August 2002 // Volume 40 // Number 4 // Tools of the Trade // 4TOT1

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Working at Home When You Have No Choice: Personal Experiences and Advice

What if you couldn't get to your Extension office for several months because of damage, construction work, or simple inaccessibility? Could you function productively and continue to serve your clientele? In the wake of the events of September 11 and periodic high-profile natural disasters, this is not an idle question. This article addresses ways to prepare to productively work at home when it is not being done by choice, but out of necessity. The author shares 10 suggestions based on her personal experiences and those of colleagues.

Barbara O'Neill
FCS Educator and Interim Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Newton, New Jersey
Internet Address:

Living as close to Ground Zero as I do, I've met several people in the last year who were unable to return to their offices in the New York financial district after the events of September 11. One, a financial planner with a firm housed in the World Financial Center, spent months holed up with colleagues in makeshift offices at a midtown New York hotel. Another tried to telecommute from home but found it very frustrating without the use of her employer's equipment and resources.

I got to thinking then about what would happen to me if I were unable to work in my office. Could I continue to perform essential job functions as an Extension educator and state specialist, such as my weekly newspaper column, responses to consumer questions, media interviews, and curriculum development?

Working at Home by Necessity

As it turns out, I didn't have to wait too long to answer this question. I've just spent 3 of the first 8 months of 2002 working at home, not by choice, but because I had to. And not the occasional "day at home to catch up on things," but 90 days away from everything and everyone at my office. The first month was due to an "asbestos survey" of my pre-Civil War era building. Contractors came in to tear up the walls and floors, and look for ACMs (asbestos containing materials). Everyone in the office was displaced. The four professionals worked at home, and we found a temporary office (read: room) for our two secretaries in another county building.

The other 2 months (most of the summer) were the result of a fractured kneecap. I wasn't sick or in pain, but my office is on the second floor of a handicapped INaccessible building, and I couldn't get to work. I know what you're thinking: what about ADA (the Americans With Disabilities Act)? Let's just say that there are buildings all across the country that haven't been ADA rehabilitated yet. I happen to work in one of them.

These two extended episodes of having to work at home were actually very productive. It could have been a lot worse. Luckily, I was able to plan ahead for the first dislocation and subsequently had many resources in place for the second.

10 Suggestions

Here are 10 suggestions for Extension personnel who need to spend extended time away from the office.

Back Up Everything

I make a copy of almost every file that my secretary or I creates. These files are copied onto a zip disk that I carry back and forth to the office. They are then backed up again from the zip onto a laptop at home, which is an exact duplicate of my desktop at the office. I also had the county IT folks put the electronic county purchasing system software on my laptop so that I can approve purchase orders from home (as office department head).

Train Your Staff

We taught our secretaries how to use e-mail so that we could send files back and forth. They also learned how to use a scanner and we subsequently scanned agents' digital signatures to expedite correspondence.

Use Available Technology

In addition to e-mailing files and scanned documents, we were able to call forward my office phone to my home phone after my fall (I was still working. I didn't take sick days because I wasn't sick). The secretaries transferred calls to me as usual during business hours, and callers never knew the difference.

Have a Home Office

I already had a well-equipped home office for my financial writing work, and it really helped. Key components to have include:

  • Computer (at least one),
  • Printer,
  • Scanner,
  • Fax machine,
  • Copier,
  • Typewriter,
  • Internet provider, and
  • Postage scale.

Another option: two of my colleagues who did not have office equipment at home made a written request to take Rutgers property home temporarily. Have your office get you stamps, because you can't get to the penalty mail meter, and also supplies such as paper and inkjet cartridges.

Make a List of Essential Office Items

List each item and where it is kept (e.g., Rolodex on right corner of desk). Keep this list at home. I made a list of required items for the asbestos relocation, and it was invaluable the second time when I needed to send others to my office to retrieve things after my fall. Photos of your office are also a good idea, as well as keeping a copy of important office documents at home or at another secure location.

Keep Several "Work Anywhere" Projects in Your Briefcase

These are tasks that you can do at home (or anywhere) on a moment's notice, such as reviewing journal articles, writing reports or newspaper articles, preparing grant and award applications or conference submissions, making phone calls, working on PowerPoint presentations, etc. It helps to keep a running "to do" list or record these tasks in a palm pilot.

Print Out Your E-Mail Address Book

I found that I had many more names on my work computer than I did at home. A hard copy of my address book, including the names of people in various e-mail groups, was a great time-saver. You can also copy your address book from one computer to another. Ask your IT folks to show you how.

Watch Your Cell Phone Minutes

When you can't get to your office phone, it is tempting to use your cell phone for office business because "you've already paid for the minutes." Most plans only allow you 300 or 400 weekday minutes, however, and they can get used up quickly. Our agricultural agent ended up owing over $300 for calls during the month we were out of the office. (Yes, he was reimbursed, but it made a dent in our annual budget).

Be Good to Your Staff and Family

My husband became my mail courier several times a week, and my staff and I interacted remotely via phone calls, notes, faxes, and e-mail. It's not the same as being at the office, of course, but it's do-able for a short time.

Make the Most of It

The key to thriving during an "office exile" is planning ahead (if you can) and controlling what you can about the situation. For example, I met with clients for meetings and financial counseling at alternate, accessible buildings. You're at an advantage when you can access office equipment and take advantage of technology to work smarter, not harder.

Final Thoughts

Could you work at home productively for several months if you had to? Or, God forbid, cope with the destruction of key documents or equipment at your office? These are not idle questions in light of recent acts of terrorism and natural disasters. I hope this article has provided food for thought and strategies to plan proactively.