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Equipping a home-office

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Sunday Business, 1999

It's easy to become a teleworker, using your telephone line and PC to give up on the chore of commuting and replace it instead with some electronic telecommuting from home. It's not necessarily so easy, however, to get the home working environment right.

"People just start working from home from the edge of their kitchen table, and don't necessarily give it any more thought," says Jeremy Myerson, director of the RCA's Helen Hamlyn Research Centre which has recently launched a Work At Home design project. "But you need a strategy for office space, a strategy for storage and a strategy for lighting. The solutions don't have to be expensive or high-tech."

As he implies, there are a number of connected problems associated with sorting out the home office. Space is generally more limited at home than in conventional offices, and areas used for work may also have to double up for personal domestic use, too. This means that large office contract furniture, or standard business items like metal filing cabinets, will almost certainly look inappropriate. On the other hand, domestic furniture (especially chairs and desks) are usually not designed for intensive work use.

According to Ian Fletcher-Price of Posturite, a company specialising in ergonomic solutions for offices, the chair is the first thing to get right. "People who sit at a dining table or kitchen table with an ordinary four- legged chair are immediately at a disadvantage in terms of their posture," he says. Far from encouraging the recommended tilting forward of the spine at the small of the back, ordinary chairs encourage an upright or backward spine position. "I would say, don't be afraid to put an office chair into the home environment. And don't sit forward at the front of the chair - your back should always be in contact with the chair back," he says. "Remember also that what differentiates a good chair from a bad one is the range of adjustments which are possible."

Ian Fletcher-Price's advice comes from first-hand experience. He set up Posturite after he himself faced painful back problems which he attributes to poor posture at work. Not surprisingly, he is also concerned that home workers organise their PC workstation correctly. This means putting the PC directly ahead rather than to one side, and making sure that the top of the screen is roughly at eye level.

Home desks or tables can sometimes be too shallow for PC use. "Hold out your arm in front of you as if you were stopping traffic. As a rough rule of thumb, that's where the computer screen should be," Ian Fletcher-Price says.

A trip to a mass-market furniture shop may be adequate for getting started. Ikea, for example, suggests that the basics of a home office can be equipped for about 600.

However, major office furniture suppliers have also started developing products for the home office, with an emphasis on compact workstations and storage areas which pack away at the day's end out of sight. German manufacturer Grahl, for example, has produced a range of options for its Home-Office unit, what it calls 'an office in a cupboard', at a typical cost of between 1000-2000. Another firm, Senator International, has developed the Tardis unit, a spacious computer workstation at about 600-1300 which can be entirely closed off out of hours with a pull- down wooden shutter. Rather cheaper is the office-in-a-wardrobe design from a French company Gautier, available at around 200.

Large corporate companies developing home-working programmes may want to go for a bespoke solution. The AA, for example, called in Swedish business furniture company Kinnarps to design a lockable workstation for it, when it started use home-based workers to take emergency breakdown calls last year. Lockable units are important not only to separate work life from home life, but also for security reasons.

"You've got to create some borders," says Jeremy Myerson. He adds that research carried out for his Work at Home project suggests that home-based workers vary to the extent they are able to separate work from domestic life, with the borders being psychological and temporal as well as physical. Myerson distinguishes between four different types of home-working, including the contained model (where work is almost entirely separate from home life) and the permeable (where the two merge to an extent). The other two models are the ones to avoid, he says: "The overflowing model is where work completely dominates the home, and the opposite, what we've called the imploding model, where home concerns crush work."

Somebody who is familiar with the sort of questions which first-time homeworkers often raise is Alan Denbigh, executive director of the TCA (the national telework and telecentre association, formerly called the Telecottage Association). Alan Denbigh has the advantage of practising what he preaches, working as he does from an office in a large wooden chalet in the garden of his house in Gloucestershire. Apart from the obvious importance of getting the furniture right, his own tip is to invest in a telephone headset: "Sticking a phone under your neck for long periods is going to exacerbate any problems you have," he says.

More detail on how to equip the home-office is included in the TCA's Teleworking Handbook (19.95, or free to members), which also looks at the legal and technical issues which can arise from making your home your workplace. Another source of good basic advice on the legalities (including the circumstances where you might need to apply for planning permission, or find yourself liable to business rates at home) is the DTI's recent booklet 'Working Anywhere'. This is available free from the government's Information Society Initiative, on 0345 152000.



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