For the last two months I've been doing an experiment to see how self-disciplined I can be. I've eschewed the chains of going into an office every day and have been working mostly from home. I've got what I consider the perfect home office setup, have gotten the tech I need in line and configured, scheduled time with friends and family so that they know that even though I'm 'home' I'm not 'available' anytime they want to drop by, and have done my very best to create a great office work experience to my home office. And I've learned something; something I never really believed before:
First: working from home is hard work.
As a geek, choosing, buying, and configuring the technology for my home office was a breeze. That took me all of two days. But creating an 'experience' that let me feel productive was a bit trickier. I'm still tweaking that a bit.
Here's what I've learned so far that's helped me create a great business experience right in my own home:
1. Start with your work area. I'm not interested in the home office deduction so I setup my work area in a small area of my family room. There, I found a nice desk that was big enough to fit all my stuff but not so big that it encroached on the room space. Because I'm cheap, I looked at a few used ones but none of them looked 'right' so I ended up buying a basic black desk from a local office supply shop for about $250. It's big enough to fit everything I need to work with (laptop, files, pads, paper, etc) but small enough where it's not the focal point of the entire room
Next, I wanted a comfortable chair. I looked at some of the office supply stores but they were a bit pricey. While I want to be comfortable during the long hours spent at the computer, I also know comfort doesn't have to cost $500. After looking around, I chose the basic executive chair from Walmart for about$129. It's nice, comfortable, and goes nicely with my 'office' color scheme. Sure, it probably won't last more than six months but it's all I need right now.
2. Get your tech right. I have a friend who's a graphics artist and she is always on the go. But it's not productive work. She's either going to Kinko's or running to the office supply store to send a fax, or trying to determine if that phone call coming in on her home phone is business or personal. I'm astounded at how much time she wastes just shuffling stuff around when a few extra minutes of consideration could have saved her tons of time.
First, I can't emphasize this enough, get a separate business number so you know that an incoming call is business or not. I use my cell phone exclusively so I solved this problem by buying a SkypeIn number from Skype and then forwarding that number to my cell phone. Now, when I see a call come in with the caller ID of 0123456789 I know it's a business call because I know that's the caller ID Skype gives to forwarding calls. Granted, I could have, and probably should, get a real world phone line, but then I have to ask why? This works just as well and is a bit cheaper.
Skype also provides our geographically spread out team with IM and voice/video conferencing capabilities so there's often no need for face to face meetings when a quick IM or video/voice call would do. Skype is reliable, efficient, and just the right fit for us all.
Next, I've changed my mobile phone plan to reflect more how I work. Most of my phone calls are made from my home office and I have high speed Internet, a wireless router, and a Blackberry Curve capable of being used as a WiFi phone. So I called T-Mobile and subscribed to their HotSpot @Home service which lets me route my phone calls over my router when I'm within range. The benefit? Crystal clear reception with no dropped calls and no minutes taken from my wireless plan when I'm at my house. Last month, I used 120 of my 1000 wireless minutes. Yet I actually was on the phone far more than the 1000 minutes of my plan. But, because these calls went over my router, I wasn't charged for them. Thank you T-Mobile!
Now, let's talk PC. Unless you just like big, bulky, boxes, or you need the raw power that only a desktop PC can give you, there is no reason not to equip your office with a laptop only. I bought a slightly dated Acer laptop for under $1000 and it's serving me well. Best part is, if I want to go work at the park for the day, I can close the lid, slip it in its case, and take my work anywhere. And, because I subscribe to Blackberry Internet Service on my Blackberry, I can simply plug in my phone to my laptop and use my phone as a high-speed modem to access the Internet from anywhere.
Next, let's discuss email. It was the simplest problem to solve of all. Nearly every hosting provider allows you POP3 access to your email and some even allow IMAP. But, I've found, reliability is an absolute must when you're not in the same office with people and can't just walk into the next office and talk to them. So we're moving our email over to Google Apps hosted email for domains. Using that, we can keep our same email addresses we have now, but move away from the fragile infrastructure our hosting provider runs and onto a fully pimped out mail system. We have access to our email via POP3 and IMAP and can even have our own branded version of GMail as webmail to our domain. All of this hotness is free from the fine folks at Google.
Faxing. There's not a huge market for fax services anymore but there are a lot of solutions out there from running to the corner library or copy store to running your own fax machine. I hate interrupting my workflow just to run out to fax something and I loathe the idea of getting a phone line just for the one or twice a month fax. So I subscribe to a service called eFax which allows me to send and receive faxes via the Internet. I get my own fax number which then delivers to my email account and I can simply attached documents, pictures, etc, to an email and send them to eFax for immediate outbound faxing. It's cheap. It's affordable. It works.
For product demonstrations, trainings, and walk throughs, we use a combination of two web conferencing platforms: DimDim and WebEx. Because of stability and costs, I've found need for both of these platforms. More often than not, we use DimDim for internal trainings and meetings and WebEx for product demos, trainings, and other customer facing interactions. In fact, we're doing a major product training on July 25th and are using WebEx exclusively. While WebEx does cost (DimDim is free) there are simply a few things that the service offers that we can't live without. It's worth the extra money.
Using a combination of the right technology and a bit of self-discipline, I've found that I can be just as effective as when I was face to face every day and, sometimes, even more so. Gone are the constant 'knock knock' interruptions, the trying to concentrate while people in the hall have a discussion better had in private offices, and, perhaps most importantly, it's helped me become a cost cutter. Instead of providing me with an office, services, and all the trappings of the CEO suite, my company can now focus on passing those savings onto our customers. I, for my hand in it, am having just as good an experience as if the company was providing the amenities with the added bonus of working from home!
3. Make sure your friends and family understand the difference. It can be a big adjustment for friends and family to accept that, even though you're sitting at home, you're still at work. My advice is to set regular hours and stick to them. Don't accept personal calls during those hours. Let them go to voicemail. If they really need to talk to you they'll leave a voicemail and you can decide to call them back or not. Trust me, people get to the point a lot quicker in voicemail than a live phone call. Ten minutes of ambling conversation can be reduced to a minute or less of voicemail and you get the same information in a better format.
That's it! Running a home office has been one of the best decisions I've made in a long time. I still do have to do face to faces every now and then but those time wasting meetings are almost a thing of the past.
It really is the best of both worlds.
Oh, and the total cost for running my 'office' from home? About $300 per month.
Try doing that in a traditional office.