7 Simple Rules that Your Work-at-Home Employer Should Follow


Working from home, as a contractor or full-time employee for a legitimate business, seems to be a great way of making money while keeping a flexible schedule with plenty of time for family, friends, fun, and sleep. Or is it?

Last year, I investigated contract writing as a way to give myself what I thought might be a more me-friendly schedule. So I sent some samples in response to an ad in a professional-association newsletter, completed a do-it-our-way training session, and started accepting project assignments.

The good news is that the company paid on time, precisely what it promised. But hardly anything else matched what a reasonable person (me) would have presumed based on communications with the company owner and its designated trainer / tyrant.

The pay, though advertised as excellent, was below even my fairly priced rates. But, according to the owner, each of a nearly full stable of happy, qualified, and loyal writers could complete 2 assignments per day (sometimes 3) so that, according to my math, an assignment should take 4 hours for completion. Given the speed and volume with which I could complete the projects, I could supplement my income very nicely.

I was assigned to a trainer who would teach me the company’s way. Perhaps I should have been concerned that she shared the name of a former Caribbean-Basin dictator but I pressed on.

According to the agreement, I would confirm my availability to complete each project upon its receipt. In practice, however, I was asked to give a number of weekly assignments that I could handle, which I did, calculated on the 4-hour average. Straying below that number, I later learned, had to be approved by the owner.

The assignments involved reviewing client-supplied documents (2 – 20+ pages, occasionally with conflicting information); preparing a 2-5 page, well-written, and completely proofed draft within 48 hours; and responding promptly to any client concerns that included dissatisfaction with the prescribed and unchangeable format.

Let me admit that I am a steady but sometimes slow processor of information. I like to review, reflect, analyze, synthesize, and then recast words into a what I hope will be a compelling, though corporate-like, story. Sometimes, I can assemble, knead, bake, and deliver a project within 24 or 48 hours but oftentimes I cannot. Bottom line, it took me a minimum of 4 hours and an average of 8 hours to complete the assignments.

Trying to fit it all in (the assignments and the ever-increasing workload from my own business) took nearly every waking hour. I did ask my trainer-turned-manager for tips on speeding up the process. I received silence in response. Questions on how to handle certain scenarios according to the company way were met with what I now deem the Management-by-Magic-8-Ball method: “do what you think is right,” “all signs point to yes,” etc. If I asked the wrong question, misunderstood a requirement, or made a mistake, I would receive the digital equivalent of being yelled at: an email with words written in a very large font.

I never dreamed that a virtual work environment could be run like a sweat shop.

Less than 7 weeks into my tenure as a contract writer, I quit.

My choice was simple, but for others who are breadwinners with little time to search for another position, quitting is not so easy. For example, the husband of a friend has been telecommuting for a large, publicly-held, seemingly well-run company. His job is to provide technical services 24/7 to a designated customer. As the customer grew over the years, so did his workload. His pay and his support from the company (none, ever, it seems) did not change. To maintain service levels, he became chained to his computer, sleeping erratically to view system performance throughout the day and night, and unable to take a few days off in a wireless location. Sure, he could have quit (before a mild illness turned bad and put him in the hospital, etc.) but there should be accountability on the part of the employer, who seemed to have to dangled the promise of a change in schedule or staffing without ever making one.

Here are 7 simple rules for companies who engage work-at-home employees or contractors:

1. Deliver what you promise when recruiting new employees or contractors.

2. Set policies for time off / days off that are easy to understand and easy to follow.

3. Require your employees to visit a physician at least once a year.

4. Make sure that compensation is competitive for hourly workers as well as salaried employees or pay-per-project contractors.

5. Limit hours on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis.

6. Encourage employees to take a vacation and provide back-up support for the vacation.

7. Evaluate virtual workplace arrangements on an annual basis, identify changes needed, set a deadline for making them, and stick to it.

If you are a work-at-home employee or contractor, it's your job to make sure your work-at-home employer plays by the rules.

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Guest's picture

Although I agree with some of the things that you say, the bottom line is that as a freelance/contractor, you have to play by the their rules. I make a decent living/life, schedule, as a Freelance Translator/Consultant, and have been for over 5 years now; I think it is all about a balance between what you expect as a boss and employee. Do not limit yourself to one company, you might be a contractor, but you are your own boss -- so have different clients, and have your own set of established rules for others to play by!

Julie Rains's picture

I think that as a freelance/contractor with multiple clients you can get a good idea of what is normal and acceptable. Of course, you have to play by their rules also but it makes sense to make sure that what they are requiring is reasonable, especially if the requirements change over time. I realized pretty quickly that the set-up wasn't going to work for me; upon later reflection, I realized what a poor working environment it was (the company most likely could have paid more per project as the mark-up, I learned at the end though after I made up my mind to quit, was 600+%).

Of course, there are tons of great work-at-home opportunities (freelance, consulting, contracting, etc.) but I wanted to point out that just because the contractors/employees are well-educated and work in a nice place (home) doesn't mean all is well with the working situation. I would hate for work-at-home to become heavily regulated because of what a few companies are doing / not doing (similar to the end of at-home, piece-rate sewing in the USA for example).

Guest's picture

In this day and age with crackberries and video conferencing... the clients need to know their boundaries. I do not want calls or emails at 3 in the morning demanding that something needs to be done ASAP, because most of the time it's not time sensitive or crucial enough to be awoken at 3 in the morning!

Julie Rains's picture

If you are like me, you want to give exceptional service but clients/employers need to distinguish between emergency and would-like-to-have situations.

Interestingly, I had a client once who wanted to work in a time frame that met my "natural biorhythms" (what a nice guy and quite unusual).

Guest's picture

I have had about the complete opposite experience. The company I work for is laid-back and really very supportive. They tell me when I'm doing well and what I need to work on, but they are never rude about it. We have general ideas for how long assignments should take, but if it's not working out that way, they trust that I'm doing my best and let me be. This creates a situation in which I push myself harder, and they don't have to.

My upcoming vacation is a non-issue, and I'm allowed to take as long as I want, provided it's within reason (this time it's 2 weeks). They respect my time boundaries, and even if they IM me outside of working hours, they always make sure I'm OK with it and keep it short.

I'm sorry that you didn't have the same experience, and I encourage you to try again. It's not always like what you describe.

Julie Rains's picture

I hope I didn't imply that all work-at-home situations were bad just that one needed to be aware of potential pitfalls.

Since that time, I have investigated another company in the same field...this one offered less money but with better working conditions (it seemed); and since then, other companies have been popping up with dramatically better working environments (2-3X the pay with longer turnaround times). I realized though that I needed an even more flexible arrangement and joined the wisebread team so that I could write in my downtime (which varies from day to day, week to week).

Guest's picture

this is a good article. will definitely recommend this to some friends who are in this same field of business.
the rules are just right!

linda of physician contracts

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