Dirty Little Secrets of Those Who Work From Home

Working from home has its challenges, rewards and secrets.

April 14, 2011, 12:24 PM

April 27, 2011— -- Last fall my significant other and I moved in together. Although he was no stranger to my feral freelancer habits -- living in my robe, working late into the night, not leaving the house for days on end -- I cringed at the thought of him seeing me daily in all my unkempt, agoraphobic glory.

So I did what any disheveled freelancer would do: I got an office job -- one that required me to show up at approximately the same time each day, looking fresh and professional.

Three months into the gig, I began to miss my bathrobe. Six months into it, I gave notice.

Now that I'm back to full-time freelancing, I'm trying to prove to myself and my new husband that working from home doesn't necessarily mean living a life devoid of structure. But it's not easy.

On any given day, my best-laid plans for a morning walk with the dog might be foiled by an urgent question from an editor about a story I've filed or an elusive source calling to say she's available now, and only now, for that needed quote. Although I no longer skip the daily shower, I do sometimes skip out on date night with my sweetie when work gets too overwhelming. And while I've stopped working in my robe every day, I've taken to working in his.

Not all freelancers, telecommuters and kitchen-table entrepreneurs are untamed insomniacs given to various states of undress. Many boast of adhering to professional attire and rigid work schedules. I'm convinced, however, that they're in the minority.

To prove my point (or perhaps just make myself feel better), I informally polled dozens of self-employed professionals about their dirty little secrets of working from home. Here's what they had to say.

Hygiene Is an Issue The most common confession of home-based workers is that, like me, their grooming leaves a bit to be desired, at least during business hours.

"It's easy to let yourself go if clients don't come to the house," said Colleen Wietmarschen, a self-employed transcriptionist in Cincinnati who's worked from home for 16 years. "In the winter, I can actually go two or three days without showering if I don't exercise. Gross, I know. But hey, if you aren't sweaty and don't get dirty, then it's better for your skin, right?"

For Matthew Jones, a professional comedic magician from Mansfield, Ohio, even having roommates doesn't offer much incentive to primp and preen.

"When I'm at home I typically don't bother shaving unless I feel really motivated," Jones said. "Most of the day I answer calls and emails in nothing but my boxer shorts and a pair of fuzzy slippers that are starting to smell a little ripe. I would go commando if I could, but there are others living in the household who wouldn't appreciate that."

Work-Life Balance Is a Challenge

Contrary to popular belief, it's not a lack of discipline that makes the work-life balance a challenge. It's our tendency toward workaholism.

Kenneth Vogt, CEO of Crooner Labs, a company that creates web applications and blogs, is the typical entrepreneur: hopelessly in love with his work, and far too busy for his own good.

"I can't tell you how many times I have stumbled out of bed at 7 a.m. and in between the bedroom and the coffee maker glanced over at the computer and thought, 'Let me just check my email quick before breakfast,'" Vogt confessed. "Next, I find it's three hours later and I'm sitting at the computer in my bathrobe. Now it's too late to stop working, I've had no shower and, oh yeah, still no coffee."

During her first few weeks of self-employment, "Nadia," a publicist who didn't want her real name used, admitted to letting her hunger for new business compromise her personal time.

"I took calls while I was in the bathroom or getting right out of the shower," Nadia said. "I couldn't afford to let any potential client calls go to voicemail. I was desperate for new business. My most shameful secret is taking a call in the middle of having sex. I was that determined. My husband and I still laugh about it today."

Naps, Daytime TV and Bikini Breaks Happen

When done responsibly (that is, without disregard for one's professional commitments), I see nothing wrong with breaking up the workday with a snooze, soap opera or sunbath. Others apparently feel the same way.

"I take occasional power naps to recharge my batteries after lunch," said Dave Manzer, an Austin communications professional. "I think it makes me work better in the afternoon."

"Cheryl," a marketing professional who didn't want her real name used, likes to have lunch with Erica Kane.

"My dirty little secret, and I am obviously now heartbroken, is watching 'All My Children' from 1 to 2 p.m.," Cheryl said. "I don't answer the phone for friends or clients. If questioned, I say I was in a meeting."

As far as I'm concerned, Karen Hoxmeier, founder of the bargain shopping websiteMyBargainBuddy.com, is a role model for solo workers everywhere, especially those who can't remember the last time they went outside.

"During the summer, I grab my laptop, a pitcher of lemonade and a pair of sunglasses and work poolside for most of the day," Hoxmeier said. "Not many people can say they work in a bikini."

The Dinner Table Doubles as a Workspace

When you work from home, it's inevitable that some of your personal life will seep into your office. Either your cat's on the keyboard or your child's crying in the doorway or your significant other is trying to coax you off the phone because dinner's getting cold.

But sometimes it's the other way around, such as during tax season, when every available surface of your living room is covered with IRS forms, expense receipts and file folders. Such is the case in Angela Newnam's household. Only instead of the usual stack of papers crowding the communal living area, it's women's underwear.

"My kids roll their eyes when they have to set up dinner, pushing panties, bikinis and thongs off the table," said Newnam, founder and CEO of specialty underwear maker Knock out! Panties. "If I worked in a corporate office, I'd never hear, 'Mom, please put your panties away.'"

Oh, the Places We'll Go (While on a Conference Call)!

When it comes to home-based workers and conference calls, the general consensus is that anything goes -- as long as you're not distracted from the conversation at hand, and especially if there's a mute button available. "My favorite part of the day is client conference calls," said "Deanna," a communications consultant who requested anonymity. "I multitask during them -- doing everything from mopping my floor to tweezing my eyebrows to folding my laundry."

When her children were infants, Angela Nielsen, a mother of four, found another reason to relish conference calls."I used to breastfeed my children while on the phone with clients," said Nielsen, president and creative director of the web design firm One Lily Inc. "Nobody ever really knew, except when it was time to burp the baby."

As you might imagine, video calls are the bane of many a multitasking-happy, grooming-impaired home worker. Vogt, the web developer who often gets lost in his work before changing out of his bathrobe in the morning, describes the panicked rush he felt when recently forced to jump on a video conference call.

"After a mad dash, I managed to get the video portion of me presentable," Vogt said. "Little did they know about the bare feet and breeziness below."

Of course, there's nothing like a client challenging your professionalism to make you change your breeze-loving ways. "Lisa," a self-employed sales rep, who, you guessed it, couldn't use her real name, shared this tale:

"About a decade ago, I got into the habit of talking to clients in the nude. It initially started when I answered a call straight out of the shower, but I continued the practice for a couple years. I finally stopped when one of my clients made a joke about telecommuters working in the nude. It hit a little too close to home, and I now work in clothes."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. Follow her at @anti9to5guide.