Beat the Isolation of Working from Home

By Stephanie Whittaker

Four of my friends and I refer to ourselves as the LWL. The letters stand for “ladies who lunch,” a misleading term that makes us sound like we have a lot of leisure time. Nothing could be further from the truth. We all make our living as busy, self-employed freelance writers. The “lunch” is a means of getting us out of our home offices once every two weeks so we don’t become as lonely as the Maytag repairman.

While an ever-growing number of Canadians are self-employed (almost 2 million of Canada’s 15.5-million strong workforce is self-employed, according to the Statistics Canada 2001 census), those who work in home
offices know it can be isolating. And it can be particularly tough on extroverts. In fact, one of the ironies of home-based work is that self-employed people need to socially outgoing to market their businesses. Yet paradoxically, they must also be able to weather the isolation that comes from labouring alone without the collegiality of a formal workplace.

That paradox is not lost on Paula Engels, a communications specialist and personal-professional coach, who works from her Westmount home. She tackles isolation by walking daily, usually with her dog or walking
partners, playing tennis, taking fitness classes and going to a local café for tea at the end of the afternoon.

“I know that any time I walk out of my house, I’ll meet people I know,” says Engels. “After I finish my work, I head over to Java U and have tea and I always end up talking to people, even people I’ve never met before.”
Engels launched herself into self-employment 12 years ago. “At first, it was very exciting and it felt liberating but there was a point at which it became isolating. But I got to the point when I could work around that. In
fact, working for yourself makes you very self-sufficient.”

Battling isolation is essential if you want to build a home-based business, says Ann Searles, president of the Canada-Caribbean arm of IBT (Institute for Business Technology), an organization that helps companies
boost their productivity. “I work with people who work from home, many of
them sales reps for pharmaceutical companies, and I tell them to use their
offices as launching pads.”

In fact, says Searles, getting out of the office is necessary to develop a home business. “If you don’t get up and out to visit clients, you’ll be isolated and your business will fail.” she said.

She advises clients to visit their accountants and suppliers instead of simply relying on couriers and telephones. “If you make 20 selling calls a day, make three appointments. And reward yourself with something for doing that, say a visit to a shop you like.”

Robert Paris, a Dollard des Ormeaux, home-based management trainer and consultant, says working at home requires high motivation. “I set my alarm clock and get dressed as if I were going to an office,” he said. “I also network. I’ve joined forces with three other colleagues, all of whom work at home. We want to jointly market our services and because we work in isolation, we have no one to bounce ideas off.”

Meeting regularly at Starbucks or Chez Cora, he says, enables them to share and cross-pollinate their ideas. “There are always a lot of people like us eating breakfast at Chez Cora, people who work at home and have to
get out of the house.”

Paris also attends regular networking events, which are work-focused but which satisfy his need for social contact. “It’s rare that I stay in my office for a whole day,” he said. “I’m very social so it’s hard for me to be
isolated.”

It was hard for Shoshanna Green, too. A Pointe Claire-based freelance editor who specializes in scholarly books for a university press, she worked alone at home near Boston for four years before marrying a Canadian and moving to Quebec. “There were times when I didn’t talk to anyone but the checkout person at the local grocery store for three whole days,” Green said.

Her husband has also been self-employed since the beginning of this year. “Now, I see at least one person frequently,” she said. “And he has an active social life so it’s sociability by proxy.”

She makes a point of having social contacts, too, both in person and virtual. “I do have an active social life on the Internet,” she said. “I have real time conversations on I.R.C. and am on the copyeditors’ e-mail
list, which is a collegial resource, a virtual water-cooler that takes the place of walking down the hall to ask a colleague a question.”

Iain McLellan, an international development consultant who works from his Montreal home, says he found self-employment isolating at first when he started 14 years ago. “I had been a journalist and I missed the camaraderie.

The silence was difficult after the newsroom experience. But now, instead of going to the water cooler, I phone a friend when I need a break from work.

“I’m also in the habit of keeping CNN or Newsworld on while I work so there’s a murmur in the background.”
McLellan makes a point of venturing out every day to run errands. “If I don’t go out, I go a little nuts, particularly in the winter,” he said.

There’s a price to be paid for not weaving social interaction into home-based work, says Ann Searles of IBT. “When you don’t go out and sell your business, you end up staying home and working on administrative stuff
but when you do that, you’re not working on your business. If you can’t sell yourself, you’ll be lonely and isolated and the dark side will begin to show in that you’ll begin blaming others, even your clients, for your isolation.”

Those who are successfully self-employed say there is something thatoutweighs the downside of isolation. “Freedom,” says Paula Engels. I love being free. It’s my highest value. I love the flexibility and variety of my
work. I know some people like going to an office and doing the same thing every day. I would go out of my mind doing that. I love being free.”

That includes the freedom to walk the dog, play tennis and take tea in the afternoon.

Tips For Working At Home
Home-based self-employment should probably come with a warning sticker.
“Don’t try this at home, kids, unless you have a good social safety net.”
The people who were interviewed for this story have some advice for
anyone aspiring to self-employment.

  • Focus on the positive aspects of working at home and downplay the
  • negatives, says Paula Engels.
  • Make sure you can cope with the silence before trying it, says Shoshanna
  • Green.
  • Get yourself out networking to market your business, says Robert Paris.
  • And finally, take a tip from the Ladies Who Lunch. Schedule regular social
  • outings with others in your field to discuss work and life.
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