Home Office Misconceptions

For those of us who are fortunate enough to work at home by choice, there's no escape from the fascination that the home office seems to engender in others. At most social gatherings the conversations goes something like this:

"Where do you work?" comes the polite question.

"I work at home," is the deliberately modest reply.

"Really?" he or she inquires, eyebrows and curiosity now raised.

Yes, I'm a (writer, consultant, accountant, whatever.)

That's great. You know, I've always wanted to work at home. It must be wonderful not to have to get up early, get dressed, sit in traffic, deal with other people, and . . . "

I have to admit that I usually tune them right out there. It's not so much that I've heard it all before, it's that the conversation tend to drift into fantasy - mainly because the force shifts toward all of the things that working at home is not, rather than what it actually entails. That's the understandable, of course; few people are enraptured by sitting in traffic. Unfortunately, it is the side of working at home many people can (or care to) see. Computers often compound the problem. After all, it's the enabling power of PCs that makes the home office at least plausible for most people. Moreover, many otherwise level-headed people seem eager to believe that a computer can not make working at home possible, it can make it easy. This belief is at heart of many prevalent misconceptions about working at home.

Misconceptions? Yes, there are quite a few and I present (apologies to David Letterman) the Top 10 Home Office Misconceptions:

  1. Anybody can do it. Not so. Some people thrive on the hubbub of a conventional office, either because they crave the social contacts or they perceive daily interaction with others as a source of energy rather than mere interruption. If you are one of these people, 40-plus hours a week alone in a converted bedroom might drive you bananas. Even if you can live without the outside world, you may find it difficult to get used to the unsupervised solitude of home office. There is a myth that all of the work ethic and organization of the regular office will automatically be transferred to the home office. It does not just happen that way. It's something you have to work at. In the "real" office there are subtle cues that tell you when to work and when to break. PCs make great equalizers in the sense that you can put as much or more number-crunching or word processing power on your desk at home as you can on a desk 30 miles away. But PCs cannot provide the intangibles some people require to put in a good day's work.

  2. Some quite time with a PC will make you a better worker. It can, of course, but it's no necessarily the case. The key word here is better. More often than not, working at home makes you more of what you already are, not a new-and-improved worker. And if you are the type of person who needs a great deal of peer and technical support - with computing problems, of course - a home office may not work for you. The ideal candidates are those who can discipline themselves to use time wisely regardless of their surroundings.

  3. You can buy a good home PC system for less than $2,000.Not likely. Depending on the type of work you do and how much of it you do at home, it's conceivable that you could assemble what most people would consider a marginally adequate computer system: a Celeron-based PC with 20GB hard disk, 64mb RAM, SVGA video, for instance (if you are a shrewd shopper). Realistically, however, you need a faster computer for spreadsheets, a larger hard disk for database management, a sharper display for graphics work, and a laser printer for serious word processing and desktop publishing. You're also likely to need a modem and Internet subscription to communicate with others. Then there's software and supplies. It’s the "false economy" of simple setup that seduces some people. The incremental costs of a bigger hard disk or a better screen are usually worth the extra investment. Count on spending $3,000 to $5,000, maybe $5,000 to $7,500 with a laser printer.

  4. Computing is easier at home.Because PCs neither know or care where you put them, computing at home is generally no easier or harder than it is in a normal office. As in other aspects of working at home, however, you do have to be more self-sufficient.

  5. Working at home frees you from details and lets you concentrate more on important matters.Quite the contrary, there are typically more details to attend to when you're working at home. Ergonomics for etarters. You don't have to pick out the furniture and setup the lighting in a regular office, but it's something you have to deal with in a home office. And when you're building an office around a PC, you have to remember you are selecting a desk for computing, not writing, a chair for computing, not lounging, and lighting for computing, not the view. Then there are the things that you take for granted in a regular office - copying machines, postal meters, and so on - that can spell frequent tres outside the home if not properly coordinated.

  6. There are fewer distractions at home.There's the refrigerator, the television, the beach (in my case), the laundry pile, Flight Simulator, the dripping faucet that needs repair. . . enough said.

  7. It does not matter where the home office is.It matters plenty. The two key considerations are noise and space. Where there are children and/or a spouse at home, you'll need some place outside the heavy traffic areas, which typically rules out working near the kitchen and family room. On the flip side, you may need to take precautions so that your computing activities -- specifically, printing if you don't have a laser printer -- won't disturb the work or the sleep of others. Space can be a more insidious problem. For anything more than out-of-briefcase work, temporary setups like a kitchen or dining room table are simply not practical. Even bedrooms or dens may not be roomy enough. Computer systems have a way of swallowing square footage. Chances are, you'll need two desks in your work area: one for computing and for everything else.

  8. You can set your own hours.It maybe both the biggest benefit and biggest misconception about working at home. Within reasonable limits, many people can set their own work hours. But the underlying perception that those home offices can simply work when the mood strikes them, and stop working when it fails to amuse them, is wishful thinking of the most dangerous sort. The fact is, whether you're an employee or self-employed, you have to answer for your performance (or lack thereof). Further, having a PC and quite space always at your disposal has a downside: You're never far from the office.

  9. Working at home is the ideal day-care solution.It's hardly ideal. At best, you'll probably have to get used to working a lot of late nights when your spouse can care for the kids. At worst, you may lose substantial income. One of the most common myths about working at home is this notion that you'll have one hand on the keyboard and the other tending to the kids. That does not happen.

  10. If it does not work out, I can always go back to the office. Many telecommuters can lean on the assumption, but for those who work for themselves at home (or from home) there are no guarantees. Job security can be next to nil, and returning to the a regular office - especially after a year or more working at home - can be a bitter pill to swallow. One potential plus: You'll probably have a broader range of PC skills to offer a future employer.

Now that we have taken care of business, I'm off to the beach……