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Stay-at-home workers don't have to be isolated

About a year ago, Mark Pierson started a consulting firm from his kitchen table after being laid off from his job at an engineering firm. He had envisioned stress-free days with no commute and no interruptions. A few months at home changed his mind.

"I felt so disconnected from the real world," he said.

Clearly, more American workers are confronting the transition. National studies indicate that the ranks of the self-employed have increased during the economic downturn, with most one-man shops setting up from home. At the same time, U.S. Census data show an increasing number of companies are permitting workers to set up offices at home -- 61 percent more employees considered home their primary place of work in 2009 than in 2005.

Beyond those making an initial transition, workers at home for years find themselves struggling to stay motivated during the economic slump.

Here are a few ways to stay at the top of your game when you work from home:

*Establish a structure: Lorna Owens, a Miami life coach, author and motivational speaker, will tell you that nothing reinforces feelings of isolation as much as time that stretches endlessly in front of you.

Owens works from home and suggests structuring your time by starting the day productively with a to-do list. She also recommends going into your home office with purpose, dressing nicely and having set work hours. "Without structure, your brain wonders aimlessly," she said.

*Find a mentor: To keep motivated, Owens turns to a mentor to bounce ideas or come up with new strategies. Having a mentor gives you a virtual office feel, like a co-worker who is only a phone call away, she said. Even more, when you feel isolated or in a slump, there's someone who can help you overcome it.

A mentor doesn't have to come from your same discipline, she said. "Look for someone who works from home and is successful." Periodically, she said, consider adding a new mentor.

*Network: Laurel Touby grew up in Miami and dreamed of becoming a writer. She imagined spending her days in a big New York loft, hobnobbing with the elite. But she soon discovered freelancing was a difficult and lonely job.
In 1994, Touby and a friend started throwing parties to meet other media members and combat the feeling of isolation. It turned out to be a brilliant move. She wound up building her parties into MediaBistro.com, a job-posting and community website for media types. She sold the site in 2007 for $23 million.

Today, Touby still believes that anyone who works from home should participate in meet-ups or join a professional association. "It is the best way to feel more connected," she said.

*Use the Internet: With Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter, Skype and the rest of the volumes of communication tools, people running home-based businesses can be plugged into a 2 4/7 stream of connectivity with others around the world. These social media sites can act as virtual water coolers during the day.

Robin Ramkissoon works from home doing IT support and computer consulting. The arrangement gives him more time with his wife, who works an erratic schedule as a veterinarian.

On a given work day, Ramkissoon might talk to 60 people by phone who need computer help, which he says helps him feel connected. But he still turns to online social media sites, where he keeps up with friends and can even see them face-to-face through videoconferencing.

"Occasionally, I'll talk to old friends and get a pang for the office I'll miss the people walking by to talk or asking if I want Cuban coffee, but I can still stay in touch in other ways."

*Get out of the house: Don't wait for an invitation to get out from behind your desk. Take the initiative and organize functions that bring you together with potential clients, former colleagues or existing customers. They could be business-oriented networking sessions, weekly lunches or purely social get-togethers. Either way, you are forging relationships with people just as you did when you were working in a corporate office, but now you are taking the initiative.

When Karina Matyisin, a Weston, Fla., mother of four, started from home as a sales associate at Prepaid Legal Services, she knew she needed to leave home on occasion to meet people and build trust.

She began taking leadership positions at community organizations such as Weston Business Council and hosting events. She narrowed her involvement to those groups that best fit her schedule. "Staying home and feeling isolated is not how you get business."

Now, she said, people see her as someone with a valuable database: "They ask to meet with me to see how we can help each other."

What home-based workers like Pierson are discovering is the temporary feeling of isolation can be overcome: Just because you work alone, doesn't mean you have to go it alone.