@/+!=`!****!!! Road rage has got nothing on this ...

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Kathy Harvey reports on a new cause of domestic strife - when your partner always gets to the PC before you.

It's Thursday afternoon and I have just returned from a trip to Waitrose with the intention of sneaking into the spare bedroom to finish doing my first year's accounts as a freelance. But as I survey the so- called Office Desk in the corner I am filled with a now familiar feeling - computer. My partner is home early and has got their first.

Before I succumbed to the lure of self-employed home working I barely noticed the presence of my partner's constant office companion, plugged into a spare socket loading up its battery.

I assumed that the hours he spent each evening in front of the little square screen were a sad manifestation of Internet addiction. Now that we're fighting over the facilities, I have discovered he's whiling away the evenings on the laptop completing unfinished work. It's expected of him, and I am expected to put up with it.

Just before I left the BBC, it was suggested to me that I might like to have a special phone line and portable studio equipment installed so I could do interviews from the comfort of my own home - a facility most correspondents now have. Of course I might not like it, but how long could I go on refusing the offer? I had already suffered the embarrassment of doing a phone interview on the Child Support Agency with my own two-year- old providing authentic noises off from the adjoining room, and visions of the future, with me locked in the bedroom broadcasting to local radioland every day while my two children bayed for attention were enough to make me go freelance.

Broadcasting isn't the only profession where the division between home and office is being blurred. Now that laptops can be used as "docking stations" and plugged into screens anywhere in the office, executives from the salesdesk to the board room are being expected to "hotdesk" around the building - or back home if necessary.

David Tong, an organisational psychologist with ISR, an international consultancy specialising in researching employee opinion, says: "Technology has been invited in to the home but in some cases it has polluted it. People want to add value to what they do by taking work home, and the rewards are there for those who want them, but it's not always easy for individuals to control how much work they do." Quite. Surely those who have chosen to swap the office for the spare bedroom should be able to trade an afternoon off for an evening working at the computer. But flexibility goes out of the window when your partner expects to muscle in for a few hours, fiddling with Powerpoint and printing out huge numbers of incomprehensible slides for the next day's presentation.

We're about to compromise with a timetable and a spare computer but both of us are putting off the evil day when we give our five-year-old regular access to the world of information technology. The keyboard's never free - and we don't have any extra plug capacity to plug another terminal in even if we could afford it.

Says Dave Tong: "There should be an investment in the technology to support anyone expected to work from home, and it should be their choice. The advantage of bringing the office back home is a greater sense of control over how you work, but if more and more of your own time is being taken up the pluses start to diminish. Work is habitual and sometimes it's difficult to take a break from it. The new working patterns are forcing us to make far more choices about time management."

Consultants, who specialise in helping professional people manage their careers, encourage clients to make an effort to balance their work and personal life more effectively. Their communications director, Jo Bond, is a former homeworker who opted to go back to office life and now tries to limit evening work to important occasions. "The essential thing is to come to a personal contract with yourself and know what is acceptable."

And, she says there's no point trying to be visible all day in the office only to go home and slave over your laptop all night long. "If you spend less time in the office and work from home you have to be clear with your immediate boss about the boundaries you are expected to keep to."

Perhaps it's too late for all those eager thrusting professionals keen to show willing and embrace the information technology age in all its forms. Even before my partner invaded my space with his portable "docking station", the mobile phone was already bringing the joys of his office life into our living room - even invading bank holidays. I drew the line recently after an unpleasant incident near an M6 slip road when I was expected to force-feed our children Smarties while the other breadwinner in the family conducted a three-way conference call with the United States.

No doubt the IT specialists of the world are only too pleased to turn the average manager into a bizarre form of one man band, traipsing across the countryside online to everything but a bit of peace. But I foresee a new branch of family therapy, designed for couples torn apart by rows over the use of the laptop and the lack of spare bedroom space for the in-laws. We are all homeworkers now -whether we like it or not. But some are working harder than others. And now my time's up - it's his turn at the terminal.

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