"Bad Language"

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.


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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 24th 2007, 9:51 AM
Comment by: Sana S.
Awesome, thank you!
Monday September 24th 2007, 9:13 PM
Comment by: Michael Z.
Last year we re-did our back-yard. Now I work from home a day or two a week. I have staff meetings, write, compute and generally conduct business in my back-yard. It is a beautiful environment, conducive to creativity and concentration. Everyone in my company seems to like it and look forward to meetings. I'm next to a golf course and I've found that clients are more likely to speak candidly and make hand-shake agreements in my yard after a round of golf. This year I plan to build an open air office that can be closed and heated in the event of inclement weather.
Wednesday September 26th 2007, 3:50 PM
Comment by: Susan F.
Helpful info and very smart tips! And now...that backyard idea sounds very attractive, too...!! Thanks y'all!!
Wednesday October 3rd 2007, 3:32 AM
Comment by: martin O.
I liked this a lot ...I am running a small office but need to be on the move a lot meeting clients. I would like to hear soem thoughts on virtual PA services. The ones that will answer phones and much more. I am really not sure how to use them - if at all.
Sunday October 7th 2007, 9:30 AM
Comment by: John B.
Delightfully succinct with a generous serving of real-world tools. That's how business gets done!
Thursday October 25th 2007, 7:30 AM
Comment by: Manivannan P.
Must be a good salesman!
Saturday October 27th 2007, 12:20 AM
Comment by: Lori S.
Caught my eye, since I work at home (going on 12 years)... some great tips, and a different perspective from my own, so this is of great value. Thanks for sharing. I'm still looking for the best way to deal with the unpredictable and often uncontrollable noises when trying to have a business call at home or when working in a third place (cafe, etc.) so the bose headset was a good suggestion.... I have a pretty good cell phone headset, but my land line eqp is aweful. I'd love any recommendations there.
Friday November 9th 2007, 6:17 PM
Comment by: Renelle P.
Does anyone know of any legitimate work at home opportunities?
Wednesday December 12th 2007, 7:54 PM
Comment by: Susan F.
Back again to say thanks again! One of my favorite articles!!

#9 is the one I'm most focused on these days. I've always wanted to work from home your way. My husband wanted to run a biz...so we have a small one w/just a few employees. And boy do I see the tail wagging that dog!! Can't imagine 65 of them!! Yikes!

Got him reading it now. Maybe...just maybe...we can move back towards this type of biz...!!

Thanks so much!!!

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Here is Matthew's advice on the ultimate home-office profession.
Matthew's tips on becoming a more productive writer.