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[Needham Chronicle]
May 22, 1997

For some Needham workers, home is where the paycheck is


Photo caption: Health care industry consultant and Planning Board Maurice Handel works out of his Rosemary Street home office. He says he still dresses for work each day and keeps business hours.

On a typical work day, health care consultant Maurice P. Moe Handel rises and dresses for work. Like most businessmen, he carefully knots his tie and puts on his coat before starting on his way.

But where most commuters have to fight traffic getting to work, Handel doesn't even need to leave the house. His solo consulting practice is based out of his Rosemary Street home.

Still, that doesn't mean he goes to work whenever he feels like it.

I try to maintain as regular a business schedule as most people, because I think in the final analysis it can be more efficient, he says.

Handel is just one of several people around Needham, and one of the millions around the country, who have turned a part of their homes into their workplace.

Approximately 20 million nonfarm employees - more than 18.3 percent of the national work force - do at least part of their business work out of their homes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. Most are self-employed.

Some experts predict that in 20 years, 200 million people worldwide will be telecommuting.

In many situations, it fits the needs of the business and also the needs of the employees, says Fred Foulkes, a professor of management policy at Boston University.

There are no local statistics for at-home workers in town, but several Needhamites do work out of their homes, including a few town officials, such as Handel, a Planning Board member, School Committee member Jerry Wasserman and Selectman Ted Owens.

Whether they are running their own business or telecommuting to a larger company based elsewhere, they say there are a lot of advantages to working out of their homes.

It's the ease of getting to work, that things are right here, you can have things at the touch of your fingertips easily, says Carol DeLemos, executive director of the Needham Business Association. Generally people keep things at their office and my office is right here.

For some mothers, such as entrepreneurs Amy Reiss Levitt and Ruth Armstrong, working at home is a way to juggle family obligations and the desire to keep working.

I think that mothers really want to have something for themselves, but also want to be with their kids, says Levitt, who creates and designs personalized gifts for Amydoodles, her home-based, computer-order gift business.

For others, such as Handel, Wasserman and NBA executive director Carol DeLemos, working at home provides additional benefits, such as a way to save money on sometimes high commercial rents.

It didn't make sense to me to rent separate space, Handel says.

If you took a typical office space, I would say they (the NBA) were paying probably for $500 to $800 a month rent, plus the electricity, DeLemos says.

Because DeLemos works at home - something she started doing 17 years ago - the NBA does not have to pay for office space and can keep membership dues down.

This is what makes it work, the fact that I do work out of house, she says.

Home offices

A number of factors are driving the trend toward people working out of their homes, says Foulkes.

All over the country, but particularly in Southern California, workers telecommute to avoid traffic and adding to car pollution, Foulkes says. A company may be trying to cut back on it's corporate real estate holdings, encouraging employees to work out of their homes. Or, the company may be offering the chance to telecommute to provide some flexibility for its employees.

I think more and more employees want options, Foulkes says. They just want flexibility - you feel good about having options such as working from home, or working part-time hours to take care of family obligations. In an employees' market, businesses know workers are looking for jobs that will give them more choices, he says.

You may not actually take advantage of them, but you like to know that they're there, Foulkes says.

The typical home office set-up is a desk, a fax machine, a second phone line into the house, and, of course, a computer.

Right now, our computers are such a necessity. You cannot function to run a business these days without a computer, DeLemos says.

You need to be careful about telecommunications, because that's your lifeblood, says Handel, who admits he worries the phone line might go dead in a storm someday and cut his business off.

Having office equipment just a room away can be a benefit when you need to send a personal fax or do your own copying, Handel notes.

Modems can be useful too. Levitt's Amydoodles' computer web page has helped her to expand from a local business to a national one in just three years.

I have a mailing list of almost 300 people now, she says. Much of her business is through word-of-mouth referrals, but a significant portion comes from Internet business, she says.

I love being a work-at-home mom

Women with children are a bit more likely to be working at home to combine work and child-care responsibilities, according to the national Bureau of Labor Statistics, which notes that nearly 23 percent of homeworkers are mothers.

In Needham, some young mothers wanting to earn money while raising children have started their own businesses, incorporating their talents.

My primary reason for doing this was so I could be home with my three little kids, ages 4, 6 and 7, says Ruth Armstrong, who runs Sweet Rue's cookie-baking company out of her Highgate Street kitchen. I wanted to be home so I could take them to their activities.

Levitt says after her son Jonathan was born seven years ago, she continued her job as a manager in a publishing company. Although she was the first person the company set up to telecommute, she found she couldn't do her work the way she did before she had children.

I couldn't do 100 percent work and 100 percent mom, she says.

So she quit her office job to be at home full-time.

While spending time with her children, she also began doodling and painting on their storage boxes to make the boxes look nicer. After a while, friends, and then strangers, began asking her to design personalized lunch boxes and picture frames for them to give as gifts - and the Amydoodles business was born.

It's just progressed from there, Levitt says. Now I have people who come to the house and make appointments.

Working from home allows her to continue to spend time raising her children, Levitt says. She is able to tailor her work schedule around doctor's appointments or after-school activities.I love being a work-at-home mom, she says.

Levitt and Armstrong both find their home businesses are turning into excellent teaching tools for their young children.

They're learning about how business works, buying and selling, and what things cost, Armstrong says. That was sort of an unexpected bonus.

Wasserman, who works at home part of the time running his management consulting business, also reaps the benefits of being there for his 13-year-old son some afternoons.

It's more, if I take a break and he's here, I can go sit and talk to him and ask him how his day went, Wasserman says. He is also usually available to give his son a ride or pick him up from friends' houses after school.

Drawbacks to working at home

The big disadvantage is when you want to call in sick, the line's always busy, Handel says wryly.

Kidding aside, working at home isn't all fun and games.

A lot of people need to put a little space between life at home and life at the office, Foulkes says.

Ironically, people who choose to work at home because of family obligations sometimes find family responsibilities lead them to work less efficiently than if they were in a large office, Foulkes says.

If you do have a busy home, with children and having to answer the door, it can sometimes be harder to work at home, he says.

While you can sometimes set your own hours, it also means you aren't guaranteed of having evenings, or even weekends off, DeLemos says, adding that she gets calls around the clock. Sometimes, she says, the fax machine will start screeching in the middle of the night, with messages coming from people on the West Coast who aren't bothered by the time difference.

I used to have some people who would call me Saturday and Sunday nights to answer some business questions, DeLemos says. Even though she's off the clock, she takes the calls when they come. I tend to want to handle things as they come up.

The same is true for Armstrong. While she spends some time with the children in the afternoon, most of the rest of her day is spent working.

Since it is in my home, I am constantly doing it, she says. It's not like I get done with work at 5. And it's pretty much seven days a week.

I have everything here and if I need to go down in the evening and do something, it's all right here, Wasserman says. The downside is everything is all right here.

Depending on how much time is spent working at home, telecommuters may miss out on the company atmosphere, notes Foulkes.

What you don't get at home is the collegiality of the workplace, Handel says. That you can't really duplicate at home, and that's a nice thing about working.

He does get to work closely with friends and colleagues on various projects and is constantly meeting with them. At the same time, he says, he doesn't see the same range of professional types and personalities one might meet in a traditional office environment.

Some telecommuters may work in the company office one or two days a week because they are uncomfortable spending all their time at home, Foulkes says.

Some people really want some sense of community identity, he says.

Even entrepreneurs with solo businesses like to get out of the house and interact with other business people. Levitt finds a weekly networking meeting of Needham businesses is a great escape.

I look forward to Wednesday at 12 o'clock because I can be with other business people, she says.

More pluses

The flexibility of working at home is also a plus for DeLemos

I make my own hours, DeLemos says. I work a lot of evenings because it's quiet and the phone isn't ringing.

You'll find me working 7 to 11 p.m. some evenings.

Handel prefers to keep his office hours from 9 to 5, realizing most of his clients are going to be keeping regular business hours. The only way to separate work and home life is to treat the home office like any other office, he says.

It takes a certain amount of discipline, he says. If I have a light day, I won't watch television.

If Handel is going to work, he puts on work clothes. If he's taking the day off, he dresses in more casual attire. But he doesn't mix the two, he says.

I have to get away from the rest of the family, so to speak, burrow myself away downstairs to avoid distracting my attention, DeLemos says.

Armstrong and Levitt turn their attention to their children when school ends in the afternoon, but the rest of the day is devoted to their respective businesses.

But no matter what, there are always times when it's easier to have someone at home.

If somebody needs to be home for any particular reason, it's a lot easier to arrange it, Handel says. There's always a bigger chance that somebody can take care of a problem without disrupting work life.

His youngest child, 7, is in school during most of Handel's work day, but he's usually available if she needs him in the afternoon.

I don't do work that's so time-sensitive I can't be interrupted, he says.

Handel and Wasserman, both of whom have solo consulting practices, find their home offices lend them a little more flexibility to be involved in town government. But they are quick to add that working in a downtown office does not preclude being involved in town government.

It's made it slightly more convenient, I think, because every once in a while something needs to be signed quickly, Handel says. It's easier if people are in and around Needham.

The future of home offices

With technology expanding by leaps and bounds, there's always the possibility that someday everyone will work from their homes, Foulkes says, citing a Jan. 8 Financial Times article which predicts by the year 2016, 200 million people worldwide will be working from their homes, partly to avoid traffic and pollution problems.

But it is more likely there will always be business offices to accommodate career ambitions and the corporate structure, he says.

If you want to move up in the business someday, you're not going to do it at home, Foulkes warns.

At some point, every employee may feel it is better to work at home for a period of time, he adds.

For some time, for some period of life, it makes sense, he says.


Copyright 1997 Community Newspaper Company Needham Tab

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