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!