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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CAREERS / BALANCING WORK AND FAMILY : Working From Home Poses Challenges as Tough as Any Office : Despite potential problems, telecommuting and home-based businesses are getting more popular.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The call you have been waiting for all week comes through at the worst time. But you can hardly tell this client to call back, so you launch right into a detailed conversation.

Two seconds later, the gardener fires up a leaf-blower under your office window. The toddler discovers where you are and starts scattering the contents of your desk drawer. The older kids’ argument in the living room turns into a punching match. A neighbor is knocking, and the handyman who showed up two hours late needs to ask a question about your roof repair.

If you work at home, you may have experienced something like this scenario. If you’re lucky, the person on the other end of the line will be understanding, and tell you how wonderful it is that you are able to stay home with the kids. Or how jealous she is of the way you get to escape the stress of the office.

The truth is that working at home can be stressful and the arrangement has its own set of challenges that may be just as daunting as those faced in a traditional office. Managing child care, dealing with distractions, loneliness, workaholism, the tendency to be passed over for special assignments or promotions and even unrestricted access to the refrigerator are some of the drawbacks to what has been touted over the last decade as the wave of the future.

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“One person’s downfall is another person’s upside,” said Paul Edwards, an author and radio show host who is an expert on home-based business. He and his wife, Sarah, have traveled extensively doing seminars on the topic and have found during the course of writing five books that working at home is not for everyone.

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“There are people who want more lifestyle control and who want to get away from the corporate politics that is found in an office. These are the people who really love working at home,” Edwards said.

Others complained that the flexibility of being at home was so distracting that they did not get any work done, or even that they were so isolated that they lost their social skills, he said.

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But despite potential problems, working from home--either telecommuting for an employer or operating a home-based business--keeps getting more popular.

According to a work-at-home survey completed this year by Link Resources, a consumer research firm based in New York, 12.9 million Americans derive their primary income from working at home. Nearly 8 million are salaried employees who work at home during normal business hours. Another 13.8 million work from home on a part-time basis, moonlighting or running sideline businesses.

Add to those numbers the estimated tens of millions who bring computer disks home so they can put in some overtime on their PCs, and it becomes apparent that there is a lot of work being done outside the traditional cubicle on the 15th floor.

One of the most frequently cited reasons for working at home, along with the fact that it is the cheapest way to start a business, is the desire to spend more time with family--especially for parents with young children. But many people who decide to work at home so they can be with their children quickly realize that they cannot juggle the baby on one knee while they enter data into a computer.

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“You may want to work at home to be near the kids,” Edwards said, “but you may be quickly disappointed to learn that you can’t work productively with small children around. Then you have to locate child care in or outside the home anyway.”

Edwards said that about half the home-based workers that he talks to use outside day care for their children. The rest either have a spouse take care of the children or do work that can be accomplished with children around, like the women he met in New England who turn out piecework on home knitting-machines.

But even those who resort to day care, he said, probably spend less time away from their children because they can take them to a site that is only minutes away. Some home-based workers have relatives or neighbors supervise the children in another part of the house while they are working in the home office, enabling them to breast-feed their infants or spend time with them during lunch breaks.

Ray Martin, 36, started his own computer business, Microcomputer Services, from his Monrovia home seven years ago. He enjoys the flexibility of working at home and of being his own boss. But Martin admits that conveying professionalism is sometimes tough with three young sons in the house, especially during the five years when his office was set up in a spare bedroom directly off the family room.

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“The telephone is a real lifeline in my business. But many times when I was on the phone, there were kids running up and down the hall outside my door, or my wife, Pam, was yelling that dinner was ready. The television was usually blaring in the background or someone’s radio was going,” he said.

Linda Marks, a consultant with the San Francisco-based nonprofit New Ways to Work, suggested that anyone who is considering working from home should convene a family meeting before making the decision, to lay out some ground rules and figure out whether the home office will work for the entire family.

“The children may need to understand that when you’re working, it’s just like you are at the office,” she said. “They can’t constantly disturb you. You may have to tell them you will not be available to chauffeur them at any hour.”

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Finding the right spot to set up an office is another important decision, especially finding a place out of the way of the family’s traffic pattern that gives you the most privacy and does not infringe on the rest of the family’s ability to relax.

A year and a half ago, Martin moved his office out of the house and into a space he added to his garage. The arrangement is easier for him and better for his family, he said. And he is still available to attend morning or afternoon programs at his children’s school and take them out for lunch occasionally.

Sharon Forward, 41, of Chatsworth, also started out working in her house and then - together with her husband, Bob, who also works at home - added office space in her back yard where she finds she has more privacy.

Forward is one of the fortunate home-based workers who has had it all - the ability to stay home with her younger son, Angus, and work as a storyboard animator for a major studio.

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“In the early years, I cordoned off part of the den, so the baby could move around. I worked in a corner of the room with my desk, papers and pencils. Angus was an incredibly easy baby and he’d just wander around playing. His older brother, Max, was a second-grader so he was not home most of the time I was working,” she said.

As a creative person, she has enjoyed the flexibility of working at home. “If the baby needed me a lot during the day and I got behind with the work, I worked into the evening or got up early in the morning,” she said.

People who work at home may be able to make time to take their children to doctor’s appointments or drive them to practices and friend’s houses, Marks said. They do not need to worry about latchkey kids coming home to an empty house. Some home-based workers find they can even have elderly relatives living with them - as long as they do not need constant care.


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