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Computers bring the office home Work space is as important as the equipment

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

You've decided to turn your hobby into a business. Or you've quit your job and strike out on your own. Or you're just looking for a way to spend more time at home and less at the office.

If any of these descriptions fits you, you may be one of the millions of Americans setting up home offices these days.

Working at home has many advantages. Besides being cheap (you're paying the mortgage or rent anyway), home is a friendly environment. There's no dress code. You don't have to play office politics. Your hours are flexible. By cutting down or eliminating commuting entirely, you're getting rid of "dead" driving time, which gives you more time to devote to your business and personal life.

For many people setting up home offices, buying a computer is a natural first step. While it won't turn your business enterprise into a success (your talent and energy are the keys to that), a computer can be a valuable tool for organizing your time, keeping your books, conducting research and handling your business correspondence.

A home office computer system can be a substantial investment. But you don't have to take out a second mortgage to afford one. With careful shopping, you can create a system powerful enough to handle your needs -- now and in the future -- without eating up a substantial chunk of capital.

As strange as it may seem, the type of computer you buy is probably not as important as the physical setting you create for it. A well-designed, comfortable work area will do far more to increase your productivity than a fast processor or a big hard drive.

But setting up a home office -- particularly one with a computer -- requires forethought and planning. Large businesses are paying increasing attention to the ergonomics of the workplace to keep their employees healthy and productive. You should do the same.

In the best of all worlds, you'll have a room to call your own. This is important for two reasons. The first is peace of mind. It's hard to concentrate when a thundering herd of urchins is racing through your work space every five minutes. At some point, you'll want to lock the door and get away from the noise of the household circus.

The second issue is the tax man. To claim a deduction for a home office, you must be able to prove that the office is used strictly for business. The IRS is very sticky about this. A corner of your bedroom doesn't count.

If you already have a desk, your first impulse will be to put the computer there. This can be a mistake. Even a compact machine and printer will occupy about four linear feet of desktop. On a 5- or 6-foot desk, this doesn't leave much space for anything else. If you add a telephone and a fax machine, there won't be any room at all for you.

Even more important, most standard desks are too high for comfortable computer use. The ideal height for a keyboard is 26 to 28 inches off the floor (depending on your height), while standard desktops are about 30 inches high.

This may not seem like much to argue about, but in the world of ergonomics, an inch or two can be the difference between pleasure and pain. You should be able to type without bending your wrists backward. Long hours at a keyboard that's too high can result in a repetitive stress injury that's painful at best and debilitating at worst.

If you have to use a standard desk, buy a sliding keyboard drawer that attaches to the underside of the desktop and lowers the height of the keyboard by a couple of inches. These are available from computer and office supply stores for less than $75, and they're well worth the money. A keyboard drawer will save valuable desktop real estate when you're not using the computer and save wear and tear on your most valuable asset -- you.

The best, albeit most expensive, solution is a standard desk with a lowered "return" set at right angles to the main desktop. The computer sits on the return and you can switch easily from one work surface to the other with a swivel chair.

you're setting up a separate workstation for a computer, your choices are virtually limitless. Most discount furniture stores offer a variety of computer desks and tables. The more expensive units allow you to adjust the height of both the keyboard and the monitor.

xTC But beware of small, stand-alone computer desks. Many of these are barely big enough for a keyboard, system unit, monitor and printer. They don't give you much room to spread out books and papers, and they may not be deep enough to keep you at a comfortable distance from your screen.

A 5- or 6-foot table that's 26 to 28 inches high and at least 30 inches deep is a good, inexpensive choice for a stand-alone computer workstation. These are generally available for less than $200. If you don't want to spend that kind of money, you can create the same effect by paying a visit to your local home do-it-yourself store. A cheap, hollow core door on a couple of sturdy sawhorses (adjusted to the proper height) will do just fine.

While it's easy to come up with a cheap desktop, there's no such thing as a good, cheap office chair. Your chair should provide proper support for your back and legs. At the very least, the height of the chair should be adjustable. An adjustable back support is also desirable.

You can find plenty of inexpensive chairs in discount houses, but if you sit in one for more than five minutes, you'll realize that a bigger investment is probably worthwhile.

Also, remember that there are physical and psychological differences between men and women and the way they sit. This often shows up in chair design.

An office chair designed for a woman may have a shorter seat which curves downward toward the front, making it easier for a woman to sit with her knees together. Men, who are generally taller, may want a chair with a longer seat for better leg support.

While good office chairs start at $200 and head toward the stratosphere, you can find bargains in used office furniture outlets.

These chairs are often trade-ins from businesses whose offices were redesigned long before the furniture had a chance to wear out. As long as you're not worried about impressing anyone with matching furniture, you can come up with a first-rate chair without putting a big dent in your bank account.

Auctions are another good source of used furniture. With the economy in the doldrums, there are enough business failures to keep the auction houses busy. The classified ad section of the Sunday paper will be full of auction notices. In particular, look for bankruptcies of upscale businesses. They generally have better furniture.

The physical setup of your office is important, too. While it's nice to have plenty of daylight and a beautiful view out the window, glare is the No. 1 enemy of all computer users. It reduces the contrast on your screen and can tire you out long before you're ready to call it quits for the day.

Unless you're working strictly at night, don't put your computer in front of a window. Looking at a computer screen in the best of circumstances is a strain on the eyes. Fighting the glare from a window at the same time is a sure recipe for a headache. If you don't have any choice about the location of your computer, make sure the window has a blind or shade and close it while you're using the computer.

Likewise, try to avoid having a window directly behind you wheyou sit down at your computer. If you don't have any choice, consider an anti-glare screen for the monitor.

Lighting is another critical issue. Avoid harsh overheads anarrange your lights so that they illuminate your work surface without shining directly onto your computer screen. Inexpensive screen hoods also are available.

Desk tells yout to adjust your position

Looking for the ultimate ergonomic gift for your favorite home-office worker?

For a mere $3,900 you can pick up a Trakker Adjustable Table, from Haworth Inc., billed as the world's first totally programmable computer desk.

The desk has separate motorized platforms for your computer monitor and keyboard. It tracks the amount of time you spend working in various positions and alerts you to change positions.

Better yet, using a small, separate keyboard that hooks up to the desk, you can program it to move it up to 19 different heights at regular intervals throughout the day. More than one user? No problem. Each user can have his or her own programmable keyboard.

For information, contact Haworth Inc., 1 Haworth Center, Holland, Mich. 49243, 616-393-3000.

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