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Bring Your Work Home With You

* When your office is in your house, it's important to pick the room that accommodates your job's particular needs.

Lorrie Mack, "Calm Working Spaces" $35, HarperResource books, 2000

October 28, 2000|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gayle Barash is just starting her home business--selling personalized crafts over the Web--and frets all the time. The biggest worry is whether she'll actually make money, but anxiety rises whenever Barash looks around her small Santa Ana apartment.

Where to set up the office?

"It's going to be tight, I know that," Barash sighed as she considered her one-bedroom home. "The [largest area] is the living room, so I'll probably have to work there. I want it to be nice, do the job [and] not be crowded when I have friends over."

Lorrie Mack, the author of the just-released "Calm Working Spaces" ($35, HarperResource books, 2000), thinks Barash is on the right track. Mack's book, which gives advice on creating a harmonious and productive office without ruining the feel of the home, believes the living room may be the best option if space is limited, especially if you live alone, as Barash does.

"Not only is there space available, there is likely to be convenient sharing of facilities such as telephone and bookshelves between your work and personal life," Mack writes. "A dining table can double up as an extra desk or meeting area . . . and a sofa and chairs near the nerve center are ideal for informal discussions with clients or colleagues."

However, if you have a family--especially a few kids--or live with housemates, you'll probably need to look elsewhere. Think the bedroom or even the kitchen, which is appropriate if it's large enough, has a decent-size table to work on and is "empty and quiet for a good part of the day."

Mack points out that more people are opting for residential offices, with 3 million Americans working at home. They range from professional freelancers to retirees and housewives trying to augment incomes.

"I was a salesperson [in an art-supplies shop] but got tired of that," Barash said. "I had friends who started to set up businesses and finally decided to take the chance. It's a gamble, so you have to do everything right."

Mack prefers an L-shaped living room because that's "the ideal arrangement for accommodating [the] two permanent functions" of work and relaxation.

Barash's space, however, is rectangular, so Mack suggests putting the desk, computer and other materials in a corner and possibly getting a folding screen to block it off when guests are over.

Eric Coleman has more options than Barash. His Seal Beach home has a spare room that he's already filled with the drawing table and supplies he needs to finish architectural projects on weekends. Although Coleman is reasonably satisfied with the space, he wondered if it could be improved.

"It's not a big room but it's still a room so that's cool," Coleman said. "Sometimes it feels too jammed and I wouldn't mind making it better. It's a little random [and] careless right now."

The first step, Mack said, is not to dismiss the home office as merely a place "associated with responsibility and toil rather than pleasure and relaxation." If you see it "as a dumping ground for surplus furniture and equipment," she continued, it could turn into a "gloomy corner," hardly a spot that inspires creativity or productivity.

Take time to decorate, with an eye toward functionality and personal style. Ensure that lighting and storage space are adequate. The choices don't have to cost much ("You certainly don't need a proper desk--a sturdy table, as long as it suits both you and your tasks, will do perfectly well," she said), but should at least be appealing, considering how much time may be spent there.

Experiment with color and design elements. Even bring in flowers and bold paintings or prints--whatever it takes to make an inviting environment, Mack writes.

"I can't say mine is comfortable or special-looking," Coleman conceded. "Basically, I want to get in and out as fast as I can. I suppose I wouldn't mind" changing that feeling, he said.

To get started, Mack suggests evaluating the basic floor plan:

* Allow at least 3 feet between your task chair, wall or another piece of furniture so you can get in and out and lean back easily. Also, allow at least 3 feet in front of a filing cabinet.

* To navigate between furniture and walls, make sure you have a corridor of at least 2 feet.

* If you sit directly facing a wall, you won't be able to reach anything that is pinned or hung on it if the desk is more than 30 inches deep.

"Ignoring these guidelines, however strong the temptation, will increase significantly your risk of minor mishaps such as bruising your knee when you stand up suddenly," Mack writes.

Then, turn to safety:

* Make sure there are enough light sockets for all the equipment required to run a modern office. "A spaghetti of wires and extension cords," Mack notes, are highly dangerous.

Also, provide plenty of ventilation and keep equipment out of direct sunlight and heating sources if possible. A smoke alarm near your office appliances is a good addition.

* If your space is very small, try to avoid furniture with sharp corners. If children have access to the area, be especially wary. You can buy safety covers for desk corners and other trouble spots.

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