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Home Work : As Home Offices Increase, Workers Overcome Obstacles of Transforming Living Space to State-of-the-Art Business

August 01, 1993|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Foster is a Los Angeles free - lance writer.

The home office, once considered a haven for those unworthy of rigorous corporate life, is on the cusp of its own Golden Age.

Nearly one-third of America's work force earns extra or full-time income out of spare bedrooms, attics, converted garages and kitchens. A lengthy recession that yet lingers in Southern California has helped spur the trend toward home businesses, telecommuting, moonlighting and employees who take home unfinished work.

"Working at home has progressed from a stigmatized activity to one where home workers are regarded as essential, dependable members of the corporate world," said Thomas E. Miller, vice president of New York-based Link Resources, a research and consulting firm. "People have always had to juggle home and life at the office. Home-based work makes that easier. It's about working smarter, not harder."

New technology, a rise in dual-income households and baby-boom demographics have helped the numbers of home workers increase at an annual rate of 10% since 1988, according to Link Resources, which conducts an annual work-at-home survey.

Most entrepreneurs launch businesses in their late 30s and early 40s, after they've accumulated up to 10 years of work experience. "And the median age of baby boomers is now 37," Miller said. "They've reached the age where they're motivated to work on their own. Surveys show that at least 55% of those who start businesses will do so from homes."

The risks of staying home can be steep. Many novices are sandbagged the first year out by the dreaded self-employment tax, a 15.2% federal tax that feeds the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Others have ill-suited temperaments that can't resist the lure of refrigerators, weather the isolation of spare bedrooms or endure the loss of an Avenue of the Stars suite and its attendant professional identity.

Hurdling such obstacles, however, produces more time with family members, one-minute commutes and the freedom to chart an independent career as distinctive as one's own thumbprint.

Consider Cheryl Poindexter of Poindexter Design, a graphic design firm launched 25 years ago in a spare bedroom. Six years ago Poindexter's business reached an apex--14 employees toiled in style at a 5,000-square-foot Poindexter-owned Hollywood building. Sensing an industry shift toward down-scaling projects, Poindexter slashed her overhead last year and moved into even roomier quarters--her new 6,000-square-foot Studio City home.

A self-described workaholic, Poindexter has transformed her three-level home into a humming network of offices packed with a small fortune in state-of-the-art business equipment. "At one time it was important to have a presence on Sunset Boulevard," Poindexter said. "Now no one cares where you work as long as you produce superior quality."

Poindexter heeded the first rule of home-based businesses: Keep work spaces professional, especially those areas that clients are likely to visit. For Poindexter, this meant banishing personal effects from her entire home, except for a kitchen and living suite she shutters off with room dividers.

At first glance, her rooms, with soaring ceilings and expansive views of the San Fernando Valley, seem normal. Closer examination reveals that the stunning artwork on walls is really Poindexter-produced advertising campaigns for Capitol Records, CBS Television and MGM/UA, among others. What appear to be whimsical art boxes in recessed shelves are seasonal packaging designed for See's Candies. China cabinet drawers are lined not with silverware, but paper and graphic design samples.

Visiting clients, who pass through a dining room that doubles as a conference room, are ushered into a living room dominated by a 60-inch Mitsubishi rear screen television replete with printer that copies images for clients preparing film and video promotions.

While Poindexter's concern was sealing off living spaces from clients, most home workers need to seal off work spaces from distractions. Attics, basements or an entire level in a split-level home make ideal offices because of their contained space. Converted spare bedrooms or dens should have doors to ensure privacy.

Part-time home workers often employ movable, hidden or convertible work spaces, such as roll-top desks, closets with bi-fold doors, rolling carts, alcoves or even niches beneath stairs.

Poindexter removed the doors from her walk-in closets, creating easy access to hundreds of reference books and stacks of project files. She also uses a refurbished garage attic space to hold acres of paper samples, tax records and large job folders.

"It's extremely important to set up both physical and mental boundaries," said Bernadette Grey, editor of Home Office Computing Magazine. "Mental boundaries are the hours you set and the ability to confine work to your office and not have it spill over into living areas."

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