A column about writing in business
How to Work From Home
The benefits of working from home are obvious. If you're a regular employee: you skip the commute and there are no office distractions for the day. If you're an entrepreneur: reduced overheads, no commuting and a congenial working environment.
When I ran the computer games company I had a big office. Actually, it was so big it would have embarrassed Mussolini. I had secretaries and receptionists and security guards and all that. I don't miss it at all.
I like working from my home in Great Britain. According to the Office of National Statistics, so do 1 in 20 of the UK's working population. Take Bellwether, an engineering consultancy. It's a long-established but completely virtual company. They ALL work from home. It's not just for small businesses either. For example, more than 50% of IBM's 25,000 UK employees work from home, a customer site or more than one IBM location.
But it takes a bit of planning and work to get the perfect home office. Here are my tips:
- Separate phone and fax. You need a phone that you can switch off when you stop work. Although I have two landlines, I use a Skype phone more and more. It integrates with my PC better than a regular phone, I get free calls in the UK and a central London phone number for people to call me on. I use a Plantronics CS60-USB handsfree headset so I can talk and type. I also use HotRecorder to record interviews.
- Keep work and home separate. Ideally, you need a separate room or outbuilding for work. It's good to shut the door on work at the end of the day. It also shuts out distractions. I also use Bose QuietComfort 2 headphones with noise-canceling but no music to shut out sounds from outside. (See my post on how to concentrate).
- Stay green. I got the local council to give us a couple of recycling bins for our block of flats. Direct.gov.uk has links to all the local councils in the UK and you can check what arrangements are available in your area. I get my electricity from Good Energy, which supplies 100% renewable electricity (unlike many so-called 'green' tariffs from other suppliers). Finally, I used Carbon Neutral to offset my car, gas and flying with trees.
- Office stuff. Just because you're not in the office doesn't mean you don't need office stuff. Get a stationery cupboard, a shredder, a filing cabinet and even a water cooler. A good filing system is vital. I don't use it but friends swear by Paper Tiger filing software. I sold my lovely Aeron chair cheap on eBay and now I regret it. The flip side is that if you want a lovely Aeron chair cheap, go to eBay.
- Business class IT. Here's my set up: I have a Dell server running Windows Small Business Server 2003 in my kitchen cupboard. I also have an HP DAT72 backup drive which runs every night to backup my email and work files. I do a full server backup over several tapes monthly. I also have a 250GB external hard disk attached which does a full server backup once a week. The whole setup cost me under £1,500. I set it up myself but you can get a techie for half a day for a few hundred pounds to do it for you. I have friends who use Cobweb, who provide the Exchange Server functionality on a fully outsourced basis. Get Safe Online has useful IT security advice for small businesses.
- Everywhere is your office. I use a local club for interviews and meetings. Starbucks or Cafe Nero are just as good. Other people rent meeting rooms from local serviced offices, such as Regus. I also use my server to give me mobile email on my Orange C600 smartphone. This means I can synch inbox, diary and contacts anywhere.
- Be businesslike. Just because you work from home doesn't mean you have to be amateur about the way you run your business. How I do my marketing is probably another post but invoicing on time and chasing payment needs to be done in a professional way. (I really like MoneyClaim.gov.uk for collecting very late debts - it's an online court service from the UK government. Very efficient. Very effective.) For time tracking, I use a great online application called Harvest. One of my clients has got me using OB10 for online electronic invoicing. I'll see how it works in practice but it could be a great way to send and receive all my invoices.
- Be like a small big business. Most of my work is for very large companies, like HP, MessageLabs and Microsoft, and I spend a lot of time thinking about whether there is anything they have that I can replicate. I have a company website (Articulate Marketing), my blog and a client-only Extranet (provided by Basecamp). Between these sites, my server and my communications, I'm not sure there is anything they have that I don't have. Apart from a shiny reception and a parking lot.
- Build your network. Well, actually, there is one exception. I don't have lots of employees. This is a very deliberate choice for me. When I sold my last business I had something like 65 people on the payroll. They were good guys, but the payroll and overheads became the tail that wagged the dog. I spent more time dealing with personnel issues than I did with growing the business. D'oh! Now I prefer to work with other free agents on an arm's length contractor basis. Finding a good contractor takes at least as much work as recruiting and training up a good employee but the relationship is much more businesslike and less paternalistic. I work with designers, web developers, photographers, other writers, PRs and my excellent proofreader on this basis. I haven't tried any kind of contractor introduction agency website yet -- I wonder if anyone has any experience of working with them.
- Insurance and tax. In the UK, you need public and employer's liability insurance and you need to figure out how to treat your home office from a tax perspective. It's different for different people so I won't give advice here. However, Business Link has some useful tips.