Want to Work From Home? Maybe You Can
For anyone who wants to work flexible hours from a home office, two resources are worth checking out.
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

Friends, the single most-asked question I've received from you over the past several years is this one: How can I find a job that will let me work at home right from the start, without having to put in years of "face time" at an office? It's not easy since, as many of you have found out the hard way, there are lots of work-at-home scams out there. But don't give up yet: Two resources for telecommuter wannabes recently have come to my attention that don't hold out the pie-in-the-sky promises that some sketchy outfits do. Neither of them advertises; instead they rely on word-of-mouth recommendations and referrals, so this may be the only place you'll hear about them. For anyone who wants to work flexible hours from a home office (including, say, a college dorm room), they're definitely worth checking out.

We're all well aware that U.S. companies are shipping lots of call-center jobs overseas, but for the past couple of years, an outfit called LiveOps has been keeping some of those jobs here -- and farming them out to at-home workers. LiveOps acts as a middleman, using proprietary routing technology to intercept consumers' 800-number calls and direct them to independent contractors called agents. (The Red Cross hotline 1-800-LOVED1S that connected family members separated by Hurricane Katrina was manned by LiveOps agents.) Paid on a per-call basis, these folks can earn anywhere from $8 to $20 an hour, depending on the level of skill required by the calls and the volume of calls the agent gets. LiveOps now has nearly 6,000 at-home agents across the U.S. About 80% are women; 63% have some college education; and 54% have young children at home.

Take, for example, Kim Conner, age 30, a LiveOps agent in Chicago who's been doing this since May. A former high-school chemistry teacher, Conner has two tots and is expecting another child. She usually works about 20 hours a week -- often in the wee hours from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., before her kids wake up -- and she loves it. "We get to choose our own hours, as many or as few as we like, so the flexibility is great," Conner says. "I also like the fact that we're not telemarketers. We don't call people, they call us."

To qualify as a LiveOps agent, candidates must pass a series of tests aimed at gauging how adept they'd be at fielding callers' questions and dealing with complaints. "There is also a voice test, where we have you read a script. It helps to be a 'people person,' " says LiveOps CEO Bill Trenchard. "And it's great if you have some customer-service or sales experience, although not having that won't disqualify you." Another requirement: Applicants must have a broadband Internet connection and a separate phone line at home earmarked for work only. (You'll have to pay for your broadband service and your separate phone line, but as an independent contractor, you can file a Schedule C form (for business expenses) with the IRS and write those costs off your taxes.) Think you'd like to apply to be a LiveOps agent? Go to the LiveOps site and click on "Be an Agent".

For other customer-service jobs, plus a whole lot more, consider Teleworkrecruiting.com . This website could hook you up with work-at-home jobs in any of 34 different fields, from advertising to paralegal work to writing and editing. The site's job boards list both specific openings and links to companies -- including some big-name employers -- that frequently hire telecommuters. The category "Human Resources," for instance, a few days ago listed 20 jobs and links to 33 employers. There is a one-time (not annual) membership fee of $59.95 (although you can sign up for a free e-newsletter without joining) and the site features member forums where telecommuters gather to trade tips. Teleworkrecruiting president Pamela LaGioia says she started this because "I wanted to work from home and wasted some money on stay-at-home scams. So I started doing research and, slowly but surely, found about 700 employers who are really interested in hiring telecommuters." Today, more than 1,400 employers use the site. She checks out every company that comes to the site seeking talent to make sure that their job offers are as advertised.

Still, there are caveats. LaGioia is the first to say that working from home offers tremendous flexibility and other perks, but she advises people to be realistic. "Companies don't sign on to our site to hire telecommuters because they want to be nice. They're doing it to save money," she notes. "So the vast majority of the jobs are [IRS form] 1099, independent-contractor jobs that offer no benefits." Those positions may also pay a lower hourly rate than comparable on-site jobs, in part because "employers know your overhead is lower. You're spending far less on gas, tolls, clothing, and all those other incidentals that really add up when you have to go to an office."

Moreover, she says, "the turnover rate among at-home workers is pretty high, because so many people think it will be easy money, and then they quit when they find out it isn't." For one thing, LaGioia -- who herself has 3 children under age 10 -- says that day care is a must, just as it would be if you were leaving the house to go to work. "Whatever type of telecommuting job you get," she says, "it's going to demand a high level of professionalism and focus. It's not realistic to think you can do it with a baby on your knee." Noted.

One further thought, from yours truly (I've been working from home since mid-2000): If you're an extroverted type who craves constant human contact, including lots of informal give-and-take with colleagues, working at home alone may drive you batty. Apart from that, it's great. I figure that, since I moved to the woods from Manhattan, I've saved a fortune on dry-cleaning bills alone.


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