Balancing Telework and Tree Forts

Making working from home work.

Most kids are not particularly adept at waiting. Waiting to open presents, waiting for Mommy to get off the phone, waiting for someone else to have their turn - no, waiting is not a child's strong suit. So my son, Quentin, had in his view, displayed the patience of a saint during the weeks it took my husband's broken hand to heal before he could complete the tree fort.

It's a marvelous fort - nearly hidden among the trees, sporting a trap door and a rope ladder, decorated with all of the assorted junk - um, stuff - that an 11 year old collects. I dreaded breaking the news to Quentin that he would be spending his afterschool and summer vacation hours in various programs and camps rather than in his tree fort. My job as managing editor of a regional lifestyle magazine permitted a flexible schedule, allowing me to arrive early at the office and leave in time to meet the school bus, but the business was growing and the pace was picking up. I knew I was going to have to spend more time at the office.

Except I didn't.

In early April, the CEO called me into his office with good news and bad news. The good news was that he was going to let me work from home. The bad news was that he wasn't going to renew the magazine's office space lease, which was up at the end of the month.

My directive: I had four weeks to develop and implement a telework program that would allow key staffers to work entirely from home without disrupting the magazine's production timeline.

It's been more than two years since we published that debut issue from our homes on time and on budget. Although I no longer work for that publication, it has forever changed my view on what it means to "go to work." The option to telework has given me the ability to balance my life as a Mom with the goals I have for my career. That's something more and more women are trying to achieve - and employing creative ways to do so.

In the days of Leave it to Beaver, fewer than 25 percent of moms worked outside the home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, that number had more than tripled by 2004, as 80 percent of working women have children under age 12. During that same period of time, technology has made more flexible work arrangements possible and increasingly popular. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management estimates that in 2004 more than 23 million American workers teleworked part or full-time.

Telework is a win-win for both employers and employees. Employers save in real estate costs and attain increased productivity and reduced turnover rates. Employees save money and reduce stress because of less commuting and a better work/life balance.

Telework does have its challenges and pitfalls. Working mothers, in particular, must be aware of the challenges and plan ahead. But that's one of the things we seem to do best, isn't it?

  • Successful Telework is Built on Trust. Your boss needs to be able to trust that when you're teleworking, you really are working. In turn, you should be able to trust that your boss and company won't forget or overlook you when it comes to plum assignments and promotions. While it's true that more and more companies are developing formal telework policies, many use the phrase "at the discretion of the manager." Before you start teleworking, make sure that you and your boss are on the same page regarding expectations. This is easier if you're established at your job and there is already a strong level of trust. In a new job, you should discuss your prior experience and skills to help set your employer's mind at ease that you are disciplined enough to telework.
  • Telework Does Not Replace Daycare. While you can certainly get some work done if your child is home from school with a mild ailment, telework should not replace daycare, particularly for young children. Many teleworking moms have flexible arrangements that allow them to begin their workday when the kids get on the school bus, but be "offline" for a period of time when the school bus drops the kids off in the afternoon. This gives you time to hear about their day, arrange for snacks and get them started on homework before you head back "to work." The same can hold true for moms with very young children who go to daycare centers.
  • Create the Right Environment. Telework requires discipline, and having a space reserved for your work helps maintain that discipline. Spreading your work out on the kitchen table may be okay for the occasional late night project, but is not ideal for the sense of routine that marks successful telework. It's best to have a home office, but if that's not possible, create a space reserved specifically for when you are working. This will not only help keep you focused during working hours, but also lets you "leave" your job. Teleworking can blur the lines between home and job - having a physical space to which you commute, even if it's just down the hall, can divide the two.
  • Collaborate. Staying connected is critical. The single biggest complaint heard from teleworkers is a feeling of isolation. Software technology has come a long way in helping to alleviate isolation. At the magazine, we used a collaboration software package that had audio, video, a whiteboard and instant messaging. Although the staff was scattered miles apart, we stayed connected through video meetings, off-hours virtual cocktail parties and through messages and notes for one another on the whiteboard. Explore what may work for your company, and encourage your boss to incorporate these new tools into the work process. Beyond keeping teleworkers connected, collaboration software can enhance overall productivity through enhanced communication and project involvement. Also, be active in associations and groups related to your work or other interests. Teleworking should enhance your work/life balance, not enclose you in a shell. If you are concerned about being away from the office five days a week, try teleworking for two or three days instead.

Quentin spent most of that summer in his tree fort, which I could see out the window of my home office. Once fall arrived, I was able to watch my older son, Zach, make opening kick-offs at his high school football games - something I wouldn't have been able to do had I been stuck in traffic. My kids know that when I go down the hall to my office I'm at "work." They don't interrupt me unless there's a fair amount of blood. They know better than to put the dog in the dryer because I will hear the yelping and I am able to monitor how much time is spent in front of screens (whether they be television, computer or game station).

I'm still balancing my roles as Mom and businesswoman. Teleworking, however, has given me more flexibility when I really need it, and I've also gained back all those hours a week I used to spend commuting. And as any working Mom will tell you, more time always tips the scales in our favor.