An estimated 5.2 percent of the employed population worked from home as of 2017, the latest year for which U.S. Census data is available.
Working remotely means flexibility and freedom. No commute, no office politics, no gum-chewing cubicle mate to get on your nerves. But be aware of potential drawbacks, which can range from minor annoyances to serious issues that can make or break an at-home career.
“You have to go into it understanding what the challenges could be, so you can face them. You have to be proactive,” says Brie Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs, a website for remote and other flexible jobs.
Some basic awareness, Reynolds says, will help a remote worker survive and thrive. Following are some of the most commonly reported issues, and some tactics to overcome them.
Facebook friends and Slack messaging buddies are nice. But virtual connections are not the same as human interaction.
“You’re not getting access to other people’s energy on a regular basis. There’s no sense of community — you are your only team member,” says Shefali Raina, a business coach based in New York City.
That’s why remote worker Jeannine Crooks includes a “leave the house” slot in her daily work plan. Since her co-workers are “a thousand miles away, literally,” she gets her face time from walks, gym visits and the lunches that she arranges with friends at least three times a month.
Bonus: Getting away from the house sparks creativity.
“It’s fun to see how often I’ll come up with an idea or a (solution) when I do something else,” says Crooks, partner acquisition and development manager for the affiliate marketing company Awin.
A few other isolation-busting tactics:
- Work somewhere else, like a coffee shop or the library, at least part of the time.
- Consider renting a co-working space.
- Look for — or start — a group for remote workers.
2. Motivation/time management
In a traditional workplace “you get credit just for showing up,” notes Kathy Kristof, editor of SideHusl, a website that researches and rates freelance gigs. Even workers who waste hours chatting by the coffeepot or updating their social media get paid for a full day.
Entrepreneurs and freelancers can’t afford to procrastinate, however.
“If you produce nothing, you won’t get paid,” says Kristof, a former Los Angeles Times financial journalist who has worked at home for 30 years.
This allowed her to mesh parenthood with career, to the point of being able to volunteer at her children’s school. But this was possible only because she held specific work hours — in a home office with the door shut. When her children were small, she hired a nanny.
Anyone who plans to work at home also needs to create productive work routines, Kristof says.
Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson is a certified public accountant who’s been working from home for nearly 30 years. Yet he cheerfully admitted a recent goof: being a day late paying his withholding, which triggered an IRS penalty of more than $700. Fortunately, he was able to get the fee waived.
“The paperwork involved with self-employment isn’t rocket science, but it is serious. And if you’re (an entrepreneur or freelancer) busy wearing 15 hats, it’s easy to screw up,” Stacy says. “So here’s my advice: When in doubt, reach out!”
That’s not to say that all tax paperwork must be outsourced.
Remote customer service specialist Abigail Perry has her annual taxes done by a professional, but handles quarterly tax payments on her own.
“They’re really not that bad. (It) just requires filling out two forms,” says Perry.
4. Too much work — or not enough
When freelancers don’t work, they don’t get paid. Yet if they take on too many assignments, they might disappoint clients with substandard work or missed deadlines.
When you are super-booked and offered additional work, ask if the deadline is negotiable. Even a day or two can make a big difference in your ability to deliver.
I’ve worked as a freelancer full-time since 2002, and my modus operandi is “always getting ready.” While I work on current deadlines, I’m also pitching new ideas to keep future days filled with work.
Worst-case scenario: I finish my last assignment and have nothing new lined up. Luckily, it doesn’t happen often but when it does, it’s scary. In the down times, I follow up on ideas I pitched, create new ones and take care of bookkeeping.
A FlexJobs blog post suggests using quiet spells to market your work, update your website and network with others in your field.
5. Work setup
Jenny Se, a senior analyst for a large company, has a great office setup: a sit/stand adjustable desk and two monitors. One day a week she works from her one-bedroom condo, using a laptop and sitting at her dining-room table. Her company would likely provide a monitor setup, but she doesn’t want extra clutter.
Most remote workers don’t have an employer investing in the right equipment on their behalf.
They do their jobs from living-room armchairs, restaurant tables, airports and other places that aren’t easy on the body. Over time, these ergonomically incorrect spaces can spark back pain and other health problems.
A recent post on the Freelancers Union’s blog states a blunt truth:
“As freelancers, we must take responsibility ourselves to ensure our work isn’t slowly killing us.”
The piece offers some practical ergonomic tips. And if a true home office is in your future, the Mayo Clinic’s article “Office ergonomics: Your how-to guide” will help you create a healthy setup.
6. Boundary issues
Perry, the customer service specialist, says she learned when living with a talkative family member that having a dedicated work space “helps delineate when you can and can’t interact,” she notes. In her case, that means a home office.
Still, some relatives and friends might think that if you’re at home you must be available for long lunches or emergency child care. If so, then it’s time to have what FlexJobs’ Reynolds calls “an open, honest conversation” about people respecting your work day.
For example, she suggests telling them, “During these hours I really need to focus and concentrate, so let’s make plans for after.”
Children, especially, might need reminding. According to Reynolds, some people post “stop” signs on their office doors. One man put up red and green lights; when the red ones were lit, his kids knew better than to knock.
Todd Tresidder has worked at home for more than 30 years as an investment manager and personal finance author.
When his children were younger, the rule was simple: “Unless the house was burning or someone was dying, they weren’t allowed to interrupt.” It wasn’t foolproof, but it usually worked.
Being able to focus is crucial for at-home workers.
“Every small interruption when writing or editing can be devastating to productivity,” Tresidder says.
Getting “back into the flow” can take time, he says — and time is money.
7. Letting work take over your life
Here’s another reason not to work at the kitchen table or other common areas: These are places where you live the rest of the time.
“It’s very helpful to have a space or spaces in your house where you work, and spaces where you don’t,” says Raina, the business coach.
Bringing work into your living area makes it harder to end your business day. “Just one more email,” you think. Or, “While the kids are watching television, I’ll give that proposal a quick edit.”
Financial educator Shanté Harris-Superville has struggled with work-life balance. Too often she started work at 7:45 a.m., when her son got on the school bus, and didn’t stop for good until midnight.
Now she holds herself to a 9-to-6 workday — for both her financial business and the nonprofit she founded — and she saves an hour for either the gym or a short nap.
“The work will be there tomorrow,” she says.
But what if a client — or supervisor — wants to talk to you now? Some have no qualms about late-night texts, calls or emails.
FlexJobs’ Reynolds suggests you define expectations upfront. Ask if you will be expected to respond after hours, for example.
Our always-connected culture makes it easy to let our jobs take over our lives. That’s why Reynolds powers down at the end of each workday. She has made her work schedule clear — “They know when you’re available if you repeat it regularly” — and never checks her work email after hours.
“Technology comes with on/off buttons for a reason,” she says.
Do you work at home and have best-practice tips to share? Leave them in the comments, or on our Facebook page.