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Considering a home office? Take my advice

R. Michael Stuckey/Thinkstock

Some people might say the hazard of working from home is procrastination. For me, it's being semi-prone on my living-room sofa, in an ensemble not suitable for the outdoors, surrounded by cereal crumbs and coffee rings.

When we bought our house, I insisted on having an office with a door. Once I got my way, I realized I'd chosen the room with the smallest window and coldest floors. Anywhere seemed preferable to my minute desk and the stray kitchen chair I'd pulled up to it. My sofa developed an irreversible sag.

Then my husband moved his business into our house and my home-working style became unacceptable. Having him around was like putting a mirror to my own bad habits. Even worse, the mirror was two-way. I could see his working MO: all those files, cables and loud conversations.

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I wanted to find him an office with a door – of concrete.

A rise in remote working means more people – ergo more couples – are fighting for workspace on the home front. A study by Telework Research Network reported in 2011 that roughly 3.2 per cent of the Canadian work force, more than half a million Canadians, telecommutes regularly – that's up from the last decade and higher than the U.S. average. For every couple that manages to run a harmonious working household, there are many more who draw lines in the broadloom. So how do we cope?

Steve Cooper, editor-in-chief of, an online lifestyle magazine for married couples, says: "Establishing expectations is really important. … If your laptop is open at the breakfast table, your spouse may think you're browsing Facebook when you're really working. You've got to let him know up front, 'I realize I'm eating breakfast at the table, but if I have my laptop open in the morning, just assume I'm working."

The ones who get it right, says Cooper, set strong boundaries. "Even just putting up a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door is that extra reminder that there's work going on, so don't let the kids come back here," says Cooper.

Office space is a major issue for home-workers, particularly when there are children's bunk beds where your roll-top would ideally go. Still, it's crucial to keep your spaces separate.

"I have a motto," says Lisa Kanarek, a home-office expert and founder of "You know 'happy wife, happy life?' Well mine is 'separate home office, happy life.' "

Kanarek is unequivocal in her fondness for the dining room. She recommends it for my husband. "That room generally gets the best light of any room in your house, and it's really wasted space – we just don't entertain that way any more," she says. "You can have the dining table as your desk and cabinets to hold your files. They can do double duty. I moved into mine and all that was missing was a velvet rope."

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In a blog that ran earlier this month in The New York Times's T Magazine online, designer Rita Konig endorsed the idea of turning a bathroom into a home office. "It is even worth taking a smaller room for your bedroom and giving over a larger room to your bathroom if it can absorb these other functions," she wrote. "If you have a family and live in a house full of children and their clobber, chances are this space will become the one place you can expect a little peace and quiet … where you can think clearly and get some work done."

Suzanne Dimma, editor in chief of House & Home magazine, surprised me recently when she acknowledged her home office, currently under renovation, is being relocated to her basement. "It's cozy, I can put a spotlight on my work and hunker down," she told me. "I don't need high ceilings, and I don't like being in a sunny, light-filled space because it makes me want to get outside." She added that most basements have the same square footage as the entire ground floor, providing an opportunity to co-opt a vast space for work.

When you've found the right space, you can appoint a style to suit your personality. "Everyone will have their own thing," says Dimma. "Some people want a billion things going on, lots of stimulus, stacks of books and inspiration boards. I like neatness and the feeling there's lots of storage, to keep my head clear."

That just leaves the matter of me and my sofa.

"There's nothing wrong with sitting on the sofa with your laptop," says Kanarek. "It can be that your office is where your files and bills are, even if you're motivated to work somewhere else. Just keep everything in that one space."

Dimma provides another suggestion: "Have another destination within your office," she says. "It's okay to sit on the couch and work, but do it in there. Don't do it in your main space."

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Or, says Cooper, keep a tight routine where you start every day at your desk surrounded by your work things. "Then, he says, "when I need less concentration, when I'm doing research or web browsing, I'll move onto the couch. But I do try to start every workday in the same place."

And, for God's sake, have some dignity. "You don't have to dress to the nines, per se," says Cooper, "but your spouse and kids, they may think whatever you're doing isn't that important if you don't get dressed in the morning. Put out an image so the other person respects what you're doing."

Outfitting a home office

The No.1 challenge in a home office is addressing your storage needs. "A bookcase can make a huge difference," says Lisa Kanarek. "Or a computer cabinet, the modern version of the roll-top desk. It has shelves for filing and a printer and you can literally close the doors at the end of the day – plus it's a pretty piece of furniture." Suzanne Dimma says: "Not a lot of people know you can go to Grand & Toy and order one of their minimal filing cabinets in a custom colour. They're long and wide and tie in with a contemporary look."

"If you have a dark space, it'll affect your mood," says Kanarek. She recommends an OTT-Lite, which mimics natural sunlight. Dimma prefers the adjustable Tolomeo by Italian manufacturer Artemide. "They aren't going to go out of style," she says, "and if you get sick of it on your desk, you can get an attachment to mount it on your wall."

When it comes to work surfaces, think out of the box. Dimma sourced a Staron worktop from IKEA's kitchen department, supported by legs instead of cabinetry. "It's easy to clean, it doesn't chip, it's hardworking," she says.

Invest in a proper chair. Dimma's go-to is the Eames desk chair, available in a range of fabrics and a high or low back. (She's a fan of the low back, "because it takes up less visual space." Her husband goes for the high back.)

Don't be tempted to get a lock for your door. "If you're on a call, that's not going to stop your kids from pounding on it," says Kanarek. "I would have a good sound-canceling headset instead."

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