How to Avoid Friction and Chaos in the Family When You Work From Home

Frustrated mother with children on phone

Working from home can be an amazing experience if it is planned correctly; an unmitigated disaster if it’s not.  More importantly, if handled incorrectly there can be a lot of friction in your home.  Why?  Because, while your spouse and kids go off to work and school to then come home to their ‘sanctuary’, you are carefully and thoughtfully converting your sanctuary into a work space for a finite number of hours each day.  This is a major psychological challenge.

I have worked from home for more than a decade so it’s fair to say I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t; what lines to draw and what lines not to draw in order to keep you sane and your work time and space respected by your family. But I also know there is an unspoken assumption that never really goes away; that if you are working from home you are always available for something. Some even go so far as to think you’re not really working simply because they can physically see you, or you take a break for lunch and watch the news or you decide it is a sweats and t-shirt day.  This unspoken assumption, and sometimes resentment, never really goes away. Never.

So, how to do you plan for success?

First, it is a key to have a dedicated space which includes your computer, phone and a door that can be both closed and locked.  Psychologically, you need to know that once you enter your work domain you are working.  And your family needs to know this, too.   I always keep my door open, though, so when it is shut, no one even knocks, never mind enters, unless the house is on fire.  This might be harder with kids under the age of 10 running around if they are not in school or day care, but we’ll assume for this article, they are out of the house Monday through Friday.

Second, keep a shared calendar (without divulging confidential information) so that your spouse and kids (if they are old enough to access) know your work day which includes conference calls, court calendars, appointments, ‘power hours*’ and more. I can’t tell you how nice it is to have your spouse ask at dinner how your meeting was or tells you they waited to call you because they saw you had a conference call at a certain hour.

Third, let your immediate and extended family know your ‘power hours*’ – those hours of the week when you are drilling down to work, write briefs, research and do not want to be disturbed.  Mine is every morning, especially Mondays.  I’ve trained my family to never call or text unless it is an emergency. It takes time for your family to learn this because of the assumption mentioned above – ‘if you’re home you aren’t really working.’

Fourth, set up definitive work hours. This can be very hard when you carpet commute because it is so easy to get up early and ‘go to work’, so easy to finish dinner and run to your computer to work or just check that ‘one thing’, especially if you need to connect with someone and they are in a different time zone.  But this is where you need to be disciplined.  Your home is your sanctuary, too.  When your spouse is home and your kids are home, it needs to be family time, sanctuary time.  This is probably the hardest part of working from home because it is incumbent on you, not your family, to be disciplined enough to turn it off. It is much easier to leave an outside work environment, unwind during commuting time, walk into your home, kick off your shoes and know the work day is over, then it is to get up from your desk, leave your office, shut the door and not open it until the next morning.  This is quite simply the greatest challenge.  And to put things in perspective, when my son was five years old he got very mad at me.  All he ever saw was me working at the computer as I readied the launch of Solo Practice University.  He was angry.  Finally, I asked him why he wouldn’t give me a hug. He said, ‘because you love the computer more than you love me.’  Out of the mouths of babes.

The benefits of working from home are numerous.  The possibility for familial friction is very, very real for the reasons stated above.  But forewarned is forearmed.  I’ve successfully navigated the landmines and reaped the rewards for more than a decade and you can, too.

This entry was posted in Solo & Small Firm Practice, Subjective Opinions, Work/Life and tagged Susan Cartier Liebel. Bookmark the permalink.

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8 comments on “How to Avoid Friction and Chaos in the Family When You Work From Home

  • Great advice, Susan!

    I might add that if possible, people consider having a dedicated work computer that stays in that dedicated office space. It can be a challenge to keep work life separate if you’re checking personal email and social media from the same computer that you use for work.

    On the upside, the “carpet commute” saves tons in gas, time and wardrobe costs! :-)


    • Karen, a very, very good point. I don’t know how practical it is unless you keep a laptop or tablet for your non-work activities outside the work space. Yet psychologically, it IS very important. Thanks for pointing this out.

  • Susan,
    Great article… And everything you say is true.

    I’ve been practicing from a home office for about 17 years now. In that time, I’ve gotten married, had kids, and moved house. But even when you’re single and live alone, working from a home office is challenging.

    I’ve found it very helpful to have a backup or alternate workplace, and truth-be-told, I visit one of mine almost every day. With cloud services, it’s really possible to do your thing from almost anywhere.

    Sometimes you just need a bit of social connection. It’s nice to have a place to go where you’ll be around other people… Even if it’s a coffee shop, library, or co-working space.

    Sometimes, you just need to change the scenery. When working in a traditional office, you walk down the hall, see others, etc. At lunchtime, you go out, etc. Home office folks need to be disciplined about getting daily doses of these kinds of things.

    And, one of the nice things about home-office work is that you can set up your days to be flexible. Got a kids’ event at school at 10am? Go… And make up the time after dinner… (if you WANT to, and don’t have other obligations, of course).

    Feel like a little down-time in mid-day? Take a quick nap or go to a movie.

    One major drawback of home-office work is that if you have staff to supervise, they’re sometimes coming to your HOME. Distributed workforces can work, but there are added challenges there.

    • Gordon, excellent points. I’ve been known to sneak out to a movie matinee every now and again! And working from a local library or coffee shop also gives you that change of pace and social environment that isn’t court. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  • Good advice. I’ve had a hybrid work environment for the past 5 years, i.e. I’ve had a virtual office rental arrangement with an attorney in the area but I do all my “work” from home. I use his office as my business address (and meet all my clients there) but I do all drafting and admin from a dedicated room in my home. The past 5 years have been a real struggle.

    I started off really motivated but soon slipped into bad habits. I’d watch TV, eat when I was bored, stay in my sweats longer than I needed to, and would procrastinate work tasks until it became really urgent. I soon realized that I do not have the discipline to work from home. I realized that I’m one of those people who needs to get into her car and drive to an office to get things done. Driving to work sets the agenda – it sets my foundation for a “purposeful day”. I

    Also, the social isolation put a strain on my marriage. Soon as my husband would come home, I’d start talking non-stop and was so excited to be in the presence of another adult. Little did I realize, he’d spent the whole day interacting with loads of co-workers and what he most wanted was some peace and quiet when he got home.

    Last month, after 5 years of being a solo, I decided to call it quits and become an employee again. I didn’t like the lazy work ethic that had crept in over the years.

    I’m not suggesting that solos who work from home lack discipline, have a poor work ethic or are more prone to suffering from social isolation. I saying that was MY experience. I couldn’t manage it and decided to go back to a work situation/environment in which I can thrive.

    I admire all of you who are getting it right. I was unable to, despite my efforts.

    • What’s important is that you realized your working style before it became too late. It isn’t for everyone. But for those who can manage it successfully, it can be a wonderful experience. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  • Let’s not kid ourselves. Attorneys working at home are going to have the same long hours as they would in an office setting. The time saved putting on business attire and commuting to/from work is made up by working. The distractions of working at home must also be anticipated as they can hurt efficiency. I’ve done it for 15 years. It’s great, but you will work long hours including evenings and weekends if you would be doing that in a law firm outside the home.

    • Hi Jeff, thanks for joining the conversation. There will always be exceptions but you have to start with a plan and structure. It’s hard for all the reasons you point out. However, if you implement a structure and work hard to adhere to it, the exceptions remain exceptions and not the norm. That’s the goal. I’ve been working full time at home for 18 years (eight as a practicing attorney…although practicing for many years prior to… and 10 as Founder of SPU). I’ve been through every challenge you said. At the end of the day, the reward is still there!

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