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WORK & FAMILY
By Jill Hamburg Coplan
MARCH 8, 2000


Drawing a Line in the Quicksand

A new column on balancing your business and personal life

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I did something slightly crazy last month: I quit a perfectly good job. I had been there since 1997, and since I spent at least 90% of my time tucked away at my computer writing, it seemed reasonable to request a telecommuting arrangement for the first year of my baby's life. We needed my income, but I needed to be with my son, too. My former employers are decent and kind people, and their first response was "We'll see." Then they offered two months. I accepted, but thoughts about having to leave the baby kept me up at night more than he did.

So I walked.

As it happens, out of 125 or so employees, two of us gave birth in 1999, and we've both left for other jobs. My sense is that our former employer, like so many small businesses and startups, was totally preoccupied with rapid growth, updating old technology, getting on the Web. They're wonderful individuals, but very busy: No one had the time to create the kind of companywide policy that suited my situation.

So it's the home-office life for me now, complete with a view of a pizza joint and an IT department named Seth, my brother-in-law. The first thing I'll be doing each week will be answering your questions about work and family. Ask me anything: whether to bring the kids into the office, whether to date your employee (or your clients), and how to carve out enough time for something that resembles a vacation. Send your queries to frontierlife@businessweek.com and I'll round up advice from the country's top experts. Please remember to include your hometown and your phone number so I can contact you if I need more information. We'll print only your initials, not your full name. (Letters may be edited for space and clarity.)

Now for this week's question:

The owner of a marketing and communications company in Kansas writes:

I live in a small town and even though I have a business phone line, people will call on my home phone all times of the day and night with "just a little question." How can I minimize the impact on my family when Mom is always on the phone?
A.H., Ellsworth, Kan.

There are two answers to your question, one psychological, the other practical. Let's start with the psychological (if you're antipsychoanalytical, skip ahead). If you're going to run a small business from home, you have to know yourself well, including your reasons for owning the business. And then you must have the strength, courage, and clarity to be honest about your limits with your clients and family.

By limits, I mean a schedule -- a routine, hours during which you do not take any calls barring genuine emergencies. No one can set those limits and communicate them but you, says Esther Bleuel, a licensed California family therapist, mediator, and small-business counselor. "If you're not up for doing that, you're really going to have trouble," she says. Consult your family to see what they can live with. "Let them know you're struggling, let them hear what you're thinking about, and you may be surprised." she says. They'll part with you occasionally for urgent after-hours business, and they can help you let go of work when you want to disconnect.

Now for the practical. Consistently direct callers to your business line, says Andrew DuBrin, a consultant, author, and professor of industrial psychology and management at Rochester Institute of Technology. "It may not work the first week," he says, "but people will get conditioned quickly to the fact that the home number is not a business phone." Be sure that your work phone is in a separate area, and keep the door closed.

You might also try giving your clients several options, says Scott Friedman, an attorney with a family-business advisory practice in Buffalo: Let them know you're happy to take calls even after business hours, but only from 7 to 8, or 9 to 10. Offer them a variety of times and let them choose. But create a consistent policy you can rely on to keep your life organized.

You might try communicating that policy via e-mail, suggests Mike Trueblood, director of the Family Business Council in Fullerton, Calif. Write it in a tone that's honest without being overly blunt. As for those rude and stubborn clients? "Let them know you'd love to talk," Trueblood says, "but you'd prefer to call back during reasonable business hours."



Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.



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