Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I don't work in my pajamas, but I do crank up the music

Over the past several years, I have fielded a lot of questions from people who are interested in hearing about how I work offsite in general, and as a virtual assistant in specific.  Most of them are of the "and how exactly does that work?" variety. From time to time I like to stop and think about what I do, why I do it, and whether I want to continue doing it.

When I started in real estate in 1991 as an agent in Missoula, MT, pre-cell phone & computer, it was a whole different job than it is now. Forms were NCR (press hard, there are 5 copies), our company had just, after a long debate, invested in a fax machine (there is, after all, one at the Title company just around the corner) and keyboxes were just that...little metal boxes that held the front door key, accessed by a weirdly shaped piece of metal resembling a skate key (remember those?). I vividly recall the Aha! moment when I realized being an agent just wasn't for me.  It was around midnight and I was showing a vacant house to a shift worker in the middle of winter.  I slogged my way thru 3 feet of snow to retrieve the key from the box that was conveniently hooked around a lawn ornament, showed the client the house by the beam of my flashlight (vacant house, remember?), locked up and drove home on icy streets, while thinking there must be an easier way to make a living.  There was...I became an assistant the next week.

For me, being a real estate assistant offers the best of both worlds.  I am still involved in helping people make their dream of home ownership come true, but behind the scenes instead of front and center.  Yes, I am missing out on the big bucks that can be made in selling real estate, but for the most part I am also missing out on the big headaches that accompany that role. 

In 2000, after working in both Missoula and Austin as an assistant, I moved my family to Washington State where the pay schedule was a lot higher than either of those cities.  After a few stops and starts, I went to work for an agent in Bellevue who worked out of her home office.  From there it was just a short mental jump to realize that if I was working out of a home office, it didn't have to be hers...it could be mine.  Moving my office to my home meant no commute, better coffee and a pleasantly quiet work environment.  What it did not mean was that I could sleep late, work in my pjs and take extended lunches.  I have learned a lot about the whole process in the last 13 years, and I am happy to share some of these insights with you. This week I am focusing on the tools of the trade, the nuts and bolts, and other clichés.   Bear in mind these apply mainly if you work for one person or team, not if you contract with several different entities.

1. Give yourself a break.  When you work in an office there are many opportunities to get up from your desk and walk around a little...get coffee, chat with co-workers, run to the copy machine, stop by the front desk.  These are not inherently time wasters, although they can morph into that.  What is important about working from home is that you owe yourself at least some of these same small breaks.  Push back from the desk, walk out to the patio, get another cup of coffee, walk your dog, put in a load of laundry.  Believe me, these little breaks during the day can save your back, your legs, your neck, your eyes and your sanity.
2.  You are working, so look like it.  You would never show up to your regular job in your pjs, no makeup, with your hair sleep flattened.  No, you don't have to dress in a suit or dress, but you do have to dress, even if it is just in yoga pants and a t-shirt. From the very beginning I have made it a point to shower, put on makeup and blow dry my hair just as though I am going to work, because, well, I am.
3.  Drive thru Starbucks for coffee. I know this sounds strange, but I make an effort to go to Starbucks at least once a week for a pre-work coffee and scone. If you live further East, like in Vermont but work on Texas time, you'll have a couple of hours to kill in the morning, so run errands or meet friends for breakfast. There is just something about getting out and about that makes you feel more prepared for the day.
4.  Set up your office space the way you like it.  Invest in the same kinds of things you would have at an office...pencil cup, stapler, notebooks, pens, paperclips. But do not buy the sensibly bland and generic desk sets...indulge in fun, pretty tools.  You are going to be staring at them all day long...make sure you like staring at them.  I have paisley file folders and a red desk that I just love and could never have if I were in a traditional office setting.  And speaking of desks...
5.  Put things away.  Just because you are at home doesn't mean you get to leave your work out and your desk messy at the end of the day.  In fact, because you are at home you need to put everything away and if you have a separate room for an office, shut the door and keep it shut. You know that old saying "out of sight, out of mind"?  Well, it's true.  On the weekends, I even stick the keyboard in a drawer so that I am not tempted to check on things. Separate from my work PC, I have a personal laptop and iPad that I only use for outside of work things. Which reminds me...
6.  Have a separate cell phone.  It's best if your boss can see her way to buying you a cell phone and putting it on her family plan.  It's a small cost for her, but a big deal for you. This is especially important if you live in another state.  You need a phone number in the state the biz is in, not the one you live/work in, and if you use your personal cell phone your monthly minutes can be exhausted in just a few days. A word of caution....if like me, you occasionally throw the cell phone across the room (in lieu of strangling your boss who is, thankfully, in another state) you need to aim at the couch.  Just because she bought you one cell phone does not mean she will replace a damaged one. The PC I mentioned above also belongs to my boss.  If you worked in an office you wouldn't use your own, would you?  Then don't use your own here, either. And, this is crucial, keep your personal stuff off that company owned machine! Assume it will eventually be given back to the source...do you really want some techie knowing about your obsession with Hugh Jackman?

Some of these things may be 'well...duh' inspiring, but you would be surprised at how many people miss the little things.  I always liked the expression "don't sweat the small stuff".  But when you work from home, many times your day is full of only small stuff, and as another cliché says "the devil is in the details". Working from home is not for everybody. Nor is it for every boss. Some days I think it is not for me, either.  But that is for another blog.

When people hear about my job they invariably ask how long I have been doing this, followed by how long will I continue.  The answer is 13 years...and for at least the next month!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Whose idea was it to drive all night?

A couple of months ago, I made a somewhat hurried trip to Southern California to visit my mom in her new digs at a 55+ mobile home park.  I only stayed a week and while I loved being there, the whole thing felt, well, hurried.  With a day devoted to air travel on each end of my week, what few days there were in the middle seemed more frantic than relaxing.  So I decided to visit again, only this time I would drive and stay a month.  My job is completely portable, so I can work in the afternoons and still have mornings, evenings and weekends free. 

Since moving to Montana in the late 80's, I have made that 1100 mile drive maybe a dozen times.  Some trips were quick, some were fun-filled and joyful, some tedious, and one memorable trip was just awful. (To read the full awful story of that trip, check out the blog entitled 'I would rather be poked in the eye than drive anywhere during the holidays' from November of last year)  When my kids were kids, we sometimes made the drive in one fell swoop, stopping only at gas stations, rest stops and the golden arches, then it was back on the highway, hurrying to or away from home.  Why on earth we felt the need to hurry I have no idea.  Certainly we never ran the risk of missing a deadline and we weren't running from the law, but hurry, hurry, hurry is what we did. In the years since then it has mostly been a solitary trip, just me and sometimes my dog, leisurely driving along, a book on cd blasting from the stereo.  There are plenty of motels that accept canine companions so even when I had a dog with me, there were lots of very nice choices.

This time my son was coming with me and it sounded like the perfect opportunity to save some $$ by driving straight thru. The plan was for me to start the road trip while my son slept, then reverse rolls.  It would be great, it would be fun, this plan would work.  We left Missoula around 1pm and made pretty good time, rolling along listening to one of the Odd Thomas books by Dean Koontz.  We made our first rest stop about 3 hours later...it went downhill from there.  Here, in no particular order, are some of the highpoints of the lowpoints of the trip.

  1. My 13 year old dog, who hasn't been able to jump in or out of a vehicle in at least a year, decided he no longer cared to have me lift him in or out.  Apparently standing by the side of the car until the cows came home was preferable to me helping him up.  He even growled at me once! Not wanting to stand by the side of the car indefinitely myself, I ignored the warning and lifted him into the back seat where he promptly threw up. Since he hadn't eaten all day, there was nothing but bile, but still....yuck.
  2. We ran into window rattling thunderstorms with torrential downpours and incredible lightning. At the same time we encountered daredevil drivers who drove as fast if not faster than they had before the storm, as well as drivers who suddenly forgot what the lane lines were for.
  3. By midnight, tired of rain and other drivers, we pulled off at Cedar City, Utah, only to find there were several events going on and no motel rooms. For some reason motels now eschew the No Vacancy sign, preferring to turn you away in person at the front desk rather than by exterior signage.
  4. I would have thought at some point all of the roads between Southern California and Montana would have been completed...apparently not.  Not only were we forced into one lane, but it was a lane half on, half off the highway, which meant the two right tires were on the rumble strips. I now know that murderous thoughts are created by driving on rumble strips. I also know that...
  5. If there is a slow moving truck anywhere in the vicinity, it will find me and place itself in front of my car, probably while I am driving on rumble strips.
  6. Before he threw up on his quilt, my dog had decided that little area between the back of the driver's seat and the front of the back seat looked like a cozy place he would easily fit into. He had to stand half in half out of it for 5 miles before I could pull off at a rest stop and help him up. He didn't thank me but at least he didn't growl at me....or throw up.  
  7. The book, by one of my favorite authors, turned out to be one better suited to reading than listening.  Not much happened, but the narrator thought out loud about stuff...a lot.  By the 2nd hour of listening as he pondered this or that, I began encouraging him to get to the point. By the 5th hour I was telling him to shut up. By midnight I was actively campaigning for him to somehow be killed by a random marauding zombie. Sadly the book was zombie-less, random or otherwise.
  8. What is possible and even easy when you are 30, 40 or even 50, becomes less so at 60+.  My back ached, my head pounded and my butt was numb. Whose idea was driving all night?  She should be shot. 
We finally dragged our tired and cranky selves out of the car at my mom's house, brains completely fried, eyes burning, some 18 hours after we had set off.  Around 3am I had gotten the idea of using my small suitcase as an interim step for my dog's access to and egress from the car. He eagerly jumped down to greet my mom's corgi, Penny, running happy laps around her and my mom, all growling and bile forgotten, delighted as only dogs can be at the prospect of another person to pet and cuddle them.  My mom, bless her heart, had coffee and blueberry muffins waiting. I think I can be excused if my eyes were mostly shut while I guzzled caffeine and fell upon the muffins as though I hadn't eaten since...hmmm, Utah? 

I'll be here a month, enjoying the sunshine as seen from an air conditioned home, visiting family, catching up on all the gossip and goings on, drinking wine, laughing, telling stories, sharing photos.  Then it will be back on the road.  But this time, I'll be enjoying an audible book that isn't quite so cerebral....and one of those very nice motels that welcomes dogs.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Good times with great friends

The only thing better than spending time with friends is spending time with old friends.  You know what I mean. We all have at least one. The one who holds the secrets of your life. The first one you call when you have good news, bad news, sad news and no news at all.  The friend with whom you will drive 3 hours in the snow and cold to pick up her husband so that she doesn't have to drive the winding road alone.  The friend you call when your world is falling apart because the life you thought you were going to get to live is no longer the one you are living. The one who you sometimes have to bite your tongue around, but you do it because you know she does the exact same thing around you. The friend who always hugs you when you see her, even if the last time you were around her was the evening before.  Yeah, that friend. 

This past Saturday the daughter of a mutual friend was getting married for the 2nd time. It was a magical venue...a Montana lodge on a private island only accessible by water taxi. The bride was as gorgeous as the groom was handsome and having their children stand up for them and their granddaughter toddle her way down the aisle was beyond wonderful.

But the best part of the wedding wasn't the great food, the serene setting or even the incredible cheesecake, although that was pretty spectacular.  The best part was seeing people I hadn't seen in years, catching up with some who had moved away and those who never would.  The best part was remembering times past when we were younger but not smarter. Laughing at people who deserve to be laughed at and laughing with those who get the joke.  The best part was liking who we have all become and still knowing we could be better.

And the very best part?  Giving in to your friend's nagging (ha!) to go to the wedding because she knows that unless she does you will spend all day reading books and watching HGTV when she knows darn good and well that you will enjoy yourself at the wedding. Indeed, how could I not? She is, after all, the very best of friends and knows me sometimes better than I know myself. And the best part about that?  I know her that way, too.