For the office-bound, working from home sounds like a dream come true. After all, there are no demanding bosses, office politics or snooze-inducing meetings in your living room. You can wear your sweat pants, give the old Prius a rest and even hit that midday yoga class.
Last year, 18.4 million Americans were living that fantasy. According to the market research firm Interactive Data Corp., that's the number of homebased businesses, up from 16.5 million in 2008. In that same time frame, the number of home-based franchises also crept up--from 97,403 to 98,905 units, according to Entrepreneur's annual Franchise 500® survey. And Justin Jaffe, senior analyst for Interactive Data, says his firm expects 350,000 more home-based businesses every year for the next few years.
Setting up a home office is relatively easy, even exciting. It's what comes next--getting down to the actual work--that trips people up. Because the great benefit to working from home--escaping anytime you want to--is also its greatest challenge. Going to and from an office bookends the workday; home-based professionals are always in danger of entering "the gray zone," says Maria Bailey, CEO of BlueSuitMom.com , a website that lends support to female executives--many of whom work from home--with children. The gray zone, Bailey says, is the kind of multitasking "where you aren't doing anything 100 percent. You're not present at work or home."
It's also easy to let work bleed into every waking moment when your desk is 15 feet from your bedroom. "People who work from home tend to be on 24/7," says Peter Turla, a time-management consultant based in San Jose, Calif., who operates out of a home office. "It's hard to turn it off."
But for those who make it work, a home-based office can be an enormously productive place. Suzi Carragher, director of corporate communications for Home Franchise Concepts, the parent company of Budget Blinds and Closet Tailors, notes that there is less absenteeism and higher productivity among home workers. "And," she says, "it cuts down on the nonsense--the personalities ruffling people the wrong way, the office gossip. That doesn't exist in a home office."
Neither do rigid work hours--the thing that attracted Lori Sanders to open two Budget Blinds franchises, serving the towns of Keller and Denton in Texas.
"I wouldn't be able to do anything else and have the flexibility I have working from home," says Sanders, who has three children and an airline pilot husband. "It's a solution for a busy mom. If I'm in the middle of something and my daughter needs attention, I can stop and help her."
What's essential, experts agree, is to treat home-based work with the same deliberate planning and structure as you would a corporate job. Once the basics are in place, you very well may have the office of your dreams.
Step 1: Create a Schedule
"The key is to enforce structure," says Julie Morgenstern, a time-management and business productivity expert in New York City. "It's not like, 'Oh, I can work four hours a day.' That's a recipe for disaster."
Trish Delacruz, who runs a tutoring franchise, Club Z! Tutoring , in Plano, Texas, knows how important a routine is. "I have days when I'm good at it, and days when I've lost the structure," says Delacruz, whose job includes matching tutors with students, setting up schedules and visiting clients. To keep her days in check, she creates lists every morning and religiously keeps a calendar in Microsoft Outlook. "I try to keep times to do things--in particular if I'm trying to make calls. I schedule them in advance and stick with those times."
She's also strict about keeping household chores at bay during work hours. "If I'm going to run a business from home, I have to keep regular work hours."
But "regular" doesn't have to mean "traditional."
Sanders, the Budget Blinds franchisee, keeps regular business hours Monday through Thursday and saves Fridays for fieldwork. She spends mornings working at her desk--located in the dining room--then takes appointments in the afternoon outside the house.
Step 2: Have Daily Rituals
It's important to create rituals throughout your day--the at-home equivalents of time-stamps such as putting on a tie in the morning or grabbing coffee with your cubicle mate at 10. In other words, you need signals for when it's time to work.
Stephen Deusner, a freelance music journalist in New York City, starts his day by feeding his two pet rabbits, who then head over to a cushion near his desk to slumber the day away. "They're my muses, you could say," he notes, jokingly. "When they're sleeping, I know it's time to stop checking my e-mail and get busy."
Amanda Moore, a freelance interior designer on Long Island, N.Y., left a Manhattan office job to create eco-friendly nurseries. She writes in her personal journal before getting dressed, eating breakfast and closing the door to her home office.
"You need to demarcate your working hours," Morgenstern says. Showering and getting dressed for work are not optional, even if you're going to be spending the entire day alone.
Step 3: Stay in the Zone
In an office, distractions tend to come in the form of co-workers. But at home, it's everyday life--unwashed dishes, stay-at-home moms next door, that bathroom sink begging to be caulked--that can derail you.
These distractions need to be put on hold, Turla says.
"You've got to be firm with people who interrupt you," he says. "People may not take your work as seriously if you're working at home--they assume you're more available. But handle interruptions like you would in an office--hang a 'do not disturb' sign on your office door, and tell people when you will be available."
To help separate work time from home time, Turla also recommends a clever mind game: Walk around the block before you begin work, then enter your home as though you were arriving at an office.
"When you get there, you're in professional mode," he says.
Other "tricks" include burning the same scented candle for an hour every morning. Eventually, the brain will associate it with starting work. Taking a lunch hour at the same time every day and scheduling an exercise class for 4 or 5 p.m. will help you stay on track and finish tasks, too.
Step 4: Define Your Work Space
With laptops, it's tempting to roam all over the house, incessantly working--a practice Turla says undermines efficiency. "When every surface in your home becomes a filing cabinet, it's hard to feel like you're keeping it together," he says. "You have to keep pushing it back and containing it."
A separate room with a door that closes is ideal but not necessary--you just need a place where you won't be disturbed constantly, and where you can section off an enclave that is solely for work.
"Put your office in an area of inspiration if you can," says Bailey of BlueSuitMom.com. "I think sunlight helps. If you're down in the basement, you're putting yourself in a space that's isolated and alone. And running a home-based business can feel isolating enough."
Delacruz, the Club Z! franchisee, agrees. "I started off in a spare bedroom and moved my office to the front of the house, because I felt like I was in a dark hole." Bedrooms are also a bad idea because the flashing lights of a printer or PC don't make for a good night's sleep.
Linda Varone, an Arlington, Mass.-based consultant and author of the forthcoming The Smarter Home Office, says almost everyone shoves their desk up against a wall, but it's actually healthier to put the desk in the "command position"--facing the door and away from the wall.
"People reflexively do this," she says, "because we've been brought up in study carrels and work environments with walls in front of us. But they're unconsciously re-creating the office cubicle they just escaped."
Varone recommends an L-shaped desk to provide more work space and keeping the space neither cluttered nor sparse. "People who do focused, analytical work may need to tone down decoration," she says, "but never make it spare or bare. A bare office--one that has just the desk and equipment--is just as unproductive as a cluttered office. When there's not enough stimulation, people start getting restless and unfocused."
Hanging a photo of your dream house or dream vacation to "remind you what you're working so hard for" is good, too, Varone says.
Moore, the interior designer, has a whole "dream board" in her office. It's covered with quotes and images that represent various areas of her life and her aspirations for them.
"Looking at it helps keep me grounded," she says, "and keeping those motivations in mind pushes me through."
Emili Vesilind is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and a contributor to the Daily Beast, the Los Angeles Times and Women's Wear Daily, among others.