Maintaining a professional home office

I enjoy working from a home office — most days.  However, that’s now.  When I first started freelancing full-time from home, I had a few obstacles to overcome.  I needed a space where I could be organized and do my work.  And I needed respect for that space.  Here are some things that have worked for me in maintaining a mostly professional home office.

A dedicated room or space

When I first started freelancing full-time, we were living in a 900-square foot apartment.  I didn’t have the space to dedicate an entire room to my office.  I started with a corner.  It was the same corner where my desk was set up in the back of the living room, so it made sense.  I had a bookshelf and a computer desk with my computer and printer.  I spent my days sitting in that corner.

A year later we moved into a house with just over 1,600 square feet, so I finally had the space to dedicate an entire room to my office.  I picked a room in the back of the house with an attached half bathroom, door leading to the outside, two walls of built-in bookshelves and plenty of windows looking into the backyard.  It is perfect for me.

No matter where you find, make it your dedicated space.  It should be where you can go to do work.  It should be separate from the rest of your household.  True, I have a shelf and a couple of files in my office where I keep personal finance information, but at least 80 percent of the space is dedicated solely to work.  If I were too overwhelmed with household or personal things, I would never be able to concentrate on my work.

By the same token, having a dedicated work area means that you can leave it behind at the end of the day.  I don’t spend much time in my office during non-work hours.  I have a laptop and if I need to do something on my computer, usually I will take the laptop to another room when I’m not working.  That way I am actually getting away from it.  Otherwise, I start to get burned out.

Office hours

In order to take yourself seriously and have others follow suit, you need set office hours.  In general, I try to be behind my desk at least by 9 a.m. every day.  I try to be finished for the day by 4:30 p.m.  I take an hour for lunch.  Of course I have both shorter and longer days, but these hours are my guide.  Oh, and I work Monday through Friday.  Yes, I have worked weekends, but I don’t make a regular practice of it.

The nice thing about a home office is you really can make the hours work best for you.  I do my best work during the morning and day-time.  I know others, however, who work better at night.  Pick hours that work for you.  If I waited to start work until 7 p.m., I’d be dozing at my keyboard within a couple of hours.  I’m far from a night owl!

Another bonus to having hours is that you can let those around you know.  When I first started, I would often get phone calls during the day from family members wanting to chat.  After telling them time and again that I was working, it sunk in.  Now I seldom get chitchat calls during the day.  Or if I do, they ask if I have time to talk, just like if I were in an office outside of my home.

Letting others know also helps keep you accountable in some ways.  On the days my husband works from home, we both give each other space.  I almost feel guilty if I am not working like I know I should be because someone else is around to see that.

Caller ID, voicemail and long distance calling

A variety of tools can help you maintain a professional office, but caller ID is one of the most important and perhaps most overlooked.  I love caller ID.  When I first started, I couldn’t afford my own office line.  Caller ID told me when I needed to answer the phone professionally (as in “Hi, this is Stacey”) versus casually (as in “Hello?”).

Caller ID also told me when it was a personal phone call that I could let go to voicemail if I was busy or on the other line conducting an interview.  That said, when I am on the phone conducting an interview or client meeting, I never click over and answer the other line.  Caller ID shows who called, even if they don’t leave voicemail.

Voicemail is also crucial.  An answering machine can’t pick up when you are on the other line.  Voicemail can.  I, personally, use Vonage for phone service.  I get an e-mail with voicemail messages attached.  I can also forward the phone to my cell phone when I am expecting a call and need to make a quick trip to the post office or something.

Another benefit to Vonage is free, unlimited long distance throughout the United States and Canada.  When I started free-lancing, Vonage didn’t exist.  I had a regular phone company phone plan.  I paid through the nose for long distance.  Sometimes I was reimbursed; sometimes I wasn’t.  And when I was reimbursed, it was usually months after the phone bill was due.  Unlimited long distance keeps me from worrying.  It’s vital to a home office for a free-lancer.

One more option I’m going to mention is Vonage’s virtual phone number feature.  For a while I actually maintained two phone lines.  Now I opt for a virtual phone number for around $5 a month.  I still have the same two phone numbers, but they ring in on the same line.  Again, caller ID lets me know when it’s a business call or when it’s a personal call so I answer the phone accordingly.

I could go on and on about maintaining a professional home office and the tools needed, but I’m going to stop here for now before this gets too long.  I guess to summarize, I would say maintain an air of professionalism and that will follow through.  I literally had days near the beginning where I’d put on shoes just to feel like I was going to work and feel more professional.  Whatever it takes!

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