Four walls: The great divide

Four walls: The great divide - Twenty years ago, the personal computer was being trumpeted as the crack of doom for the office block. Soon, we'd all be working from home.

by RORY ROSS, a freelance journalist and property owner
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Twenty years ago, the personal computer was being trumpeted as the crack of doom for the office block. Soon, we'd all be working from home.

That hasn't happened, but many of us fantasise about clearing out the spare bedroom and putting it to some sort of business use. The motives for working at home have never been so many: heavier workloads in different time zones, teleworking, central-office downsizing, the cult of the small business, advances in IT, childcare considerations, disability, illness, the drudgery of commuting or a desire to go it alone.

According to the Henley Centre, 9% of the British workforce toils at home all the time, 30% some of the time, while 46% of British professionals keep some sort of office or work area at home. Yet most homes are designed for relaxation, not work. So where do you draw the line between workspace and homespace?

Working at home by choice, you're disciplined and motivated enough to hack the isolation and lack of photocopier socialising, and thrilled to be rid of the office politicking and body language. Working at home, you imagine, is a more efficient and productive use of time than slaving in an open-plan sweatshop.

And so it often is, but unforeseen problems arise that have nothing to do with how brilliantly your designer has crammed a lifetime's corporate impedimenta into what was the shower cabinet, and everything to do with the problems of keeping domestic and professional environments apart.

For, unless the Berlin Wall runs between them, your business, far from growing to become a Harvard Business School case study, will end up as An Underachiever's Guide to Small Business Opportunities.

For a thrusting entrepreneur, getting the workspace/ homespace divide wrong can be crippling. Take Chris, an Insead and McKinsey high-flyer turned entrepreneur. He runs a 'virtual' company managing and analysing corporate data based in Bangkok; his wife and three children live in a house folded in deepest Hampshire. To replicate his Bangkok office in Hampshire, he cleared out the spare room, which afforded just enough space for the computers, printers, faxes, gizmos, gadgets and ISDN lines needed to catch the stock-market action real-time from Bangkok.

'It's barely adequate,' he says. 'With all that equipment going, the atmosphere is like the boiler room of a ship. The children are forever barging in, borrowing paper from the printer and playing in the corridor.

The only work I can do is 'maintenance': responding to calls, monitoring markets, replying to e-mails, paying bills and generally keeping up. What I can't do is the quality thinking needed to push the business forward.

Solving gristly problems can take days and requires real separation. If you step outside your room to a barrage of domesticity, your train of thought goes.'

This is the first rule of workspace vs homespace: seal your workspace hermetically, or you'll never have the peace you need to concentrate, and you'll risk having your children using you as a climbing frame just as important clients ring from the States.

Space is vital: you're going to be spending more time in this part of the house than in any other, so it's no use working in a cave or cubby-hole. Thoughts need room to breathe and move about, and so do you. 'CEOs are often criticised for having big spacious offices,' says Chris, harking back to his days being a consultant at McKinsey, 'but in order to sustain hard creative work, you need space. You need to let your brain feel the breeze.'

That's the second rule of workspace: think big or not at all; and if your home lacks space, make sure your office has a view, the more distant the better. Focusing on the horizon relaxes the mind. The time-honoured catch-all solution to the problems of working at home is the potting shed at the bottom of the garden, begetter of great discoveries, inventions and masterpieces. Unfortunately, turning it into a state-of-the-art communications hub-cum-nerve centre may need planning permission.

Space and relief from domestic emergencies are just as important as technology and efficient office layout when dividing workspace from homespace. Raising your game from paper-shifting and envelope-stuffing to marshalling complex thoughts requires ... Oops, must dash, I've got to bring in the shopping, change a nappy and replace three lightbulbs.

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