Making a Work-at-Home Arrangement Work for You
by Alisa Ikeda

Free Agent. Freelancer. Independent Contractor. Independent Professional. Telecommuter. The titles alone sound liberating, powerful, and hip. To parents, they sound particularly alluring. Working at home seems the perfect choice for those who want both their careers and their families up close and personal. And many moms and dads are making it a reality.

Whether you’ve convinced your boss to let you do some or all of your job from home or you’re leaving 9-to-5 office drudgery in the dust as you boldly proclaim self-employment, here are some tried-and-true ways to make a work-at-home arrangement work for you.

Your Home Office

First and foremost you’ll need a workspace—one that is practical, comfortable, and likeable. Be it an unclaimed bedroom, garage, or attic space, or just a thoughtfully planned corner of a family or living room, the area must be conducive to your working style (away from the television if you’re easily distracted, near your family’s common areas if you thrive on hustle and bustle, with a garden view if you’re motivated by natural inspiration…). Keep in mind whether you’ll be entertaining clients (do you want them, for instance, traipsing through your entire house to reach that beautiful back room office?).

Once you’ve selected the space, claim it with these home office essentials:

  • A desk and chair
  • Shelving and/or filing cabinets—You’ll need files for all your satisfied clients and many projects, as well as tax records, receipts and an expense ledger, and office bills.
  • A phone—Install a second phone line strictly for work. That way, it’s a cut-and-dry business expense, and only you will answer your work calls (and only when you’ve got your professional hat on). Also consider purchasing a cordless phone (for those times when you simply must make or take a call despite the fact that the nearby washing machine is running or your kids aren’t behaving at their usual utmost charming).
  • An answering machine—Voila! Now you have "voicemail."
  • A fax machine
  • A computer and printer—A word of caution (learned the hard way): don’t share the "family" computer.
  • A high-speed modem—Whether you’re dialing in to your employer’s network or taking advantage of the many Web offerings for freelancers, you need a fast and reliable connection. Look into DSL, cable modem, satellite, and wireless options so you can avoid tying up your business phone line with a traditional modem (a constant busy signal is apt to turn away a prospective client).
  • Slick stationery and business cards—If you can swing it financially, consider hiring a graphic artist to design them for you. You may even want to get yourself a snazzy Web presence to showcase your abilities to future clients.
  • A plan—This one’s most vital. Determine how you’ll handle health insurance, retirement savings, potential income lulls, taxes, and all the other less-than-glamorous elements of the work-at-home equation.

Beyond Bunny Slippers

When you fantasized about working from home, you imagined rolling out of bed to a freshly brewed pot of coffee, padding down the hall to a comfy home office, and enjoying a blissfully boss-free workday. Admit it: visions of bonbons, bathrobes, and bunny slippers danced in your head.

Those images aren’t far off. As a work-at-home parent, you are in fact your own loveable boss. After a 15-second, engine-free commute, you can hold a morning conference call in your pajamas, shower and whip up a batch of cookies on your lunch hour, and sneak a run through the sprinklers with your toddler in the afternoon.

But wait, there’s more…. With little separation between work and play, you just might find yourself working harder and longer hours than ever. You think you’ll just "pop onto the computer" for a few minutes to check your email after the kids go down, and before you know it you’re ringing in a new day. There are dry spells, during which very little work—and money—come in, followed by times when you’re so swamped you can’t see straight. Your house is messier than ever even though you’re home to clean it (that’s the kicker: you’re also home to mess it up!). And all this for the joys of an irregular paycheck….

Is it worth it? Seasoned free agents boom a resounding "Yes!" Especially when you learn to successfully navigate the sometimes choppy work-at-home waters:

  • Daycare—Should you or shouldn’t you? It’s up to you. Some work-at-home parents relish the opportunity to care for their children while working. Others appreciate the help of an in-home nanny. Some prefer to expose their children to the social atmosphere of a traditional daycare or preschool setting. Still others combine a little of each solution. Start with your ideal choice. It may work! If not, try the next. Just keep in mind that the glory of your work-at-home arrangement is that very freedom to choose.
  • Scheduling—Strict or flexible? Some free agents are most productive when they set a regular, uninterrupted working schedule; others prefer a less predictable routine. Experiment to find what’s best for you, your working style, your projects, and your family.
  • Isolation—Won’t you be lonely at home? If loneliness is a concern now that there’s no water-cooler chitchat in your daily routine, make a concentrated effort to connect with others by joining professional organizations, scheduling regular get-togethers with colleagues and friends, participating in playgroups, taking courses, and more. But know that what many at-home professionals report craving most is alone time—time away from both work and family. So carve it out for yourself regularly. You’ve earned it.
  • Respect—Where is it? Some people may (inconsiderately) imply that yours isn’t a "real" job. Friends may expect you to be readily available for anytime get-togethers, and family may assume you have all the time in the world to do extra chores and run errands. Though work-at-home parents are indeed master multi-taskers, they can’t do it all—and shouldn’t be expected to. Get the credibility you deserve by being focused, rigorously committed, and unapologetically serious about your work.

The Master Calendar

As a work-at-home parent, you learn something truly amazing: that you can live your life with just one calendar. When you blend your personal and professional lives, you realize you needn’t be two people with two schedules. You can be one beautifully balanced person. And think of the message you’re sending to your children: that work is but one steady beat in the rhythm of life, and that people can excel at both career and family without sacrificing either.

Alisa Ikeda is a writer and editor in Marin County, California, with a B.A. in sociology and a background in book publishing.