Working from home through life's stages
I had been talking to a friend recently about working from home and how it has been over the past years. I'd realized that I have a special perspective on working from home as I've been doing it for last 4 1/2 years and have been progressing through several of life's stages. Over that time, I've collected a good set of pros/cons of each, and some tips overall that could be valuable.
I started at Telligent as a contractor when the company was only a month old, and three months later was hired on as a full-time, salaried employee. For my first year at Telligent, I was single (well, engaged), living on my own with a roommate, and independent. After that, I spent two years married with no children. And I've spent the past year and a half married with one child (and will be two children in 5 more months). These are pretty much the three stages others in the workforce would find themselves in. Each of them have their own sets of challenges for working at home, as well as different sets of benefits. Additionally, the transition from each can present some difficulties.
Single/On Your Own
This stage I pretty much characterize as the "bad habit risk" stage. When I first started working from home, I was engaged, but at the time primarily saw my wife on weekends. She lived about 45 minutes away, and we'd usually meet up once a week for lunch or spend the night together, but mainly saw each other on weekends. So during the week, I was on my own schedule. Working from home in this way, you can develop some really odd hours and habits. I was very much a night person, so my sleep schedule got all off. I was usually up from 9am to 3 or 4am. There were times where I'd still be up at night when Scott, on the east coast, would just be getting up. I would pretty much work, in some capacity all day. Partially because Telligent was very young, so I was doing a lot of hacking on things. Rob would say something like "it'd be cool if you can read the forums through NNTP" and I went off and wrote an NNTP server for Community Server.
It is easy to develop this kind of schedule when on your own though, since you don't generally have anything to counter balance you. If you want to work all day, you can. If you want to stay up all night coding, you can. There aren't as many external boundaries as there are at other stages.
In terms of just awesome code hacking, this stage is awesome... you have all the time you want. You can get as deeply engrossed in code as you want. However some negatives are vitamin-D deficiencies, skewed eating schedules, and can make future transitions harder. My eating schedule was so far off at that time. I'd eat lunch like 3-5pm and dinner at around 10pm. My mother used to say it was bad to eat late and go to bed, but in reality my schedule was like everyone else's, just off 3 hours. I get up at 9am, adjust 3 hours and it is around most people's time, ~6am. I ate lunch at 3-5pm, which adjusted is 12-2pm. I had dinner at 10pm, which is 7pm when adjusted, and so on.
Married w/o Kids
The next stage is when I got married, but didn't have any kids yet. This stage can be characterized as "limited face time".
The transition to this stage can be kind of tough. My days used to be 9am to 3am, but my wife got up earlier and would often wake me up while she was getting ready, and me being up late and moving around could keep her up at night. Also, I was used to working through the day pretty much, but now she'd want to spend time together at night. I had adjust to more normal hours, and normal work hours. As a result, I saw a drop in terms of overall output. A lot of it was from not being able to put as much time into things, but part of it was my most productive time (at night) was now gone, so I needed to find ways to be more product at other times.
With this, process becomes more important. I got on more of a daily schedule. I read up on Getting Things Done and tried to be organized. Before, I was very productive, but lacked organization. I made up for it with an abundance of time. Now, I was limited in time, so needed to compensate by being organized.
One of the challenges with this stage can be personal interaction. Gone were the times of die-hard hacking til wee hours, and instead I found it challenging that the only person I had interactions with on a daily basis was my wife. I love my wife, but I didn't get to interact with enough people. Sure I might go out and grab lunch, but not going to spend time chatting with the clerk at Togos.
Some other challenges include bleed-over effects between work and personal time. It is very easy for work to bleed over into personal time, especially with email. It is best to just simply close email at a certain point in the day. Maybe check it a time or two for emergencies, but generally just accept that most things can wait until the morning. Nothing is that urgent. Allowing the two (work/home) to encroach can strain things at home, and an unhappy wife means an unhappy dev.
Married with Kids
This would be my current stage. The transition period to this stage sucks, but is limited. Overall, the lessons learned from the no-kids stage are valuable, but the transition period is marred with being constantly tired and insomnia. I was only off for 2 weeks after my son was born, and that wasn't long enough. He was still getting up ever 2 hours at night, and my wife and I were both super tired. This meant productivity was down. Luckily, once he started sleeping better, it improves and eventually returns to normal. The next time around, I'm taking 6 weeks off. By that point, should be better adjusted and ready to come back. In general, take as much time as you can, because it is nice to enjoy the new member of the family, but also the longer you wait the better your sleep schedule will be.
My own experiences with this stage might be unique, but I think it is also where you benefit most from working at home.
Our situation is where my wife is a pre-school teacher here in town. Since pre-school days are pretty short, she is basically just part time and is usually home by 1pm. Since August though, attendance at the school was down (damn economy), so they cut their Tuesday/Thursday class. This did mean my wife basically got a 40% pay cut, but it also meant she (and my son) were around all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The benefit of this stage is being able to spend quality time with the family. It is nice to have no commute, so whenever my wife is home, my son is home. When I take breaks every few hours, I can just go out in the living room and play around with my son. People who have long commutes often miss out on the family time. In working from home, you don't have that and if your kids are around, you can take a few minutes out to go see them.
This can be a double edged sword though. First, they can distractions if you allow them to be. You might be tempted to go out and play when you need to get stuff done. Or more so, a crying baby can kill concentration. And second, it can pull at your strings a lot. There are sometimes where my son gets used to me being around and misses me, so he'll come to my door during the day and bang on it, or follow me into my office, and so on. When they're being cute and having fun, you can feel guilty saying "Daddy has go do some work". Part of it is realizing you still have it better than most and to not feel guilty too much.
Additionally, it is important to lay some boundaries and close yourself off. Even if kids aren't around much during the day, you may still need to contend with summer vacations. For me, when I am working, my office door is closed. I work in my office, when I am out of my office, I am not working. If the door is closed, do not bother (or please knock). Though along with that is setting some work hours. I don't want to be interrupted to change a diaper at 11am, but at 6pm it is ok.
Overall it does take a lot of discipline to successfully work at home. It is not something that is for everyone, and it is something that you go through in waves. At times you will love it, and at times you might hate it. It all comes down to your own discipline to keeping motivation, keeping a schedule, and not burning out.