Guest Post: Work is a Place

This is an interesting post from Victoria Hay about working from home. I can relate to the issues described. So many people think I’m just messing around online. And they are shocked – Shocked! – that I could be the primary breadwinner with my home business.

A real challenge for entrepreneurs who work out of a home office is persuading friends, relatives, casual acquaintances, and customers that you are working. For most people, work is a place, not an activity. Hence the phrase, ?to go to work.? Americans extend that metaphor to the literal: to work is to go to a place to do the work.

A friend of mine stepped down from newspaper editing to freelance full-time built a successful business. She was stringing for The New York Times, writing regularly for major national and regional magazines, and filling the interstices by cranking copy for local monthlies and weeklies. One day she remarked that her mother had asked her, ?When are you going to get a job??

When are you going to get a job, indeed. You know, of course, that you have a job, and that you work for the most demanding boss in the world: yourself. But everyone else thinks you?re munching bon-bons in front of the soaps. Nevermind that if you were at the office, you?d be spending half your time at the water cooler and the other half chatting with coworkers or underlings at your desk.

How do you establish the boundary between private life and work life, when work is not a place but exists in some extension of your private life? Here are a few strategies that have worked for me over the years:

Establish regular work hours. If you have kids, those hours pretty much have to be when the kids are in school. If you?re child-free, announce that you?ll be working from 9 to 5 (or whatever fits your life), and stick to it.
Get a separate phone number for your business. During work hours, don?t answer the private line. Give out the business number only to customers; don?t share it with friends and family, and never answer the ?home phone? during your established work hours. When you give your business number to people at your kids? school, present it to them as your work number, and give them your private number as your home number. They will think your business number is at a workplace, and there?s no reason to disabuse them.

An advantage to setting up a separate phone line for business use only is that you can deduct the entire cost from your income taxes. If you?re using one phone for business and private calls, the portion you can deduct is limited and keeping track of it is a pain. So this strategy simplifies your life on at least two fronts.

Answer the telephone professionally: ?This is Olivia Boxankle? or ?Boxankle Writing and Editing.? Never, ever answer the phone with ?hullo?? I speak from experience: the long, eloquent silence from the other end is devastating.

Record voicemail messages that sound equally professional: ?Thank you for calling Boxankle Writing and Editing! We are on the phone with other customers or away from the office. Please leave your name, your number, and a short message, and we?ll call you back.? Absolutely, positively do NOT try to be cute with your business voicemail message: in the business world, ?cute? translates to ?flakey.?

?We? is good. It sounds like there?s more than one of you. The word ?company? implies plurality. An outfit that can support an employee or two gains credibility in the mind of the beholder.

Get your website, your business cards, and your stationery professionally designed. Nothing says ?amateur? so eloquently as a clip-art logo and a DIY letterhead.

Use your professionally designed logo to create an electronic letterhead template in your word processor. This should be applied to statements and estimates as well as to correspondence.

When sending statements or formal correspondence electronically, save the word-processed file as a PDF before attaching to an e-mail or sending by smartphone. A PDF looks more professional and can?t be altered on the other end.

If you live in an apartment, call it a ?suite? in your business address. You can do the same with most paid mailboxes: instead of ?P.O. Box,? write ?Ste.? or ?No.?

If at all possible, dedicate a room in your home to your office. This makes it much easier to justify deductions to an IRS auditor and much easier to realistically estimate the proportion of your home?s cost that you can legitimately assign to the business. Also, a room has an invaluable asset: a door.

Got a dog? You know, it will start barking the instant you get on the phone with an important client. The more important the client, the louder and more insistently the dog will bark. Yea verily, as I started to write this line, I had to holler ?come back with my shoe!? at the puppy. While you?re working, especially when you?re on the phone, close the door to your office.

Got kids? Day care is deductible. Farm the little things out while you?re trying to work. Constant interruptions lay waste to your productivity, and the sound of kids yelling in the background does nothing for your professional image. When my son was little, I found two grandmotherly types in the neighborhood who would watch him for very reasonable wages. Until he reached school age, I?d have one or the other of the sitters watch him four hours a day, five days a week.

This gave me 20 uninterrupted hours a week. Outside of that time, I usually could squeeze some work in over another four or five hours each day?not as efficiently as when he was out of the house, but still not a lost cause.

Meet people somewhere other than in your home, especially if you have children or pets.?First, if you?re a woman living alone or spending many hours of the day alone while a spouse or partner works, it?s unsafe to bring strangers to your house.

Second, the detritus of child care a professional impression does not make. When a customer comes to your home, you have to spend extra hours cleaning and deodorizing the entire building, even if all you do is conduct her through a living room and down the hall to your ?office,? which she can see is actually a back bedroom. Time in cleaning, wasted; impression made, a little iffy.?Instead, offer to meet at the customer?s place of business or, lacking that, at a quiet neutral location such as a coffee house or public library.

If you?re doing a lot of business that requires you to meet often with clients, you may be able to justify renting a meeting room from a business that has extra space. Check Craig?s List and ask friends in networking groups about shared office space.

There are a dozen tips for building a professional image while working from home. What do you do to make it look like you mean business, no matter where you?re working?

Victoria Hay blogs as Funny about Money and, with her co-editor Tina Minchella operates a business-to-business communication service called The Copyeditor?s Desk.

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