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Work from Home Without Turning Home into Work

San Francisco Attorney
Volume 27, Number 5
October/November, 2001

A clinical psychologist provides ten helpful hints for striking a delicate balance.

Electronic communication has freed many attorneys to do a significant portion of their work from home. You can telecommute part of the time if you work for an organization, or you might be running a solo practice out of your home.

The advantages of working from home are obvious: You can be far more available to children or elders who need your care, you may be able to pay less for child care, you don’t have the hassle of a daily commute, you can continue to work effectively even if health problems limit your ability to travel, you’re spared at least some office politics, you’re often able to focus without interruptions, and you have greater control over your physical surroundings. You’re a whole person - your life can’t be compartmentalized into separate boxes of work, family, and so on.

Working from home has its downside as well. The absence of physical distance between work and home can sometimes allow work to take over your life. It’s easy to find yourself perpetually running to the phone or fax, checking your e-mail, and thinking, eating, and breathing work. Then you’re never really with the people who motivated you to stay home in the first place.

Here are ten things you can do to keep work from overtaking your life:

1. PLACE

Designate a private work space. Even if you meet with clients elsewhere (for example, a conference room at a law firm), your home office needs to be separate from the living space in your home. Psychologists have long known that your environment serves as a cue for a particular behavior. You want your work space to signal you to focus on work - this will make you more efficient and effective. Similarly, you don’t want to think about work when you’re reading to your children or trying to go to sleep, so keep work cues out of those spaces.

It’s also easier to stay organized if you have one space for your work equipment and materials. You’ll need phone and fax lines separate from those for your family. You don’t want to be waiting for your teenager to get off the computer when you need to e-mail a client or have your three-year-old answer a client’s call. Maintaining an office space - preferably with a door you can close - allows you to manage the “spread” of work into all the corners of your life.

2. TIME

Plan your work schedule together with all of your activities, including work and non-work activities. This is most effective when you’ve written out your goals for each of your life roles, as well as the activities that will enable you to accomplish these goals.

Designate specific hours when you will be working, and communicate them clearly to your family. If family members don’t view your time in your home office as equivalent to the time you’d spend at an office away from home, you’ll be dealing with ongoing interruptions. The accumulating frustration you’ll feel is bound to interfere with your concentration and efficiency. Trying to deal with both clients and children simultaneously can easily make you resentful of both.

Decide beforehand what constitutes an emergency for which you’re willing to be interrupted. Teach your child care provider about your rules for privacy and interruption. It may take your children a while to get used to the idea that you’re not available when you’re still in the house, but if you and your caregiver are persistent, your children will adapt.

Sometimes it’s helpful to actually change into your “work” clothes before going into your home office. Even casual outfits will communicate to your family that you’re really going to work. It’s also another cue for you to focus.

3. ACCESSIBILITY OUTSIDE OF WORK HOURS

Managing schedule-creep is difficult for every attorney. To combat those clients or partners who expect you to be available according to their needs, decide when you won’t work. Establish criteria for emergency interruptions during these hours. Learn to say things like “I’ll be happy to get to that on Monday” when you’re asked at 4:45 on a Friday to write a memo immediately.

If you receive a business call when you’re at home but not working, first decide if the matter is sufficiently urgent for you to work during your family or personal time. If it is, take the call in your home office.

4. BE UP-FRONT WITH CLIENTS

Most attorneys who work from home find that their work with clients benefits from being clear about their work circumstances. Clients may worry about your accessibility when you decide to work from home; being responsive to their calls reassures them that your commitment to providing them with the best possible counsel remains unchanged. Informing your clients about your work arrangements saves you from having to explain why they hear your children playing in the background. As your clients see that the quality of the service you provide is consistent, they’ll learn to tolerate the household sounds.

5. FIND OTHER WAYS TO BE RESPONSIVE TO CLIENTS

If you can’t respond to a legitimate client need, make sure someone else can. there’s no reason why you can’t share responsibility for client coverage with one or more other attorneys in your organization. As long as you coordinate schedules so that someone will be available to provide an appropriate and timely response, you can be sure your clients’ needs will be served without having to sacrifice the values that led you to work from home.

6. STAY CONNECTED

Whatever the reasons for your decision to work from home, it’s essential for you to stay connected to your professional community. If you continue to work for a firm or organization, stay active in committees so that you can have some control over your perceived presence in the firm. Since it is typical for a partner to assign work to the first person (s)he sees after a need arises, maintaining your visibility is necessary. If you’re not physically present, you must have some way of staying on the mental radar screens of people in your organization. Maintaining regular e-mail and phone contact, scheduling lunches, and alerting partners to your interest in and availability for new projects are useful ways of ensuring you don’t become “invisible.”

If you don’t work in an organization, it’s crucial to maintain your network. Stay in regular contact - both electronically and in person - with people in your network. Continue your efforts to expand your network based upon your strategic career goals. Schedule regular lunches, participate in bar association activities and committees, and attend the trade association meetings of your market. Not only is this good for business, but you’ll get the stimulation only colleagues can provide.

7. DO A THOROUGH ASSESSMENT OF YOUR TECHNOLOGY NEEDS

To work at home, you must be equipped to work effectively. Make sure you have the state-of-the-art technology necessary for providing quality client service. If you work for a firm or organization, make business case for why they should provide the equipment. (You don’t need to become a technology expert - there are plenty of people to advise you.

8. CONSIDER VIRTUAL ASSISTANTS

Find ways to gain access to the support staff at your firm or organization. If you can’t, consider hiring a virtual assistant. Virtual assistance is a fairly new administrative profession. Virtual assistants (Vas) provide administrative support using phone, fax, and e-mail. They support their clients without having to set foot inside the client’s offices. Vas understand all confidentiality requirements and are highly skilled. By using Vas to handle administrative issues, you will be making the best use of your time. To find a well- trained VA, go to www.assistu.com.

9. MAKE A BACKUP PLAN FOR CAREGIVING

If you’re working at home in order to assume caregiving responsibilities, you’ll need to have a backup plan should a legitimate work emergency arise during your “off” hours. You need to be as free of worry as possible at all times - free of worry about work when you’re providing care and free of worry about loved ones when you’re working. This is the best way to be efficient, effective, and successful in all of your efforts.

10. GET SUPPORT AND GUIDANCE

Remember - you’re a pioneer. Previous generations did not do what you are doing. You’re negotiating balance issues, convincing partners and clients that this arrangement will benefit them as well as you, and coping with isolation. To help you cope, consider joining a support group of other attorneys working at home. And a coach can help you craft a plan for a work-at-home arrangement that works for you. The ability to work from home can offer wonderful advantages - as long as you master the challenges.

 

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