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Illustration by Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette
Working from home?

Keep professional standards

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Michelle Merritt, a freelance writer and the director of organizational change for Tandem/Neal Associates, works from Downtown Grind on Tuesday morning.

When Michelle Merritt started to work from home in November, she knew she needed to set some ground rules for herself – otherwise, wouldn’t it be easy to turn into what she calls a “ponytail princess,” going in to work with uncombed hair thrown in a ponytail, wearing yoga pants and an oversized sweatshirt?

Merritt of Fort Wayne is a freelance writer and the director of organizational change for Tandem/Neal Associates, recruiting firm in Indianapolis.

Before November, she was the vice president of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce, a job that permitted her to work from home when necessary – but it was a job with an office and co-workers.

When the opportunity to work from home for Tandem/Neal presented itself, she says, she had to think hard about if and how she could handle working from a home office. She has a number of tips and suggestions for anyone looking to give up the 9-to-5 in a cubicle – or for those who have already given it up but are having trouble making it work.

•Keep organized, whether you have a dedicated office or work from a dining room table. She kept an organized desk at the Chamber, and she keeps her home office, which she shares with her husband, organized, too. “I get to decorate it the way I want to decorate it,” she says. “I can light candles and crunch on peanuts all day if I want.”

•Keep a schedule. Merritt’s mornings have not changed since her job transition. Hers is a one-car household, so after she wakes up, gets dressed, puts on makeup and has breakfast with her husband, she drops him off at work. After stopping for a cup of coffee, by 8:30 a.m., she’s back at home, at her job. Around 4:30 p.m., she picks up her husband.

•Don’t be a “ponytail princess.” Not to say Merritt puts on a suit every day, but if someone were to schedule an impromptu meeting in 25 minutes, she would be presentable. Should she have a meeting on FaceTime or Skype, she wouldn’t have to hurry to comb the bed knots out of her hair.

•Set boundaries. It could be easy to adopt a 5 a.m.-to-11 p.m. workday, but Merritt is clear that she puts her home life ahead of her work life. Sure, she’s taken the 8 p.m. business call, but if anything, Merritt has found that she works fewer hours from home than she did in a traditional office. “Ironically, I think I get more work done,” she says, as a home office doesn’t have near the distractions of a traditional office.

Similarly, don’t take non-work meetings during work hours. Mom needs to know she can’t call to chitchat at 10 a.m. The cookies for that nonprofit will get baked, but not on work time.

•Be sure to schedule time to see people. “I do like (working from home). Nine days out of 10, it’s great. It can be a little isolating from time to time,” she says. For example, her grandfather recently died. From the time between his death and getting to visit family in Illinois, Merritt worked from home. Had she been in an office environment, she would have been surrounded by co-workers and been swept up in the work, she says. But working from home, alone, she had too much solo time to stew in her thoughts.

If she doesn’t see anyone by Thursday, Merritt says, she will start to go a little stir-crazy.

“If I don’t get out of the house from time to time, that’s a real problem,” she says. Sometimes, she will work at a local coffee shop to get some human contact. Her travel office includes a wireless Bluetooth keyboard, her iPad and her iPhone. Merritt schedules out-of-the-office meetings on Fridays.

•Control your inner control freak. Since starting to work from home, Merritt’s house is cleaner, she says – she’s more respectful of keeping it clean. But she has to let things go. Merritt shares a computer with her husband. If the profile is not turned back to Merritt’s, it’s not the end of the world, she says. If a coffee cup is left out in the kitchen, it’s OK.

•Respect your new position. “This is not the norm yet in our country,” she says. “This is a luxury. You’re not entitled to work from home.”