Tuesday, November 11, 2008

21 Things I’ve learnt since I began working from home

Today's post is a tad long. But a number of friends and business associates have repeatedly asked me what it’s like to work from home and my usual answer has been “it’s great, I love it,” and I do. But it’s not easy, and I want to share some of the lessons I learnt in the four months since I quit my fulltime job as a journalist:

Working space

1. How will your neighbours's daytime activities affect your work - Find out if your neighbours do something that could affect your work in any way. If you live in a flat, it could something as simple as your neighbour across the hall taking care of her sister's kids during the day, which may mean that you will work to the sound a crying baby. I found out once I started working from home that my next door neighbour was working on a welding project. He was very religious about doing it between 09h00 – 16h00, when he knew most people were out at work, which is why I didn’t know about it. I found the noise to be very distracting, especially when I was trying to interview someone.

2. Your own plans could be a distraction – One of the things I liked about working from home is that I would be on hand to project manage the restoration of my house; something I had always wanted to do but didn’t have the time for. And for the most part, it has been a very smooth project. But things got very sticky when the workers started grinding the roof, so they could repaint it. It was noisy, filthy work, and eventually I took myself off to the library to work there until the job was done.

3. Design a work space that suits your work patterns – For a very long time, I had difficulty in settling into the work area I had set up. Somehow, it was not too comfortable, and I was not as productive as I would have liked. I moved things around three times, even tried working in the garden, before I found I found an arrangement that worked best for me.

4. Have the tools you need to do your job – my old PC packed up three times in the four months since I began working from home, and at some stage, software had to be reinstalled. I was in the middle of deadlines, so it was a bit uncomfortable. Thankfully, I also have a laptop and could therefore continue working uninterrupted. Speaking of tools – you get what you pay for. The PC was second-hand/refurbished when I bought it, and it seemed to be a bargain. Now we know it’s not. The laptop, which I thought I’d paid too much for, has never given me a problem.

5. Setting up a home office costs a lot more money than you think–Even if you already have a PC/laptop, you will still find an endless number of things that you need to invest in that were previously your employer’s problem. You will also find that your duties have expanded while you were not looking – I found that in addition to being a writer, I was now my own technician and office manager. I’m still not too thrilled about that.

Looking for work

6. Don’t count on verbal promises from friends and associates to send you work (aka, have plan B and C to source work)– When I first announced that I was leaving my job to work as a freelance writer, a lot of people who are in a position to pass freelance writing work to me enquired about using my services. Some of them even as far as to promise that they would send work my way. For the most part, those turned out to be empty promises. However, people that I know, and who never promised me a thing, have been consistently sending work my way. Some of the work has been incredibly large volumes of work, or very prestigious assignments. So, if you’re thinking of going independent, I’d advice that you take most of the promises made by colleagues and business associates with a pinch of salt, but stay open for the unexpected.

7. Your network of contacts could be your biggest resource – despite what I said above, your network could be your biggest resource in getting started. The people may not be able to give you work directly, but they’ll keep you up to date as to who has work/needs a service provider.

8. Use technology smartly – I used to think Facebook and LinkedIn were a complete waste of time, because most of my network was made up of personal connections who could not contribute to my career growth. However, in the past couple of months, I have consciously worked to connect with business associates, and the result has been good. The conversations are more business orientated and useful; I’ve even found a source or two for a story.

9. Some people will forget you – Some of the people you worked with shared an office with, met regularly for coffee to discuss business, will move on and not keep up the contact as they swore they would when you resigned. But then, you will also make a new life, make new contacts, and when you bump into each other, it will be a wonderful surprise, to be enjoyed for what it is. The circle of life continues...

Business and money

10. Balance big projects with smaller ones –While the big projects bring in big money, they take time to be signed off, more time for you to fulfil and invoice and by the time the payment actually comes through, you could have gone bankrupt or starved to death. So, have a good mix or small and big clients so you have regular small amounts coming in, and big checks coming in every so often.

11. Look for retainer clients – the work is regular, the money is regular, and it gives you some stability. And it also reduces the amount of time you spend looking for business.

12. Set up emergency fund- Always make sure that you have some emergency funds that can tide your through the bad times. You want don’t your financials to get messy simply because one or two clients are late with payments. Because a lot of clients are invariably late with money- you can count on that!

Scheduling your work

13. Find your rhythm – For a very long time, I worked to the same rhythm I did when I was working as a fulltime journalist. Write in the morning to the 11am deadline spend the afternoon doing research and interviews. However, the nature of my new assignments did not allow for this rhythm, and what’s the point of working from home if I still act as if I’m stuck in a newsroom? I tried out many permutations, and eventually found out that I’m most productive when I edit first thing in the morning (5am-8am), then I make calls, deal with emails, research and interview people. I then start drafting new pieces around 10am.

14. Manage your schedule effectively– There have been times when I have taken on more work than I should, because work is money and how dare I say no to work. And there have been times when I let other people’s schedules have too much of an impact on how I work (because they are the client, and what they want they get). The lesson I learnt from that is that, eventually it causes me stress, and I become unproductive, and benefits no one. So I am now determined to be more assertive about my time lines and scheduling. It's better for me, and everyone else in the long run.

15. Busy is not productive – There have been times when I worked hard on projects, and been less productive. I suspect I would have been more productive if I took time out, got some rest and then got back to work refreshed and more energetic. But because I work from home, I am more conscious of the need to be self-directed in my work, and taking a break is not simply taking a break; sometimes it looks and feels like slacking off because you don’t have a boss watching over your shoulder. And then there's the myth that people who live at home live the life of leisure...


16. You will make mistakes – God knows what made me think it would be easy, but I made so many mistakes there were times when I wondered if I didn’t make a mistake quitting my job. But the rewards far outweighed the problems, and I just had to get over myself, learn from mistakes and get on with things.

17. You need a support structure –You need to have a strong network of people you can talk to when work gets rough/you’re frustrated about something/you feel lonely. Obviously, you can’t work from home if you don’t thrive in an environment where you work alone. But no matter how much you may like your own company there will be days when you need to hear a friendly voice. Set up that support structure.

18. Changing your environment is good - Go out for coffee/drinks/meetings to meet friends and associates. If you don’t, the house will start shrinking on you, and it will affect your productivity. You can also work outside your home sometimes – go to a library, coffee-shop, or even the home of someone else who works from home, to get a new perspective on things.

19. Dump the clichés – For me, the biggest cliché was that if you work from home, you can work in your PJs. I found I couldn’t - I am most comfortable if I wake up early like all other working people, wash and dress properly for work, never mind that said office is in my house. So for me, no PJs or track suits etc. I dress as I would if I were in a newsroom and coming into contact with other working people.

20. Sometimes the work and family life will collide - And I'm okay with it. The people that I do work with and those that I interview know that I work from home. But sometimes it disconcerting - like the time I was interviewing the regional GM of a well-known multinational company by phone, and Baby ran thru the door from school screeching "I passed Zulu! I got 95%!" The guy was quiet for a moment, and when he resumed talking, he repeated what he'd previously said. Clearly, he heard Baby's screeches and took it in his stride. Me, I typed with one hand while hugging Baby with another.

21. Get help – I recently got myself a career coach, and it's the best move that I made . She’s the objective voice that helps to understand myself more clearly, the encouraging voice that instils confidence in me. She gives me a swift kick in the butt when I need it, and encourages me when I just want to stay in bed and hide. Most importantly, she’s helping me to grow, so I can reach my goals as quickly and efficiently as possible. There is no way I could do this successfully, were it not for her, and the many friends who have supported me through this journey.

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