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Working From Home

Editor's Note: Rita Dilek is a Web Accessibility Consultant who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

With all the advances in computer technology and telecommunications, working from home is becoming easier and more popular. Based on the 2001 Census, Statistics Canada reports eight percent of Canadian workers work at home, with the trend increasing in urban areas. In the United States, the Small Business Administration has found that 12 percent of households have a home-based small business. These figures are expected to grow considerably by the year 2020.

A home office can be a family's main source of income or be used to supplement income from a regular job. In North America, roughly half of such offices belong to teleworkers or telecommuters--employees who do all or part of their work at home. The other half are self-employed--independent contractors or small business owners.

Telecommuters receive a regular salary and benefits such as vacations, sick leave and insurance. The employer also usually provides and maintains any work-related equipment. By contrast, the self-employed assume higher financial risks. They receive no salary or benefits, and are responsible for their own equipment, repairs, insurance and other costs. Their initial investment of time and money is higher, but the earning potential and independence is greater, which can compensate for these drawbacks.

There are many reasons why people choose the work-at-home lifestyle. Avoiding lengthy commutes, flexible schedules and the possibility of greater independence are often cited. Mothers of young children and parents wishing to home-school their children may feel they can provide better care while working at home. People caring for relatives who are aging or disabled may also prefer this lifestyle. In addition, changes in the job market have forced many people into working from home, as their employers downsize and contract out services.

For some people with disabilities, working from home may be the only means of earning a living, or may enable them to work longer hours. Some accommodations to a disability are most easily provided in the home. For instance, someone with severe emphysema may need air purifiers, oxygen and insulation from dust or other allergens. Chronic pain and other health conditions may necessitate frequent and unpredictable rest periods. A home office allows for work during the most productive periods and rest when needed. (Note that for employees with disabilities, the duty to accommodate remains in effect, regardless of whether the work is performed at home or at the employer's site.)

When I first considered the possibility of working from home, my blindness was not the main issue. I had held full-time jobs as a software engineer and had no trouble doing so at my employers' offices. After two major surgeries, however, my health was precarious and my energy level was very low. It seemed wiser to spend what little energy I had on productive work rather than commuting. Though the original considerations are no longer valid, I find I enjoy working from home and the lifestyle is well suited to my current work as a Web Accessibility Consultant.

There are both benefits and challenges associated with the work-at-home lifestyle. Among the major benefits are the time and energy saved by avoiding daily commutes, the flexible schedule, and the freedom to dress informally and work in a comfortable home environment. Many people also value having a private work place with no interruptions from co-workers or office politics.

Cost savings are also a major benefit. These can include savings on transportation, daycare and the cost of a professional wardrobe. Savings on clothes, however, apply more to telecommuters since the self-employed may need to make frequent visits to customer sites.

There are also tax advantages to having a home office. A portion of the rent, mortgage and utilities may be tax deductible, as well as the cost of an additional work telephone, work-related equipment and repairs, books, travel, entertainment, insurance and professional memberships. (Note that all these factors may not apply to every home office worker. There are major differences between teleworkers and the self-employed. Please consult an accountant or tax office to check what applies to your particular case.)

While there are numerous advantages to working from home, this lifestyle is not for everyone. Distractions and interruptions abound--television, the novel you started last night, children, room-mates, in-home relatives, housework, cooking, mail deliveries, phone calls--the possibilities are endless. The coveted flexible schedule can become your downfall if you're not careful, allowing procrastination and an incredible amount of wasted time. You need a higher level of motivation and discipline than people working at an employer's site. The best solution is to make up your own schedule to fit your needs. Schedule coffee breaks, lunches, errands, doctors' appointments, volunteer activities or childcare where you want--and then stick to the schedule!

Balancing family and work needs is another challenge. Because you are at home, friends and family members assume your time is your own and feel free to interrupt. The best way to cope is to set boundaries, both physical and behavioral. A separate office can help. If this is not possible, designate a distinguishable workspace and post a "Do Not Disturb" notice during work hours. Similarly, a separate phone line, not to be answered by the kids, ensures that customers and co-workers receive professionally appropriate responses.

You may also have to set up rules regarding acceptable behaviour in friends and relatives, such as not phoning you during work hours, or not drawing pictures on business documents. This works best if the child or friend understands the reasons for the rules, and even then it may take weeks or months before everyone adjusts to the change. Occasionally, negotiations can help; for example, a quiet hour now in return for baking cookies together later.

A Manitoba study of teleworkers with disabilities has identified some additional challenges. People who work exclusively at home and never go to employer or customer sites may develop feelings of isolation. Coping methods include email, phone calls with co-workers, teleconferences with teams, and scheduling visits or calls with friends for outside work hours. Homebound teleworkers also miss the informal learning and professional development activities occurring at the work site. Email or phone contact can again remedy this problem.

It can also be a challenge to find the right telework job or business, and avoid the many work-at-home scams, which are proliferating on the net these days. I generally receive at least one message each day offering some great work-at-home opportunity, requiring no qualifications and claiming to pay an incredible amount of money for simple tasks, such as stuffing envelopes and mailing them. Likewise, an internet search on the phrase "work from home" brings up numerous links with similar offers. The catch is that you must send $500 as an initial investment or $100 for training materials. Even if a tiny percentage of recipients respond to such messages, the perpetrator can make a great deal of money. A legitimate employer will not require payment for training materials or investments.

It is best to ignore such ads.

Think of the type of work you enjoy doing and are qualified to do. Then look for an employer who needs this work and is willing to let you do it from home. If you wish to start a business, do a lot of research before you jump in. If you can come up with something for which you are uniquely qualified, your chances of enjoyment and business success are much greater.

Remember, working from home has many challenges but if this lifestyle meets your needs, it can be extremely rewarding, enjoyable and lucrative.

Useful resources

Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Network:

www.entrepreneurdisability.org

Canadian Telework Association: www.ivc.ca

Work at Home Moms website: www.wahm.com

Manitoba Study on Teleworkers with Disabilities: www.disabilitystudies.ca/teleworkeres.htm

Information About Starting and Running Small Businesses and Labour Market Information from the Government of Canada:

www.strategis.gc.ca

Also check the Better Business Bureau and Phone Busters for descriptions of the latest scams.

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.