From the June 2001 issue of Startups

Q: My homebased business is growing, both financially and physically. I stock an inventory, and despite computers, I have paper files. I'm finding that even space-saving office equipment takes up space. I need to expand from using one bedroom in my six-room house to using two rooms. But I'm concerned about disrupting my family life. Any suggestions?

A: There may be legal as well as practical answers to this question. A significant number of communities have zoning ordinances limiting the percentage of a home's floor space that can be devoted to a home business. One state, Maryland, has even codified a limit into state law. The typical limitation is 20 to 25 percent of the floor area of a dwelling. Do you need to worry if your home office grows to occupying 28 percent of your home? Probably not, unless you live in a community that sends out inspectors each year to check out home businesses for their zoning compliance-or if you have an unhappy neighbor, whose complaint might provoke an inspection.

But will the phone calls, business visitors, mail, paperwork and noisy equipment that come with a growing business invade the sanctity of your home? Or will the productivity of your business be increasingly disrupted by friends, neighbors, kids, barking dogs, soap operas and peanut butter sandwiches?

These are important questions if you want either or both your office and your home to have the peace and harmony of a retreat vs. the intensity and excitement of a telethon. A peaceful marriage of home and office depends on creating boundaries that preserve the character of each. Here are some ideas on how to do that:

1. Clearly differentiate your work space from the rest of the house. Try to use rooms in only one wing or part of your home. If you can't devote all of a room to your office, use a partition, bookcase, screen or room divider to set off your work space so it's clear where the home stops and the office begins.

2. Set definite work hours, and let everyone know precisely when you'll be available for business and when for personal activities. Your hours need not be 8 to 5, but having a regular schedule will help make sure you're devoting enough time to both your professional and personal life.

3. Have a signal that makes it clear when you do not want to be disturbed, i.e., having your office door closed or posting a "Do Not Disturb" sign.

4. Learn how to say, "No, I'm working now" firmly, but politely, and stick to it so everyone knows you mean what you say. Be equally willing to close the door on work to allow ample time for your private life. A good rule of thumb is to arrange your schedule so that either your morning, afternoon or evening is free.

5. Use a separate business phone line and have voice mail, an answering machine or answering service so you screen your calls or take messages when you're not available.

6. Soundproof your office by using solid-core doors and other materials that reduce noise, such as drapes, double-pane windows, carpeting or fabric wall coverings. Such soundproofing can keep household sounds from disrupting your work and office noise from disturbing your family.

7. Organize your office so you can keep work materials, paper and equipment in clearly defined office spaces. Having sufficient bookshelves and filing cabinets for your office items can keep your work from creeping into and taking over your home.

8. Have a separate outside office entrance, or for the ultimate in privacy, locate your office in a converted portion of a garage, guest house, walk-in basement or separate detached structure.

As these solutions illustrate, establishing boundaries in your home is fairly simple. You owe it to your home-and all the people in it-to incorporate them into your homebased business.


Paul and Sarah Edwards' most recent book is Changing Directions Without Losing Your Way. Send them your start-up business questions at www.workingfromhome.com or in care of Entrepreneur.