Alone Behind The Desk

8 Tips to overcoming the isolation of working at home.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the April 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

In 1987, Sue Hurlbut experienced every corporate employee's worst nightmare when she was abruptly and traumatically fired from a Portland, , construction firm she'd helped build into a multistate corporation. She recalls, "I began in entry-level customer service and rose through the ranks to become vice president of operations. I was also on the corporate board of directors and had developed such a level of trust with the company president that he allowed me to house-sit when he went on vacation."

But suddenly, Hurlbut says, life as she knew it was over, when her supervisor chose to believe a false accusation issued by another employee. Devastated, Hurlbut cried for two days. But only two weeks later, her homebased , Organization Plus, in Clackamas, Oregon, was accidentally born. She was working for a temp service when a potential first client approached her about setting up a bookkeeping system. In her former position, Hurlbut had regularly completed manual bookkeeping and installed computer systems. Before she knew it, she'd embarked on a new career as a professional office organizer, specializing in helping businesses make the transition from manual to computerized accounting, as well as providing other organizational services such as creating filing systems, developing employee manuals, and organizing paper flow.

Yet, while the required tasks seemed to be a perfect match with her past experience, operating a homebased business initially was not. "I'd always considered myself to be someone who worked best alone," she recalls, "so I thought a home office would be perfect for me. It was a shock to find myself missing working with other people after only a few weeks." At the corporate office, she'd grown weary of hearing voices constantly calling her name. "I knew the voices represented approaching demands on my time and energy."

Hurlbut couldn't believe all the aspects of the conventional office environment that she missed. She felt the absence of all of them, from janitors to clean her office to colleagues with whom she could share common complaints. She even missed being able to bring treats to share with her co-workers! "I live alone, but love to cook and bake. I would bring baked goods, or cook a lunch or dinner and take all the leftovers to work. I suddenly had to stop cooking, because there was no one to share it with."

Hurlbut found herself frequently leaving her to chat with neighbors. "I was forever making deals with myself to postpone working until the evening so I could enjoy a movie, take a walk or run errands." She finally faced the fact that she was putting off completing tasks because she craved the company of others. She says, "Nobody had ever told me that the adjustment to working from home could be hard, scary and lonely. I thought that nobody felt this way but me--that everyone else was effectively dealing with this situation." Today, nine years later, Hurlbut is happily successful with two homebased businesses. Hurlbut and other homebased business owners and experts all agree that shifting to the flexible hours and solitary environment of a homebased business requires a conscious adjustment, and can benefit from advanced planning. The following suggestions are offered to make the transition from traditional office to homebased smoother and less disruptive:

1. Shift to a proactive mode of interacting with others. Hurlbut began coping with her isolation once she discovered an important difference between corporate and homebased business. "When you work for a company, you spend most of your time in a reactive mode, responding to other people's requests for action," she says. "In a homebased business, you are suddenly in a proactive mode, where nothing happens unless you take action. It's a very different mentality."

When she began to seek and acquire more clients, Hurlbut's sense of isolation ebbed because there were more people with whom she could interact. "People usually start companies because they're good at making or doing something. I was good with paperwork, devising budgets and creating business plans. But before, I was totally passive and reactive, never proactive in my personal and business relationships." Creating Organization Plus changed all that, Hurlbut says proudly. "Starting a homebased business caused me to become proactive in order to promote myself through speaking and advertising--a risk I'd never have taken otherwise. Self-promotion turned me from being lonely and scared to being alone and strong."

Nancy Heubeck, president of Business Clinic in Denver, a homebased enterprise that assists others in starting new businesses--particularly homebased businesses--suggests giving yourself a "strategy for success" to help overcome obstacles caused by your own personality quirks. "Because I absolutely hate networking and going to cocktail parties," she says, "I would put 20 business cards in the left pocket of my jacket. My rule was that I could not eat anything at the party until I gave 10 of them to other people. I couldn't leave the party until I got rid of all of my cards and got at least 20 back from people in my target market."

2. Focus on results to cope with your new solitary working style and flexible hours. When you are used to an 8-to-5 schedule, switching to a flexible schedule requires self-discipline to duplicate your former professionalism and productivity, says Heubeck. She explains that feeling free of the time constraints of office life and required co-worker interactions sometimes translates to feelings of isolation when you realize that there are no longer colleagues in the same building with whom to share your thoughts. Heubeck feels that shifting your mind-set from an hourly employee-based outlook to a results-oriented approach can help you cope with your new business style.

"Don't measure your work by the time you put in," says Heubeck. "Set goals and evaluate your success by the results you are getting. For example, if you have four projects due on Friday, and you finish them all on Monday night, you can take the rest of the week off." Remember, one exciting advantage of a homebased business is that you don't have to duplicate the prescribed hours, dead time and long waits of typical office life. You can get more done and have more time to yourself.

3. Create a to cope with the loss of office support. Most conventional office employees don't realize how much support is actually provided by an office environment, say Heubeck and Hurlbut. When there is no one there to buy your envelopes, fix your computer, or answer your phone, you may feel bereft working alone. "Know yourself--your own personality--and create an office plan before you begin your business that will replace those aspects of conventional office support that you will no longer have in a homebased business," advises Heubeck.

Rudy Lewis, president of the National Association for Homebased Businesses in Owings Mills, Maryland, suggests that homebased business owners might want to consider the possibility of utilizing shared office space if they find they still need secretarial or other business services on a limited basis.

4. Consider joining a mentor group or other support network. Across the country, homebased business owners are joining mentor groups in increasing numbers. Denver's Dixie Darr, who left a career in higher education ten years ago to begin publishing her newsletter for "corporate refugees" called "The Accidental Entrepreneur," suggests homebased entrepreneurs might want to contact a group of other homebased businesspeople or others in the same professional field. "Because of your common interests," she says, "the group will understand obstacles that you are dealing with and be able to offer their own perspective on similar work and personal situations."

Heubeck agrees. "Simply setting up a peer mentor group to share war stories and nitty gritty problems and concerns allows you to get feedback while fulfilling the need for socialization that we all have."

5. Surf the Net. While computers are often perceived as isolating, you can use your computer to connect with others by utilizing online services. Darr used to post messages and chat with other homebased entrepreneurs on CompuServes's Work-At-Home Forum, and has since become aware of many online user groups relating to homebased business. "Online services get you outside of your own head, yet you don't have to leave your home to participate," she says. "Also, you can spend as much or as little time as you want."

6. Have a company picnic. Just because you don't work for a company doesn't mean you can't enjoy the company perks. If you work alone, there's no one to pick for a softball team or three-legged race at a company picnic. But you can have your own form of "company picnic" by getting together socially with others who are also homebased, possibly in professions that are similar to yours. "It's important to be with people with whom you have some history, and who know and like you. It's one of the best antidotes for loneliness," says Lionel Fisher, who has studied living and working alone extensively and is the author of A Guide To Working Happily, Productively and Successfully From Home (Prentice-Hall, $10.95, 800-922-0579).

Six years ago, Salt Lake City's Lonnie Bradley, a homebased screenwriter and travel-agent instructor, formed a group of writers dedicated to the premise that writers spend too much time alone. The members, who range from writers of children's literature to newsletter writers to technical writers, meet monthly and interact as friends. They'll discuss writing, but just as often discuss their kids or their hobbies. "Even though we're writers, during our fun and relaxed meetings, we usually end up discussing all the creative arts," says Bradley. "We interact in singing, storytelling, drama and philosophy. Even though we rarely discuss the technicalities of our work, I always go away inspired."

7. Give yourself a bonus. All experts and entrepreneurs interviewed for this column agree that, without the typical office hours and structure, it's not always easy for you to realize how much you are accomplishing. Remember to reward yourself and treat your most important business asset--yourself--well. "Hopefully, I've had my last `real' job," says Larry Borowsky, who was a staff editor at an alternative newspaper in Denver for three years before founding Text Therapy, a homebased copyediting business whose clients include university presses and historical societies. Realizing the importance of seeking a change of scenery, Borowsky relishes many opportunities each week to leave his house to do activities that are not related to work. He even reads away from home, taking a book with him and walking to a coffee shop for a couple of hours of literary recreation. He always goes to movies in theaters, rather than renting videos for home viewing. In the summer, he becomes very active in bike riding and basketball, and during the school year, he tutors students once a week at their school. "Because I work at home," he laughs, "when I have time off, I don't want to come home and sit on my living room couch like my friends who work in traditional offices do."

Carolyn Campbell, a home-office entrepreneur for 20 years, has written more than 200 magazine articles.

Coming Up

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For admission or exhibition information, call (303) 863-9506, or e-mail

Worth Reading

"The Idea Activator" card deck.

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Reaching Out

Design your to include interaction with others. Dixie Darr offers several suggestions for scheduling interaction with others during both work and personal hours.

1. Schedule a breakfast, lunch or dinner meeting, or simply eat out with friends at least once a week.

2. Take a class relating to your business, such as accounting or basic computer science.

3. Attend conferences and trade shows to meet potential clients and other people in your business field. "This helps you find out what's going on in the world," says Darr.

4. Publish a promotional newsletter about your business. "My newsletter presented information to potential clients, caught their attention, and got them to call me," says Darr. "It also reminds past clients about my business, and they often call, too. This promotes additional interaction with others."

5. Give one or more speeches about a topic related to your business field. "Speaking helps you meet people who are interested in your field," Darr says. "It's a good marketing tool, and it's a way to find new information."

6. Occasionally, pursue a joint project with another homebased business owner. "By working on an occasional joint project," Darr says, "you may also develop a reciprocal arrangement where you can refer assignments you are too busy to accept to a colleague in the same business, and they can also refer occasional clients to you."

Contact Sources

The Business Clinic Inc., 1911 S. Pearl St., 1st Fl., Denver, CO 80210, (800) 470-7780.

Lionel Fisher, 31307 I St., Ocean Park, WA 98640, (360) 665-4673.

Lonnie Bradley, 4375 South 2490 East, Holladay, UT 84124.

Organization Plus, P.O. Box 1703, Clackamas, OR 97015, (503) 659-3773.

The Accidental Entrepreneur, 3421 Alcott St., Denver, CO 80211, (303) 433-0345.


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