I do project work and consulting, and my office is one of the largest rooms in my home. Like a lot of home office workers (I prefer “home office professional”), I always have multiple projects at once. So working all the time is just part of the deal. If I’m not working on a client’s project, I’m working on one of my own. This is not a complaint – far from it.
Blast from the Past: Rule of Work #1: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing as work. It’s a good life. A life of constant meaning.
That said, it can be hard to convey the particular circumstances of it to people looking in from the outside. It might be explaining to someone why you aren’t treating e-mail like chat and responding instantly, or why you’re selective about volunteer work and need to get paid for your core competencies (you know that auto mechanic who is always getting hit up to help with friend’s cars?), or just that yes, as a home worker, you are entitled to sleep, go to the gym, and spend time with your family – you’re not giving that up and sitting there waiting patiently for any word to drop from your various contacts, clients, and colleagues. My wife and I recently had to establish for her business that yes, it’s OK, and absolutely necessary for a hairdresser to take a couple of days off per week and get enough rest and down time. But aside from the basics – what your work is (avoiding mission creep), and when you do it (avoiding the “on call” nightmare), the simplest way to define your work environment and work process is to outline your approach to the atmosphere of constant communication. So here, in brief, is how one office works. These are the terms of my self-employment:
Hours Flexible: I might be working at 3am or in bed by 9pm. I might sleep until 4pm, which might be sleeping 5 hours or 15. I work off of appointments. I make them, keep them, and then the rest is up to me. Of course there are deadlines, but they’re flexible. We’ve all heard “under promise and over deliver”. That’s deadlines, too. If I say something usually takes two weeks, it’s because it usually does. But if a blizzard wipes out the internet or power, then it is what it is – we don’t swear by deadlines, and we don’t miss them. Also, with any kind of project work, your own deadlines have to account for client deliverables. If clients hear “usually two weeks, assuming all your deliverables in place to start” and they send their pieces 13 days in, you tell them “about two weeks from now”. If you get it earlier, well and good, but fixed deadlines are a source of ruin – our deadlines are like our work hours – they’re movable feasts. Hours flexible and by appointment means too that I avoid phone tag. I set phone appointments and I don’t miss them (I’ve missed only one in the history of my business, it was with a friend, and I’m still embarrassed by it). There’s nothing worse than burning time for everyone by getting together with clients “whenever”.
Not On-Call: Personally, I never answer the phone, unless it’s my wife. I know that’s radical, but it works in my line of work. For one thing, I’d never get anything done – I’m actually working on clients’ projects, after all. For another, I’m a consultant, so I charge for phone time, and so I call outbound only, by appointment. Other than that, voicemail messages are transcribed instantly and sent to e-mail, where I respond to them while multi-tasking, without interrupting scheduled projects. I set appointments by e-mail, so everything goes smoothly. When I picked up the phone and answered all my inbound calls, I got unplanned (so un-billed) calls 24/7 – picking my brain, asking for advice, seeking a “how to” that “shouldn’t take long” (“you’re a mechanic, can you just listen to my engine for a sec – I know it’s a weekend…”), and I lost tons of hours I’ll never get back to “I just prefer to work exclusively by phone” – even for the most trivial matters. So I stopped. I’m not a call center. I can always hire one, but then the price has got to see a 400% increase. Seriously – I save bookoo buck for my clients by NOT putting Suzie or Jim or Karesh on that phone 24/7. So now when someone calls my business line, I get it as e-mail, and that also weeds out the spam calls, which is a nice bonus. And it converts a synchronous medium (“I want you *right now*!”) into an asynchronous one (email response: “I got your msg. The answer is yes.” or “Thursday works better for me – how about 2pm or 4pm your time?”). Besides, frequently I can actually respond faster – instead of wasting everyone’s time playing phone tag, I often get an e-mail response out without missing a beat (but again, I don’t promise it).
Blackberry Not Included: I don’t use mobile devices. Again, if I did, I’d never sleep, eat, or anything else. I’m not part of the Blackberry culture, and not because I’m somehow technologically challenged or old-fashioned. It’s because I don’t want to be stalked by every little concern, wish, or personal observation everyone in my “network” might have. You’ve seen those commercials where someone introduces the crowd behind them: “this is my network”? Really, that’s exactly what it’s like for a lot of people. I can’t get work done that way. If you were in an office, would you hire the person who is always on their phone to work on your team? Neither would I. How about this: do you take your “device” into the john with you? That’s what I had to do when I answered my phone all the time – if I took e-mail along too, I’d literally have to shower with it. E-mail is in one room and waits until I see it. When I leave that room, it’s family time only. I don’t promise clients always-on response time, I don’t send out a general announcement just to take a day off to myself or with my family, and I don’t apologize “for just now getting back to you” after 8hrs because a lot of people treat e-mail like chat, spend all day in Facebook, and keep their earpiece on and Mobile e-mail vibrating in a holster. I treat myself as the busy president of my company, not the Blockbuster cashier of my company. The results are, I communicate effectively, selectively, and I accomplish things my clients need, generally by the time they have to ask. And above all, I get peace in my work.
Rule of Work: It is always, always the goal to work on, by, and according to your own terms. You’ll compromise, but if there’s no end to that, it’s not work, it’s servitude.
Terms of Self-Employment: So, when I hired myself full time, those were the terms I accepted and I have insisted on abiding by them. It’s different than how a lot of self-employed people work, I know. I don’t begrudge them their e-mail holsters, as long as they’re not doing it while driving – and then of course I think they’ve got a screw loose (look at how they’re weaving over the line). We’ve each got to define our own office rules – the terms of our own self-employment – how free we are, how harried, how much of our lives belong to who and what. How effective we’re going to be vs. how thinly spread. My wife finally deciding on two days off to reset, means she’s stellar all the time, not stellar for 10 hrs and tired for 2. Maybe, though, by drawing a circle and defining some time as exclusively ours and our families’, some part of our lives as immune to the interests of others – by not defining self-employment as a modified form of wage slavery, where anyone with a communication device can wind it up and make you jump as surely as a foreman in a yard – where you’ve traded one boss for hundreds – maybe we’ll all encourage one another to hold the line for the dignity of our professions in the face of all the incessant yacking. If you don’t think about communications, you’ll spend so much time on the phone and in e-mail that may have stopped doing what you love. And what good is that?
Rule of Work: How you handle communications will determine whether you do what you love or merely talk about doing it.