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There's No Place Like a Home Office

By Martin Lieberman

One of the most cherished aspects of telecommuting for workers and employers alike is the productivity that comes from maximizing your time and working in a convenient location. Who are the 21 million people who have the luxury of working in their pajamas every day?

"In hindsight, and after two years of working on my own, I actually miss the interaction with other people." Leah Kane

In 1998, when Terry Thompson was looking to buy a house, she wanted to live in Portland, CT. There was just one problem: her office at Hyperion was in Stamford, 70 miles and a two-hour commute away. So Thompson and her company agreed that she would begin working from home, just like nearly 21 million other telecommuters around the country.

Who are all these millions people who have the luxury of working in their pajamas? Many of them work in jobs that don't require staff meetings or the help of coworkers, like journalists and sales reps. Some companies employ people in cities where they have no office, and other firms offer telecommuting as a perk to employees who have families at home. Many employers even favor telecommuting because it is more cost effective than housing all of their workers. All told, USA Today estimates that telecommuters make up 40 percent of all employees.

OSHA Weighs In
One of the most cherished aspects of telecommuting for workers and employers alike is the productivity that comes from maximizing your time and working in a convenient location. Not too long ago that almost changed. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruled that home-based employees must have working conditions similar to those in the office, including comparable equipment and safety conditions. The ruling threatened employees' ability to continue working from their homes.

Not surprisingly, OSHA's decision spurred debate in many circles about just how much control employers should have over their home-based employees. Telecommuters objected to the fact that OSHA was butting into their private workspaces, and employers protested the extra effort that managing telecommuters would require. In response to all the negative feedback, OSHA reversed its decision two months later.

The Logistics
Many who work from home say the ruling was a non-issue to them. When Thompson began working from home, for example, her company supplied her with laptop and desktop computers, a copier/fax machine, typical office supplies such as pens and paper, and even installed an ISDN line in her house.

Working from home is not always ideal, though, especially when you have roommates or live in tight quarters. "I have one room, which is my office, bedroom, everything room," says Ann Chernin, 26, who works for California-based and shares a Boston apartment with three roommates.

Other at-home workers complain that the miss being around people. "One of the reasons I wanted to get out of the corporate culture is that I didn't always feel like being nice and friendly to the other people I worked with," recalls Leah Kane, who runs her own business and also freelances for a consulting company. "But after two years of working on my own, I actually miss the interaction."

Setting Boundaries
Working at home also comes with distractions, like personal phone calls, television, laundry, or the beach on a sunny summer day. In short, self-discipline is key. "You're only going to hurt yourself if you're slacking," says Mike Ogar, 26, a sales representative for Connell Neurosurgical who makes sales calls from home.

Chernin adds that it's essential to make a distinction between your professional and personal lives. "If I'm here and I'm awake, I'm at work," she complains. On the flip side, friends assume that because you're at home, you don't have to be working. Set working hours for yourself and make others aware of them, including your coworkers back at the office. That way, friends won't think you can take an hour out of your day to drive them to the airport, and coworkers won't call you at 7 p.m. assuming you're still on the clock.

The at-home workers we talked to say it's worth it. "It's not always easy," says Kane. "There are times when I consider going back to the office, but the cons of being in an office far outweigh the pros."

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