Home office is the work reality for many CPA consultants and tax preparers. It beckons with the promise of an easy commute, and the comfort of working in your pajamas. It provides the flexibility of working when you want to. It can also save thousands of dollars that would otherwise be spent on rent. What’s not to love? Well, as tax preparer Joyce Linzy has learned the hard way, a home office can also be a liability.

To recap the Tax Court decision in Linzy vs. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2013-219, Joyce Linzy felt harassed by client visits and calls at her home office, rented a hotel room to get away during the busy season, and attempted to deduct the cost of the hotel and travel as a business expense. The Court ruled against Linzy.

As I read the case and the decision, a question formed in my mind: “How does one end up in this situation?”  Your home is your castle. How does your home office become a place to run away from? Here are three ideas to get you started on your way to a home office nightmare, guaranteed and fast!

  1. Let your clients know that it is OK to stop by any time. No one will want to work with you unless you make yourself available 24/7. Besides, nothing is better for a professional image than a face to face meeting with your CPA making breakfast while wearing the above-mentioned pajamas!
  2. Set up a shared phone line for your home and office. This step works even better if you don’t have caller ID, and are in the habit of answering every phone call when it comes in.
  3. Encourage family and friends to interrupt your work any time for any reason. An office without a door works best for this; however, you can accomplish the same goal by consistently accepting interruptions, door notwithstanding.

Jokes aside, no one I know has ever announced to their client roster that dropping by the house at 11 PM with a shoebox of receipts is perfectly acceptable. In reality, the sacred boundary of your home office is more likely to erode in small patches. Driven by a sincere desire to help the clients and to provide the best customer service possible, you might make an exception here and there. Trouble is, the other party frequently walks away thinking that the exception is the normal way of doing business with you.

Many professionals working from home have become very adept at appearing to be patient while hating every minute of it. While no one starts their home office adventure by declaring it a free-for-all zone, few take the formal step of thinking through the things they are willing to tolerate – or not – while working. I have found the list below to be a helpful start, whether you are considering setting up a home work space, working in one, or even working in a conventional office arrangement.

1. What are the hours when you are available and open for business?

Choose the hours when you are most productive and able to focus on work. Setting up a phone call with a client at 7 AM or 8 PM may seem like a good idea in a pinch – until it sets an availability precedent that can be difficult to reverse.  Outrageous requests are easy to keep at bay; it is the requests on the fringe of reasonable that erode the boundary.

2. What is your policy on weekend or after-hour availability?

Will you make yourself available, cheerfully and without a grudge, to clients on weekends or after hours? Will it be a one-time arrangement, or an ongoing one? How will your clients know the difference?

3. How will you deal with the inevitable interruptions?

Whether it is your child cruising in with the latest drawing, your pet barking while you are on a conference call, a friend stopping by to invite you out for lunch, or a client dropping by unannounced, it helps to have a plan. You are more likely to handle the interruption firmly, gently, and with grace if you are prepared.

4. What exemplifies an emergency that requires your immediate and personal attention during your work hours?

Certain situations require an immediate and personal response: an injury to your child, a gas leak, a fire alarm. Be clear on what warrants an interruption, and help those around you get the same clarity.

5. What is your approach to office organization and order?

If you expect clients to visit your home office, how will you keep it professional and presentable? Who is allowed to clean your office?

I encourage you to think through those questions, and come up with your own. The answers will form the base for your rule book. No matter how good your rule book is, the only rules that matter are the ones that are communicated and enforced. Make sure that your clients understand your general policies – putting them in a client agreement, or creating a client handbook, is a great start. While creating a written contract with your friends and loved ones may not be practical, be sure that everyone is clear on the rules. Above all else, be prepared to defend your boundary from all trespassers – gently, firmly, and consistently.

Setting boundaries can be a scary proposition. It can feel as though you are putting up walls, digging a moat, and setting up guns along the perimeter. However, it is possible to establish home office boundaries gracefully; as any skill, this one is mastered with patient practice. It helps to remember that boundaries are not selfish. They can help you create a space to deliver a valuable service, grow your practice, and support yourself and your loved ones.

So, what is your favorite home office trespassing story?