I’ve been a freelancer working from my home office for almost ten years. The amount of work I’ve taken on has increased as my son has grown older and spent more time away from me – first in childcare and then at primary school. But throughout that time I’ve had the chance to put systems and processes in place that maximise my efficiency, and I’ve developed the required discipline to ignore the piles of laundry that always need putting away and instead sit down at my desk, day after day.
For my husband Young – who has a 35-year career in major gift fundraising behind him – the experience of home working that began last year was a new one. Throughout his working life, he has always had the structure and support of an office environment. Working in higher education and the not-for-profit sector, his days were often a blur of committee meetings and phone calls. He did a lot of international travel and evening events. His days were filled not just with tasks on the to-do list, but with the constant demands of other people and a clear set of KPIs.
When Young left his position last year to become a freelance philanthropy and communications consultant, I’ll admit I had my concerns. What would it do to my working routine, having someone else in the house? Would he expect me to be his PA, his IT support and his finance department rolled into one? What if we discovered that spending so much time together just didn’t work for us?
One thing that worked in our favour was that for Young’s first six weeks at home, I was smack bang in the middle of a big project that needed my full attention. From the moment our son left for school in the morning, to the moment he came back home in the afternoon, I was at my desk working. There simply wasn’t any scope for me to amend my routine to accommodate the new colleague in the house.
Since then, we’ve had a full year of working together – Young with a home office downstairs, and me with a home office upstairs – and it has turned out better than either of us could have anticipated.
Young and I have discovered how complementary our skills are. Although we have very different working styles, projects, and clients, a key aim for both of us is clear and accessible communication. When there is no issue around confidentiality, that means we are able to provide each other with informal help. He is a fantastic editor, so if I’ve got a piece of writing I’m struggling with I’ll hand it over and know that it will come back covered in red pen but much improved. On the other hand, I find admin tasks much easier than Young does, so I help out with his invoicing and accounts when that’s required.
It’s also really lovely to have a cheerleader nearby. Most people who work from home – me included – enjoy the solitary nature of their work, but there are times when it’s important having someone to bounce ideas off, or someone to provide a confidence boost on a difficult day. Some of that support I get from my online networks and communities, but even the best Facebook group is no substitute for having a real live human (one who gives great hugs, at that) to sit and have lunch with.
Another benefit of the new arrangement has been that as our work commitments have ebbed and flowed over the last twelve months, it has been easy for the less-busy partner to pick up the slack. I can now schedule meetings and phone calls for times of the day that would previously have been impossible. I no longer have to do every school drop off and swimming lesson. It feels like we are sharing the mental and physical load of running the household more fairly than ever before, and even when there’s a period where one or the other of us is shouldering more of that work, it’s no longer invisible. We each have a deeper appreciation of how much work the other does.
That development has had positive effects in other areas of our life. Because so much of the shared household tasks are now completed during the week, our weekends and school holidays are free for doing fun stuff as a family. We’ve done more beach walks, lunches out, and national park visits in the last year than we managed in our first five years in Tasmania.
Our son is definitely benefiting from having more time with his dad. If anything, he’s taking that for granted now – complaining loudly when Young has to go to Melbourne for one night, and forgetting that he often used to be away for a fortnight several times a year.
I’ve always been very open about how much I love freelance, home-based work, and if I can make it financially viable I’d love to work this way indefinitely. I think my favourite thing about a home office is that it maximises my productive time: I can walk my son to school, and ten minutes after dropping him off I can be at my desk writing. I never have to worry about parking, fixing my lunch, or catching up on the office gossip.
I wasn’t entirely confident that home working would be such a success for my husband, but over the last year I’ve been very pleasantly surprised, and I wouldn’t change a single thing about our current set up.
The big question is whether Young feels the same… I asked him to respond, and that response is below.
As usual, my wife (our stay at home businesses do not yet generate enough income to reasonably label us ‘partners’) understates her importance in this venture. Without her good humour and iron will, the arrangement would have certainly failed in week one.
You see, I am a procrastinator. Actually, I am a world-class procrastinator. Step into my office and find hundreds of poetry books, five or six graphic novels, a much-strummed ukulele, over a dozen harmonicas, Mike the Sparky Wind-Up Robot, one computer screen tuned into both the Philadelphia Phillies AND Radio Paradise, a mallet style putter with a new grip leaning against the wall at one end of the room and an automatic ball returner at the other end…
You get the idea. There are lots and lots and lots of toys. And I do love to play. Freed from the public burden of being the Big Boss in an open office, I marvel at the sheer abundance and potential joy of my workspace.
It took a while before any work actually got done there, though. Being based at home meant no more of those interminable meetings where nothing actually got decided. No dozens of e-mails every hour to answer. No telephone calls. No travel to plan. No reason, in short, to go into the office at all.
Yet every morning, once our son had been walked to school and tea had been made and poured, away she went, upstairs, to her own office, sadly lacking in distractions. And there she would stay, for hours at a time. I would see her for a mid-morning break and another cup of tea, then she’d disappear again, back to work until lunch.
I missed her. But I knew better then to try to engage her in some meaningless conversation. She is sweet and kind, my wife, but she is more than capable of assuming some deadly serious eyes.
She was patient with me. She designed a new business card which labelled me “A useful person”. She encouraged me to reach out to people I’d met along the way who might be good contacts. She cheered me up when I got depressed. She even took a few whacks with the putter.
But every morning, after tea was secured, off she went.
Pretty soon, things changed. I started to land some consultancy work. Then a bit more. My office magically transformed itself into a productive space. We began to edit each other’s writing.
And at the end of Year One, our tax forms showed we had done better than either of us expected.
Now we are deep into the first quarter of Year Two. Ruth has established herself as the go-to copywriter for a half dozen clients. I am looking for the perfect combination of worktime and lifetime. My creative side is flourishing, and I have been financially reminded why it simply does not pay to be a poet.
But most of all, we are happy. We have always had a natural proximity, a need to be near the other. The upstairs/downstairs office arrangement lets that happen every day, in the most natural way.
I still procrastinate more than I should. (She asked me to write this piece almost four weeks ago…). But we are both getting a tremendous amount of work done in highly focused time segments, which leaves all the rest of it for us, our son and our lives together.
What could be better than that?