schnauzers are resting on the floor in my home office.  June marked my 10th year of this arrangement, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I agree 100% with you in that the dangers of doing so often result in a 60+ hour week, and you really do have to setup some type of work exit routine.

    Similar to your story, in 2004, I moved to VoIP.  The expense of the analog phone from Bellsouth kept escalating.  As a contractor, I had to keep costs in check.  I setup my own PBX using a small footprint PC and have been happy ever since.  My bill is 80% less.

    If you spend a lot of time on conference calls using 800 numbers, look for a service that pays you.  I can easily rack up 6 – 10k minutes per month on these calls.  They don’t pay very much, but when you get a quarterly check for a few dollars, it will make you smile.  It really defines the term, “dialing for dollars”.

    Cheers.

    • mjgraves

      Thanks for the comment. I also used a local PBX for some time. That was early in the history of Asterisk. It cemented my admiration of the embedded systems/appliance approach to such matters. Eventually I found that I was better off letting someone else handle the hardware, so a hosted pbx (http://www.onsip.com) made the most sense. It combined major cost savings with fewer headaches.

      • Sean

        Could you discuss the onsip plan you’re on? After reviewing the offerings, it appears the plans are nice for an office environment where there’s a number of extensions/users/devices, but I can’t seem to locate a plan suited for a home office user.

        Best,
        Sean

        • mjgraves

           The plans that I started out using isn’t offered any longer. Since then my employers entire US operation was moved to OnSIP, so any of their offers makes sense for us. We use the $99/mo plan and add a few extra features a la carte.

          If you only need one or two phones/lines then OnSIP may not be the absolute cheapest deal.

  • xcom

    Great Article. And I agree with you I do find the article offensive . I work home from often and I find my self to be more productive when working from home. I get to concentrate more on my projects than I do when in the office. I know company’s now days offer “working days from home” as an incentive. 

  • Hi Michael, I’m very pleased to meet you courtesy of Twitter and San Sharma of WorkSnug.  I was on holiday when we were introduced, and am still catching up!

    Love the article, very clear account of why us habitual home workers aren’t normal!  And good to see the Teknivorm MokaMaster in all its shiny glory.

    Just off to make a coffee…

    • mjgraves

      It’s nice to meet you as well. The details of my abnormality reach beyond this site. I have written a post for a less technical site that details how, over the years and in many ways, I have repeatedly been reminded that I am not normal. That post has been on hold pending the opportunity to create some suitably abnormal art work 😉

      Now about that coffee…have you seen http://www.sweetmarias.com/

  • Sean

    Thank you for the article, you make great points about a home office.

    In your situation, having a home office makes sense since your company has does not have a location that you can drive to. Do you foresee a day when high end jobs won’t require a physical building but allow the employees to have a home office? Obviously this won’t be practical with your standard computer/call center job, but maybe it could be the model elsewhere. My previous job was practically a work-from-home style job since the first day to meet my manager was my last day there.

    Also, if your company were to open an office in your city or nearby, do you feel you would not be as productive since you’ve made this home office to suit your work style/environment?

    Finally, outside of work hours, you do use a computer? From the sounds of it, you keep out of the home office which has two computers, so do you use a different machine for leisure and if you do, would you recommend that to others who have a home office?

    Thanks,
    Sean

    • mjgraves

      For the past 15+ years my job has involved a considerable amount of travel to various places in the US and Canada. As such, it really doesn’t matter where I reside, as long as its conveniently near a major airport.

      I do think that more and more situations lend themselves to working from home, or a mix of working from home and a traditional office. I’ve done a few interviews over the past year. In each case the terms were work from home 75% of the time. The rest of the time to be spent visiting corp office of customer sites.

      Of course I use computers outside of office hours. However, my wife doesn’t like to spending a lot of time in the office in the evenings. It’s a little anti-social. Thus I tend to take my laptop, netbook or more recently my Nexus 7 tablet with me into the house.