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Starbucks and Makeup: The Daily Ritual of the At-Home Worker

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If I asked you if you work "mother's hours," what would come to mind?

It turns out "mother's hours" is a term of art used to refer to jobs that provide the flexibility around family priorities. It can mean working a compressed day, or working from home while making time to attend a kid's event during the workday. I'm sure it's been used with derision more than once. I don't care. I worked mother's hours before I had kids, and I'll do it after they leave home, I hope. It's how I function best.

Working at home gets a bad rap. People don't help when they use airquotes when talking about "working" at home, like they're really watching TV all day. If you do this, please stop. It doesn't help the millions of us who do work at home and do a damn fine job of it.

It's true some managers don't believe their people really work when they are at home, but the research shows the other extreme: people overwork. Ironically, in the digital age, many remote workers report they can't shut off. They may feel a need to prove they're actually working when they are home; they might even work more than they would at the office because they feel a need to overcompensate and thank their employer for "letting" them work from home.

Research from Northeastern University finds role transitions are especially challenging for people who work at home. Humans like to compartmentalize: We put work in one domain, and family in another. When you work at home, you will be in your home environment and you will face distraction during the day. A dirty kitchen, lonely cat, sick kid or leaky faucet can be your ruin if you let it. Working at home takes discipline and a keen sense of purpose.

When I tell people I work at home, they always ask me, "How do you make sure your kids don't bother you"? I always say, first, I have childcare. Working at home while you're watching the kids isn't working, unless you run a daycare. My colleague Leanne Chase has a good solution for her home office: "I have two signs for my daughter. She can't read yet, so I put a sign up. One sign has a smiley face - which means she can knock on mommy's door. There is also a smiley face with a cross through it, which means she has to go to the nanny or daddy unless there's a fire."

It's important to create what Dr. Jay Mulki calls "segmentation" when you work at home. You need the barriers between your work self and your home self. Many create rituals that allow for these barriers, even if they are symbolic. Why? Because in a world where work is undefined, we're creating, in the words of Northeastern University researcher Kim Eddleston, new "temporal, spatial and psychological boundaries" to manage the transition from home to work, even if we don't leave our home to begin work.

Recent research on remote workers and telecommuters brings all sorts of new rituals to light. For instance, if you don't commute into work each day, how do you make the transition to start your workday? For some, it's going out for a cup of coffee. Some complete the school run, then return home to work. I bet a lot of people walk the dog. I might start the day early, doing "check-in" work -- check my email inbox, review my schedule, do billing or administrative tasks -- while still in my pajamas or workout clothes. But I'll hold phone calls, writing or doing any serious thinking work until I am dressed in some semblance of grown-up clothes, and my face has to be made-up, or at least moisturized.

For many who hold "mothers' hours," there's an evening back-to-work ritual, as well. Put the kids to bed, log on. Watch the evening news, then pick up again.

Many of us, and not just mothers, structure a workday that meets our needs. But work is still work, and we're creating a new set of rituals to create a semblance of a workday with a beginning, middle and end. About a third of American workers have flexible schedules. Only 11 percent of wage and salaried employees currently work from home, but almost all employees would like the ability to occasionally work at home. Big companies like BlueCross Blue Shield are heavily investing in the at-home workforce, and then there's a whole "tribe" of people like me who work for ourselves and work at home. With mobile technology, the number of non-traditional information workers will only increase.

But even when you've forgone the traditional nine-to-five, a routine is important to most of us. Otherwise, work doesn't feel like work. And that's not always a good thing.

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Thanks to the New England Work and Family Association for access to this research on engaging the remote and telecommuting workforce.

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