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Office routine is crucial at home

Homeworkers should not be haunted by the spectre of the company employee into setting superhuman targets, says Sharon Maxwell-Magnus
It's not easy to have a personal life when your work is never more than a few feet away. Sally Wilkins, maker of the Wilkinet baby sling, recalls that starting her business from her kitchen table with eight children in tow caused a great deal of strain. "I just couldn't get any time," she recalls. "In the end, I had to work in the early hours because everyone was in bed then!"

This situation may be extreme, but a study by the psychology department of Swansea University found that the biggest problem for home-workers was the change in family dynamics, often related to the fact that the worker was now on site - but "unavailable". This problem was made worse by the fact that most homeworkers find it difficult to switch off and often end up working evenings, weekends and nipping into the office at every spare moment - something that can rapidly damage the quality of your own and your family's life.

Many homeworkers fail to realise how much more efficient they are than their office-based colleagues. According to Professor Noel Sheehy of the University of Belfast, studies in the US and Europe show that up to 40 per cent of office time is taken up with chats round the coffee machine, writing memos to each other, gossiping, etc. No wonder homeworkers are estimated to be between 30-40 per cent more effective than their office counterparts.

This increase in productivity is good news for those who are driven by the imaginary spectre of the employee in a large organisation who can always do the job so much better. This spectre means many self-employed homeworkers set themselves superhuman targets or give in to unreasonable demands by clients on the basis that if they don't do the job this way, the spectre will. In fact, most clients who have chosen to give their business to a home-based firm have done so for sound business reasons and appreciate the personal service and lower overheads offered.

If you find you lack motivation while working at home or become distracted into doing household tasks, set yourself targets and reward yourself for all those achieved. Ask clients to set deadlines even if they are not strictly necessary. Many people who suffer from lack of motivation while working at home also find it helps to establish an office style routine of start-time, lunch-time, clock-off time.

You can't be productive all the time. When quiet times come (and they will), fretting in your office will do no good. Use the time to catch up on paperwork, do some speculative marketing, renew old contacts, etc. It's also important to take a break each day - whether for a lunch with colleagues, a visit to the gym or just to stretch your legs. Several people I spoke to set alarm clocks to go off at regular intervals in order to establish a "break-time" routine.

If you are a teleworker, it's very easy to become overloaded. This is because employers cannot see how much work you are doing and it is much easier for them to pass on work down the phone than to watch someone in the office grimacing or complaining about their workload. Make sure your employers know exactly how much work you are doing by sending in regular reports and liaising with them frequently. Try to talk regularly to colleagues in the office to ensure you don't miss out on useful information and training opportunities. If you can arrange a lunch meeting so much the better.

Keep up your outside interests. It's all too easy in the excitement of starting a new business to become a workaholic. However, as you are working as well as living at home, you will soon find yourself feeling claustrophobic and becoming exceptionally boring. Remember, homeworkers are entitled to holidays, hobbies and a life. Outside interests are particularly vital for families or couples working at home or together.

If you have children it's important for them to know when you are working - and when you are not. Establish clear ground rules about entering the office, answering the business line, etc. The nadir of my professional career occurred when I was on the line to an eminent psychiatrist only to find our conversation interrupted by my two-year-old giving a concert recital of baa-baa black sheep. He was not amused!

Making Serious Money From Home: The possibilities, practicalities and pitfalls of homeworking, by Sharon Maxwell Magnus, is published by Pan at pounds 6.99 on 22 March.

'It's vital to have support'

Esther Kaposi, 36, is a communications consultant who has worked at home for nearly three years. She has a baby of four months.

"The strangest thing is adapting to the lack of routine," says Esther. She found that when she started working from home, she tended to work all hours. Now she gives herself a starter signal by leafing through the post. "I enjoy the flexibility of being able to work when I want but I've learned to take time out, too, like doing the supermarket shop on a Tuesday morning."

However, she does feel it's vital to have support. "If my husband sees me beavering away he'll ask if there is anything he can do to help. If you have a husband who throws a strop it must be so much harder."