You know what irritates me? People who treat at-home work like it’s a punchline. I’m talking about the folks who act like working outside of the traditional office is a never-ending vacation. While it does have perks, working from home is no joke.
The Importance of Professionalism
It doesn’t matter if you’re manning a customer service counter in-person or running a business from your dining room table, professionalism is a must. Customers don’t buy from unprofessional businesses, and if they do, they only make that mistake once. When you work from home, whether as an employee or entrepreneur, developing and maintaining a standard of business is vital. And if you happen to be a freelance writer, professionalism is essential to your success.
What is Professionalism?
I’m a grammar geek. So you better believe I’m going to dissect the word I’m discussing!
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, professionalism is defined as “1: the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person; 2: the following of a profession for gain or livelihood.”
At face value, professionalism almost sounds optional. After all, lots of shady characters make their livelihood from being the exact opposite of professional. But take a look at some the word’s synonyms:
Sounds an awful lot like what you look for when hiring a professional, doesn’t it?
What Customers Want
If you work from home or while on the go and freelance or run a business, you cannot aim to be successful without first knowing what customers want. After all, without paying customers, you’re not working from home – you’re engaging in a hobby. Going from hobbyist to professional starts with identifying your ideal customer, figuring out what they want and then delivering it.
Gregory Ciotti, a marketing expert, put time into compiling the results of 10 studies that reveal what customers want and why it should be important to you. Here’s the scoop:
- Customers want quality above quantity.
- They know what they want and will share if asked.
- They like loyalty programs.
- They respond to thoughtful actions.
- They live for personalization and will pay more for it.
- Customers love stories, and stories play a big role in their decision to buy.
- They’ll remember you if you remember them.
- They’re all for happy surprises.
- They prefer to save time over money.
- Focusing too much on monetary savings can be a turnoff.
The top things customers want could be summed up in five words:
Wait a minute! Aren’t those the same five synonyms for professionalism?
Are you starting to see why professionalism is important, especially if you’re manning the helm of a work-from-home operation? Good. Now, let’s talk about how you can cultivate professionalism in your at-home office.
Tip #1: Create a Workspace
Where do you work?
At home is not an acceptable answer! Of course, your office is in your home, but where in your home is it?
It’s important to designate a workspace, even if it’s your favorite chair at the kitchen table. You need an area that, for a specified amount of time, can be dedicated to working.
Creating a workspace means removing and limiting distractions. For example, if client phone calls are part of your MO, you’ll need a quiet place to conduct them. A place where the sounds of home – dogs barking, people talking, kids being kids – won’t overtake the call and leave the client (or potential customer) questioning your professionalism, or worse, your dedication to what you’re selling them.
A Workspace Includes Identifying Business Supplies
What tangible tools and supplies do you need to work? These may include a computer, an internet connection, paper, a printer, sticky notes or a notebook, pens and pencils and highlighters, paperclips, camera, phone….you get the idea.
Identify the essentials you will need to keep handy (and stocked) in and around your home office space. There’s nothing worse than losing productivity over a disorganized, undedicated or lacking workspace.
Tip #2: Establish Work Hours
Dependability is everything in business, and your at-home operation needs clear work hours.
Firstly, established work hours lets customers know when they can contact you. Sure, the Internet is 24/7, but you are not. You need sleep to remain productive. Not to mention, you do have a life. So block out specific business hours. While these may not be the only hours during which you complete work, they are hours during which customer relations can be efficiently and promptly handled.
Secondly, you need to know when to go to work. I used to be one of those people who fit project work around my personal schedule. It doesn’t work. I mean, it really doesn’t. It gives way to procrastination and with procrastination comes waiting to the last minute and missing a deadline, both of which impact quality.
Establishing business hours creates a personal guideline. From X time to X time you are working. Don’t be afraid to make that known to family and friends. They need to respect work hours just like you do.
Working from home isn’t a joke, and it will only be as serious as you make it. Set work hours are one key to maximizing efficiency, minimizing distractions and nurturing professionalism.
Tip #3: Brainstorm a Workflow
How do you plan to complete work? The answer depends on whether you’re selling a service or a product.
Services are time. You’re selling your time to complete X. How are you going to efficiently use your time? What steps or phases will you need to complete? Can you create a template that will work for most projects, or will the workflow change depending on certain factors? Take the time to foresee and brainstorm a detailed workflow complete with stages, tasks, and contingencies for overcoming potential hurdles, and do so before contracting a project.
Failure to establish a workflow before starting a project is a major cause of an unprofessional impression. It can make you appear unreliable, inexperienced and amateur.
Products are perennial. A perennial plant is one that lasts for a long, seemingly infinite, time. It demands some maintenance, but once it blooms, it’s mostly self-sufficient. Products are similar. You frontload the work to create them, and then you sell them over and over, performing maintenance as needed.
The maintenance a product requires can range from keeping inventory to making updates. It also includes customer service. How will you handle a customer who wants a return or has a problem? How will you resolve issues promptly and professionally so even the customer who is dissatisfied with your product can’t find fault with your business ethics?
Failing to create a product production and maintenance workflow can make you look like a fly-by-night scam. Don’t risk it, establish a workflow now.
A Workflow Includes Creating Policies & Procedures
I cannot stress the importance of establishing policies and procedures, especially if you’re a freelancer. Creating them seems like a basic step when you’re working on a startup or creating a small business with multiple employees, but the solo freelancer can easily overlook the need to create a set of policies and procedures.
For example, let’s pretend you’re a freelance writer or editor. You specialize in writing or editing, and your business is service based. You’re selling your time. Without pay, you’re literally giving your time and expertise away…for free. Free doesn’t pay the bills. To prevent unintentional freebies, you might establish some of the following policies and procedures:
- Deposit: Ryan Stewart, a digital marketing expert and freelance writer, said in an article he wrote for The Write Life that it’s important to make getting paid easy. One of the first things he itemizes is requiring payment ahead of time. You can do this in the form of a deposit. Be sure to make the deposit amount worth your time in the event that it’s all you end up being paid. While this should be the rarity, requiring an upfront deposit is also a protection against being taken advantage of by people who want to pay pennies on the dollar or get free work.
- Contract: Services are best sold using a contract. It should clearly itemize what the client is going to get, what you’re going to do and how/when you’re going to get paid. A contract is a legal protection for you and your client. It should equally protect both parties’ interests and be reviewed and signed before the project starts.
- Returns/Dissatisfaction: It’s going to happen at least once. A project will go horribly, horribly wrong or you’ll find yourself dealing with an impossible to please client. Make sure the non-refundable portions of your service were covered in your contract, and then have a policy in place for handling these situations. The key is to be reasonable. Be willing to work with the client, no matter how much you disagree with them. At the same time, don’t be afraid to stand your ground when necessary. Having clear policies and procedures in place will help you deal with these situations in stride, professionally and consistently.
Tip #4: Look & Feel the Part
The work-from-home scenario is practically advertised with pajamas. “Work from home,” they say. “You’ll never have to get dressed again!”
Seriously, what the fuck?
I for one have never worked from home in my birthday suit, underwear OR nightie. Have I stayed in sweatpants or increased my collection of yoga pants? Yes, and I’m not ashamed! But the whole working in your underwear picture that seems to go hand-in-hand with people’s perception of working from home is a load of bullshit.
How can you even pretend to be professional without feeling the part? While the suit doesn’t make the professional, it certainly helps boost confidence; it helps the wearer feel the part and that’s important.
Do sweatpants and yoga pants make me feel the part? You’re damn straight they do (!) because they’re a tasteful perk of working from my home while juggling my daily mom responsibilities. You read that right, daily mom responsibilities. I have three kids, and two of them are in diapers. Some days, the yoga pants take the brunt of the spit-up and applesauce instead of my dress slacks because I’m bouncing or feeding Thing 3 on my knee as I handle the administrative side of my business. There’s nothing wrong with this picture, and it actually increases my confidence as I successfully complete my agenda.
So if you’re doing this whole work from home thing, do yourself a favor and try looking the part. See what it does for your confidence. And this tip isn’t exclusive to wardrobe, hair, and makeup; it includes how you feel.
Try leaving the shadow of your roof to work from a local coffee shop, a table at the park or at some location other than home because that’s another perk of the work-at-home life! Two things happen when you work at public locations:
- You Get Out: I know, I know! At-home work is the perfect solution for introverts who despise public places, but you cannot use it to become a recluse! Okay, you can, but it’s bad. Really bad. Getting out is extremely good for your mental health, sanity and staying in-touch with reality.
- People Get Curious: Frequent the same coffee shop or park bench enough while looking all businessy and doing work and people get curious. They work up the courage to talk to you and ask what you do. This creates a powerful networking and marketing opportunity that you would otherwise miss out on. And if you’re in the introvert crowd, I promise these people are more afraid of you than you are of them. Pushing outside of your comfort zone can land you more business, and all the while, you’re the picture of something extremely important to potential customers: professionalism!
Tip #5: Plan Your Day
When I say plan your day, what I really mean is you need a plan A and a plan B (plan C is optional depending on your average luck).
Remember learning in the last tip that I’m a stay-at-home, work-from-home mom? I’m also a writer, which means by default the craziest and most bizarre things happen to me. That translates to having the worst luck in the world from three computers in a row going up on you to an unexpected hospitalization. I joke with people, but I’m also 100% serious when I say I should rent myself out as a bad luck charm for extra income. The one thing I’ve learned from all this is that if it can go horribly, terribly, epically wrong, it will. At least for me. As such, I have plans A – F ready to roll on any given day, and between you and me, plan F is to fuck it.
What I’m getting at is part of nurturing professionalism at home lies in planning your day. Remember the schedule you stuck to in the eight to five world? You still need that, but you can now plan and adjust it as needed. It’s a great responsibility because abusing this privilege can destroy not just your customers’ perception of your professionalism but your’s too. So as you plan your work day, consider the following:
- What tasks must be completed?
- Which tasks are priorities?
- How much can you comfortably accomplish today?
- What will give you bonus points for the day?
- If something crazy happens, what’s the backup plan?
- When’s lunch? (As Kelly McCausey says, “Never underestimate the gravitational pull of the fridge…”)
Bottom line, your work day needs structure. In the interest of minimizing distractions, it needs a schedule. Otherwise, how can you possibly hope to provide a service or deliver a product professionally?
Never Underestimate Professionalism
It’s the little things. People really do appreciate them.
Competence, expertise, respectability, reliability, and willingness. If you focus on developing these five qualities, you’ll be well on your way to establishing and maintaining professionalism.
Remember, customers are people. It’s easy to fall into the funk of thinking only about making money, and that takes the humanity out of your business. Focus on being human, even when it means falling flat on your face. Own being you because you are awesome, and you’ll be an even more awesome work-from-home pro when you apply these five tips for professionalism.