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Making Work Space Separate and Distinct

September 24, 1997

When you work from a home-based business, the sanctity of your home can be invaded by phone calls, mail, paperwork, noisy equipment and business visitors.

Likewise, friends, neighbors, kids, barking dogs and soap operas can disrupt the productivity of your business.

A peaceful marriage of home and office depends on creating boundaries that preserve the character of each.

There are many tools and techniques you can use to set boundaries between your home and your work. Walls, doors, windows, lighting, furniture and clothing are all material means you can use. Where you locate your office, how you set up your work schedule and your household rules are other tools at your disposal.

Financial consultant George Gaines separates work and home by a single door. He lives alone and detests housework.

"My kitchen may be stacked with dishes and the bedroom a shambles, but that's OK," Gaines says. "That's 'my' space. I keep it any way I want. On the other side of the living-room door, it's a different world. It's always neat as a pin because that's where I meet with my clients. That's my office."

Programmer William Keen keeps work in bounds with a basement telephone.

"I could work in the middle of a tornado. Nothing bothers me. I just tune it all out," Keen says. "Actually, I work best if two or three things are going on at a time. But if my boss or a business contact calls, they don't think so highly of the stereo blaring or the kids yelling in the background, so I have a little office in the basement for my business phone."

Joan Cullen defines the boundaries between her work and home with a bedsheet. As an editor who works several days a week at home, she keeps her office on the dining-room table, which she covers with a king-size sheet. The table is piled with manuscripts in various stages of editing. When she's ready to claim her apartment for herself again, she stacks all her materials in the center of the table, carefully marking off each project with a rubber band or colored paper, folds and ties the four corners of the sheet over the pile and puts her whole "office" into a closet.

These solutions illustrate how personal and simple it can be to establish boundaries. Whether you prefer the peace and harmony of a monastic retreat, the intensity and excitement of a political campaign office or something in between, the essential task is to set boundaries that will keep both your household and your work space the way you want them.

Here are some ideas for separating your home and office:

* Clearly differentiate your work space from the rest of the house.

If you can't devote a room to your office, use a bookcase, screen or room divider to set off your work space so it's clear where home stops and office begins.

* Set definite work hours.

Let everyone know precisely when you'll be available for business and when for personal activities. Having a regular schedule will help make sure you're devoting enough time to both your professional and personal lives.

* Have a signal indicating when you do not want to be disturbed.

Closing the office door or posting a "Do not disturb" sign are two simple measures you can take.

* Learn how to say, "No, I'm working now."

Firmly but politely stick to it. Be equally firm closing the door on work to allow ample time for your private life. A good rule of thumb is to arrange your schedule so that your morning, afternoon or evening is free.

* Use technology.

A separate business telephone line with voicemail, an answering machine or answering service will let you screen calls or take messages when you're not available.

* Soundproof your office.

A solid-core door and other materials, such as drapes, double-pane windows, carpeting or fabric wall coverings, will reduce noise. Such soundproofing can keep household sounds from disrupting your work and office noise from disturbing your home.

* Dress in a particular way when you're at work.

You needn't resort to jackets and ties or high heels and hose, but casual work attire can help you and others know it's time to get down to business.

* Organize your office.

Keep work materials, paper and equipment in clearly defined office spaces. Adding ample bookshelves and filing cabinets to your office can keep your work from creeping into and taking over your home.

* Have a separate, outside office entrance.

A business entrance keeps home and office separate, but for the ultimate in privacy, locate your office in a converted portion of a garage, guest house, walk-in basement or detached structure.


Paul and Sarah Edwards are home-based business experts in Santa Monica. They write a syndicated column and are the authors of eight books on self-employment.

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