Keep the home fires burning

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The Independent Online
Working from home is the way of the future, or at least some experts believe it is. A recent survey by BT estimated that one in five workers spends at least some of the week working from home.

These, however, are not homeworkers in the traditional sense - low-paid and unskilled. Today's homeworker (or teleworker, if connected to a central office via technology) is likely to be either a valued employee or self- employed. Those who work at home say the advantages are greater flexibility and freedom, and no commuting, which can account for as much as 1,000 hours a year.

For employers, homeworking reduces the need for office space and can help to retain skilled employees. Most favour a policy of mix-and-match, with employees coming into the office several days a week and working at home the rest of the time.

For the self-employed, the greatest advantage of working from home is the reduction in overheads. According to the Midland Bank's small business services unit, this is one of the most common reasons new businesses go bust.

Homeworking sounds so good you might wonder why more people aren't trying it. It does, however, require making adjustments to your lifestyle - and not everyone adapts easily.

Certain personalities are better suited to homeworking than others. A 1993 survey for the then Department of Employment found that those employers already using teleworkers cited self-reliance as the most important characteristic, followed by maturity and experience. Good communication skills are also important.

Homeworkers questioned by the small-business magazine Home-Run listed their major problems as loneliness, the inability to switch off and domestic interruptions (particularly marked for women). All of these problems can be overcome, but it does take a conscious effort - and the application of certain strategies. These tips will help:

If isolation is a problem, networking is the solution. Join your professional association and find the time to attend meetings. Take at least one trade publication. If you are self-employed, your local Chamber of Commerce, Business Link or Training and Enterprise Council are good sources of contacts.

It is hard to leave work behind when it's sitting next door. Once you've finished work, make it difficult to restart. If you work in the spare room, lock it. If your computer glowers at you from the dining room table, hide it. As soon as you can afford it, get a separate business line.

Create a ritual to mark the start and end of the day. One consultant always puts on a suit to work in the spare bedroom. Another walks around the block and re-enters the house before and after starting work.

If family and friends are undermining your efforts, get tough. One woman based in a rural area complained she was asked to herd runaway sheep for neighbouring farmers because she was at home. Keep personal phone calls to a minimum and turn down social arrangements during work time.

If hostility radiates from your children every time you go into your "office", explain what they will get out of your work. This sort of negotiation is useless with toddlers. The only solution is to find good child care and stay away while working. One of the mistakes is believing that homeworking will rid you of the need for any child care. This is misguided unless you are doing a job that can be confined to after bedtime.

Paul Mitterhuber is an osteopath practising in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. His wife, Claire, acts as his receptionist. He has been working from home for a year. "The biggest advantage - and disadvantage - of working from home is that you can work longer hours," he says. "That's good for building a business, but it can be draining, too."

Paul doesn't have a business line and finds clients will telephone even in the small hours. "I find it easy to switch off in that I take off my white coat and come out of the office area," he says. "But calls out of hours and late appointments mean work can take over. You also find yourself eating irregularly or raiding the fridge."

However, he feels that working from home has been good for his family life. He is able to take his oldest child to school and to play with the children, between appointments. "Although they find it hard to understand that Daddy has to work afterwards."

Isolation hasn't been a problem because Paul teachers at a college one day a week and works in other practices. "A lot of osteopaths work from home, so we have regular gatherings which are enjoyable and useful. I also belong to several societies for osteopaths, so can keep abreast of what's going on."

'Home Run', a magazine for homeworkers, Criban Mill, Llanvair Discoed, Chepstow, Gwent, NP6 6RD. 01291 641222.

The Breakthrough Centre, a centre for homeworkers/small businesses with a holistic slant. 7 Poplar Mews, Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London, W12 7JS. 0181-749 8525.

The Association of British Chambers of Commerce (London) 9 Tufton Street, London, SW1P 3QB. 0171-222 1555.

The writer is author of 'Making Serious Money From Home', published on 22 March (Pan, pounds 6.99).

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