Small Business


Home improvement, or time for renovation?

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A friend recently asked if I liked working from home. “Love it,” I replied. Then he was asked if one learns more working from home, often in isolation, compared to working in a big company. That’s a more complex and difficult question to answer.

Most home-business owners rave about their better work/life balance, more time with the family, less stress without office politics, and being healthier and happier.

Some find it far more lucrative because costs are low and no commuting frees up time for extra productive work.

But I wonder if working from home for too long starts to dull your effectiveness.

Do you learn less, make fewer contacts and develop bad work habits?

What’s your view?

  • Is there a point where working from home for too long reduces your effectiveness, and if so, how?
  • Is there a natural limit for the amount of time you should work from home?
  • How do you remain sharp while working from home for years on end?

I realise some people choose home-based work mostly for lifestyle reasons and are no longer interested in building a bigger career or business. Others run thriving businesses and constantly learn and interact with others. They hardly work in isolation, and when they do feel like mixing with others they work from shared offices and the like.

Many home-based business owners, myself included, work on their own for years. It rarely bothers me. Writing is mostly an individual pursuit anyway, and I’m always interviewing people, lecturing at university or hosting or attending events.

That said, there are downsides to working from home. You don’t learn from colleagues or your boss each day on the job; there is no formal career or skills development or support; and nobody on your back to weed out bad habits that develop.

It can become harder to mix with people professionally when you work from home for long stretches. It sometimes feel like an effort to go into town for a meeting, attend a conference, or have a series of meetings. That is the daily norm in corporate life.

You get less used to leading and managing others, and less concerned about things taken for granted in big companies, such as performance reviews, management training, teamwork and so on.

I’m not saying this is necessarily bad. Working from home for a long period forces you to develop others skills that compensate for those that diminish when you leave corporate life.

My point is, if you work from home for years on end, recognise that certain skills you had in corporate life might start to diminish, so take steps to develop new skills and stay fresh.

That might include taking a part-time university business subject once or twice a year to learn new skills, being challenged in different ways, and meeting new people. It could involve joining networking groups. Perhaps have a routine where half a day each week is spent working with others, meeting like-minded business owners, or organising meetings in town.

Most of all, it requires recognition that a home-based business, for all its benefits, has downsides too, and not just in the human aspects such as dealing with isolation for those who are more extroverted.

You have to plan your professional development and deliver on it, because no one else will.

Your New Financial Year challenge

Here is a challenge for the new financial year: draw up your professional development plan for 2012-13. Start by updating your resume; many small-business owners I know do not have a resume and believe the only one they need is their business.

Having a resume that records your experiences and skills, and updating it yearly, is a great discipline. At a minimum it reminds home-based business owners that they are much more than their business.

Updating your resume is also a handy reminder about how you have progressed professionally that year; if you have nothing to add, something is wrong. And it never hurts to have a current, well-planned and written resume should your business struggle and full-time work is required.

Step two is planning your professional development in 2012-13. Consider how much time your home-business can afford for you to spend on professional development. Maybe it’s half a day each week, a day or month, or a few days each year.

Develop a simple plan to allocate that time against headings such as skills development, both technical and personal, networking, and industry events. Assess the benefits and costs and decide which to pursue.

Finally, show the plan to someone you respect. Get their take on where it might be improved, and on other areas you could consider.

Home-based business people might scoff at such formality, yet all I suggest is having a quick personal development plan each year, to accompany your business plan.

I’ve seen too many small-business owners over the years invest so much in the venture but so little in themselves. And too many home-business owners who have 10 years of terrific general business experience, yet in the eyes of bigger companies look like first-year graduates.