Home Office Discipline Required

April 2, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — For some it's a privilege, for others a challenge; but either way, working from home is getting easier thanks to technology and forward-thinking companies.

Nine years ago, Sherri Van Eck was pregnant with the last of her four children and wanted to spend more time at home.

Instead of going to a part-time schedule, Van Eck — corporate specialist in electronic data gathering and retrieval (EDGAR) for Warner Norcross & Judd — began splitting her week between working at home and working in the office. She now spends three days of her 40-plus hour week working from home.

"It just worked out so well that we continued to do it down the road," she said.

While the split schedule takes Van Eck away from her family less, cuts down on commute time and lets her divvy up her time better, it still allows her to keep up with the hours her position requires.

As an EDGAR corporate specialist, Van Eck handles posting the annual, quarterly and current reports for public companies on the Internet, which means she has to be available between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., while the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is open.

"When I get to work at night, there are hours in the evening where I can take a break, spend time with (my children) and have dinner with them," she said. "Once they go to bed I can go back to work."

During March, her busiest time of the year, Van Eck said it is not unusual to work about 70 hours a week. At these times, Van Eck said it is easier if she spends more time in the office so she can be on hand for any issues that may arise.

Van Eck said she never feels disconnected from the office, thanks to technology such as her cell phone, which rings automatically when she receives a message on her office phone.

"It's made it so that I am always hooked up to the office," she said. "When I'm at home I am actually running two computers at the same time. I miss out on nothing."

Though sometimes it's difficult to make a clear distinction between work and home life while working at home, Van Eck said the benefits outweigh the challenges.

"There are definitely some huge pluses to working at home," she said. "When you have sick children, it doesn't take me away from my job. You miss less time from work, which is a wonderful thing. You don't get behind."

Van Eck said she is grateful to Warner for allowing her the opportunity.

"They gave me an incredible experience and I'm very impressed that they were so up on the technology," she said. "They are a very forward-thinking firm."

Other firms also accommodate employees who wish to spend more time at home. Leslie Poot, human resource manager at BDO Seidman, said the firm has some employees that split their time between home and the traditional office, often spending three days in the office and two at home.

"We try to accommodate different individuals' situations," she said.

While the tax consulting and professional services firm has allowed employees to work from home for as long as Poot remembers, she said it has gotten easier with time.

"Obviously now with the advancement in technology, it's made it a lot easier than it has been in the past," she said.

Poot said one of the most common motivators for people who want to work from home is spending more time with their children and being involved with their school and after-school activities.

"That seems to be the leading reason for people going on that type of schedule," she said.

The situation benefits both the employees and the firm, Poot said.

"It truly promotes the work-life balance," she said. "I think it's something that we so often hear and I think it's nice when it's put into action."

For Lonnie Hull DuPont, director of acquisitions for the Revell division of Baker Publishing Group, working from home was a challenge more than a choice, but after more than a decade, she appreciates the freedom it allows her.

Hull DuPont first began working from home in 1991, when she was hired by a company in Tennessee while living in San Francisco. Seven years ago, after moving to Jackson, Mich., to be closer to her aging parents, Hull DuPont started working for Baker and continued to work from home. She commutes about six days a month to attend meetings in the Grand Rapids area.

"Because I do editorial work, it's really conducive to not being in the office," said Hull DuPont, whose job includes reading and editing manuscripts, as well as building and maintaining relationships with authors.

When she first began working from home, Hull DuPont said she did panic a little because of time-management issues.

"I had to be so self-motivated that it made me nervous," she said.

She soon realized that working from home had some of the same issues as working in an office, with productive days and some that are not as productive.

"Even in an office there are days when nothing gets done," she said.

After allowing herself two months to get used to the new process, Hull DuPont said she came up with a system.

"Now I'm usually at work at 6:30 in the morning in my flannel nightgown," she said. "I work a couple hours, then do other stuff. I'm very productive that way."

As for her frequent trips to Grand Rapids, Hull DuPont has found a way to make them more comfortable.

"I've found a hotel that I've stayed in for years; I even stay in the same room so it feels like home-away-from-home," she said.

Hull DuPont said she also enjoys the freedom of being able to pick up her manuscripts and work from a coffeehouse for the day. But she added she was aware that with such freedom comes responsibility. Whether she works from home or at the coffeehouse, takes a few hours to herself or works straight through the day, deadlines still need to be met.

"Deadlines keep you honest."   

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