By Gwyneth Box
Many people decide that they are going to work from home when they go freelance. This is especially tempting when the work involved is something that requires little office infrastructure, such as freelance writing or computer design. It’s easy to think that a spare bedroom can be converted into a studio and that will be sufficient. But can this really work?
There are, of course, a list of advantages to working from home that everyone cites: there’s no time lost in commuting, and no travel expenses; it’s a way of making money out of the spare room you use so seldom; you won’t need to pay for a babysitter as you’ll be in the house; you’d want to have a computer at home anyway, so why pay for a second to use elsewhere, etc. Having worked from home as a freelance writer and web designer for several years, I have found that the reality may be somewhat different.
Competing for space and facilities
First of all you need space. If it’s to be the spare room, you can guarantee that the week after you’ve set up your studio someone will invite themselves to stay for a month. What will you do? Have the houseguest sleep on the sofa? Or dismantle your studio and set it up in a corner of the lounge?
If your computer is in the lounge, are you going to have to compete with the television? Will you try and go on working despite the rest of the family? And what will you do when people call round?
Come to think of it, if you only have one computer in the house, are you going to have to compete with the kids and their mates who want to play games or surf for porn sites? Can you actually convince them that the ‘P’ in ‘PC’ is for personal and that means you? I came home the other day to discover my four-year-old niece happily playing on my computer while the grown-ups watched a film on TV. It was impossible to tactfully demand her removal, so I had to watch the film instead of getting on with my work.
And don’t forget that if you use the Internet, you’re going to have to have a separate telephone line installed or compete with the family for its use. This may be a major bone of contention, particularly if there are teenagers involved.
Being Taken Seriously
When you are a freelance writer or computer designer, one of the biggest problems is convincing people that you really are working. Unless you win the Booker prize or get your own column in a national daily, hardly anyone will believe you’re a ‘proper’ writer. As for the computer, well they have their own PC, too, but that’s just a hobby, isn’t it? Why should yours be any different? Of course, while they refuse to let you work in peace, you’ll never get enough written or complete enough projects to prove them wrong.
Interruptions and distractions
The fact that you are at home all day means that anyone can drop in, or phone you for a chat. If you have someone staying with you, it’s very difficult for them to see that your being in the house doesn’t mean you’re available for long discussions, extended coffee-breaks and convoluted explanations of how the shower works. It seems that parents and parents-in-law in particular find it hard to understand that my work at home is every bit as ‘real’ as the nine-to-five they themselves did. Not that the problem is exclusive to the ‘older generation’: friends who have found me welcoming when I had no pressing deadlines are now convinced that ours is open house all the time.
If your studio is part of the house, it’s easy for others to assume that you are available to feed the cat, watch the children and let the neighbor’s dog out. Can you justify a babysitter in your own home when you are on the premises? And if you do, and the baby cries, will you have the strength of will to leave your child at the mercy of another woman?
Even if you have no children or animals to worry about, you’ll still be expected to answer the door to callers – not just the meter reader, but also the postman with a parcel for the neighbor, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the canvassing politician. It takes great self-discipline to ignore the doorbell and pretend you aren’t home – after all, you just might miss something important! The same goes for the telephone, although this is perhaps easier to deal with by filtering the calls using an answer-phone.
It’s not just other people who are distracting. I am not particularly house proud, but many are the days that I can’t settle to write until I’ve swept the floor, put the washing machine on, been to the market and organized lunch. Household tasks are particularly difficult to ignore if you’re sitting in the middle of them!
Meetings and client visits
There’s also the problem of what to do if a client comes to the house. How can you entertain him in a room draped with wet washing, and how do you ban the cat from the studio when she’s in heat? It just isn’t professional to have her wrap herself round a potential customer, but very difficult to prevent when she normally has the run of the flat as our cat does. I don’t think any client has ever needed to use the bathroom in my home, but every time I’ve had a meeting scheduled I’ve had to make sure it was clean, just in case.
Of course, if you know that you’ve got a meeting, that’s all very well, but sometimes a client will turn up unexpectedly. Perhaps he’s got your address from your web site, or a letter you sent him. He just happened to be in the area and how was he to know it was the afternoon your 6-year-old was having his birthday party? You may have re-scheduled your workload, but it doesn’t create a good impression.
The joy of no longer having to commute can quickly transform into the monotony of the same four walls and the desire to escape. Working from home I spend far more money on eating out than before: not in order to save time by avoiding cooking and washing up, but simply to get out of the house. The fact that I need to see life outside the house to find inspiration for my writing is another excuse, of course.
How many hours are you prepared to work? With the studio as part of the house, I’ve still been at my computer at 2am and then back there at 7 the next morning. It had reached the stage where there was no difference between work and leisure: I was already at work before I’d even got dressed in the morning. Or, if there was no project in hand, I could stay in bed as long as I liked: it didn’t matter if I started work at 9am or 6pm as I could work as long as necessary either way.
My husband and I have finally decided that we need an office apart from the house in order for us to enjoy our home. We’ve been very fortunate and managed to find a studio just two doors down the road, so we will still spend hardly any time traveling and we will be able to come home for lunch, instead of eating out all the time.
I shall be able to get on and write without worrying about the washing and cleaning: what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over. Anyway, there’s only one room to be kept respectable for client meetings – and it won’t be covered in cat hairs! If a client wants to call, as long as he does so in ordinary office hours, he can, without being molested by the cat. Nor will there ever be wet washing about or children’s parties going on.
The fact that I won’t hear the phone if it rings at 9.30 means that I’ll have to get up and go to work. But if it rings at 10pm I will neither hear it nor worry – I intend to be home enjoying myself.
Personally I believe that working from home is fine if you are only ‘dabbling’: if what you’re doing is a paying hobby rather than a real job. It may also work if you are prepared to consider the whole of your house a work zone: a single person or childless couple whose work and hobbies overlap may be prepared to eat, sleep and work in one location. However, I’m not sure it is the best situation for anyone with a family and much of a life apart from their work.