Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Jan 26, 2010

Setting up Your Home Office

Instructor, Betsy Boesel Sagges, Independent Public Relations and Communications Professional

Home offices have come a long way since Bill Gates tinkered with wires and metal boxes in his parents’ garage. “Working from home” used to be a description often accompanied by a wink, since it rarely meant actually WORKING, beyond making a couple calls then running off to do errands or catch the kids’ chorus performance without having to log a day-off.  But that was also when most people worked at some place, before email and cell phone technology advanced to enable us to stay tethered to our desks wherever our desks might be.

My entree to creating a home office, was in the mid-1990’s when I struck an arrangement with my fulltime employer to work from home one day a week. They were based in San Francisco and I in New York.  My primary client in New Jersey, and I argued that I was basically telecommuting with them anyway.

I agreed to secure a second phone line, and they provided me with a laptop and dial-up access. (Remember dial-up? That eternally long connection that would suddenly cut-off? My generation’s version of “walking 5 miles through the snow to get to school”—God bless broadband!)

There are certain specs for creating a home office.  To help streamline the process, I have created a list of items below. Bear in mind that my consulting business may have requirements that other types of business do not, but this will hopefully help get you started with the basics.

Space/location – if you have the luxury of a separate room, regardless of size, use it. There is a myriad of distractions in one’s home (children, laundry, doorbell, etc), and the easiest way to tune them out is shutting them out with a closed door. My home office is a nice-sized room off the master bedroom; however, the temperature is far less consistent than the rest of the house. So I added a space heater and window air conditioner to keep it comfortable.

Desk – Large enough for your computer and accessories, room for note-taking and keeping some files handy. My desk is actually a large antique dining table.  While the height might not be ideal, I was able to compensate with an adjustable chair. It’s great to have room to spread out, but not necessary.

Desk chair – It is critically important to spend money on something comfortable and ergonomically correct. My first chair was cheap, less flexible and far less comfortable. I found myself getting up more frequently and trying to adjust it regularly, which ultimately cut into my productivity. My current chair is fantastic (and only about $100 at Staples). I set the height to meet my desk/table just right, and now can work for hours.

Lighting—My office faces south so I have the luxury of afternoon sun. However, it also means my shades are drawn to avoid the blinding glare through the windows, creating an uneven shadow around my workspace. Spend money on good lighting throughout your office, not just on your desk. Nothing is more frustrating than looking through files you have to carry across the room to see clearly. A good desk light and bright room lighting with help avoid fatigue or a dip in your work when the sun starts to set. There’s a reason why fluorescents are so popular in office buildings and Las Vegas.

File cabinet—Despite the growing use of digital files, a filing cabinet is important for storing printed or published items such as business receipts and 1099/W-2 statements, especially when you have multiple clients to track (printed copies receipts). I have a large, 2 drawer horizontal cabinet that stores tax forms, spiral-bound plans and programs, printed news stories, clippings of topical interest, reference sources, computer and cell phone manuals and back-up software, and other items relevant to my home office such as ink cartridges or extra notepads. (Hanging folders and file folders needed as well.). The file cabinet can also be used as a tabletop to hold a printer and reference books.

Computer—I have a desktop system that is soon to be replaced by a laptop with a port station for more mobility. However, I will continue to use the flat-screen monitor (17”) and wireless mouse with the new laptop. I also have a wireless printer that also scans and copies. As far as computer support, there are great consultants around, but I would ask several sources before bringing someone into your home. I’ve had good luck with Best Buy and their Geek Squad (in person only, don’t use them over the phone for tune-ups or other diagnostics).

E-mail account—It is a good idea to have a separate e-mail account for work, and there are many free options out there such as Yahoo or Google mail. I am one of those people with several e-mail addresses, as I have clients with their own servers for me to use (e.g. betsy@pickaclientanyclientwebsite.com).

Off-site back-up—For small businesses, off-site storage is an important consideration. I use Norton’s 360 to back-up my files, along with client-specific flashdrives that I can take from one computer to a client’s office and back again as needed. One of my clients swears by Mozy as his back-up storage provider. Many of these off-site storage providers offer annual plans with monthly fees.

Telephone—Dedicated phone line for your office. Period. It is important to have an office number that is separate from your life phone (home or cell) along with a separate answering service stating that someone has reached your office. That way there’s no chance one of your kids will answer the phone for you. Clients don’t really go for that. I am in the process of “porting” my home office landline number to a cell phone. This is a relatively new option – so new that one of the Verizon reps I spoke didn’t even know it was possible – but one that makes sense for a more mobile workforce.

I’ve had my home office phone number for nearly 15 years, and was loath to change it. But my client work was taking me away from my office more and more and I wanted to stay connected without having to forward calls or check messages all the time. Turning my home office landline into a cell number was the best option – and can be less expensive depending on your cell plan. (*I’m currently mid-way through to “porting” process so check back for an update to see if it truly works. Cross your fingers for me.)

Office supplies—One of the hardest parts of working in a home office, is that you must provide your own supplies closet. Running down the hall for another legal pad or post-it note suddenly becomes a trip to Staples or Office Depot. And those little things can add up! Choose the items that you’re used to, and spend the money to stock up a bit. I have a shelf that holds plain white paper for the printer, file folders, envelopes, note pads, legal pads, and staples. On my desk, I have a pencil holder with pencils, pens, highlighters and scissors; a dish with paper clips; two paperweights and stapler. Other items you might need include a three-hole punch, scotch tape, packing tape, padded envelopes, and page protectors. I also hit the local post office for a stash of Priority Mail labels and envelopes so I can address everything before I go over to mail it. You can also order envelopes and labels from FedEx as well.

As a final note, I urge you to treat your home office space like one outside your home. Hang some nice posters or pictures, put a few framed photos of your friends and family on your desk, and provide an extra chair for a visitor (whether you have them or not).

Resist the temptation to fill the space.  I caution you not to put too much furniture or extras in the space. My office has a little seating area with two chairs and a table with a lamp, (and both chairs are currently piled high with past client work to be sorted and filed...)  There will be plenty of time to add; do so a little at a time. Less is more when it comes to home office d├ęcor, and best to stick with what you know works and keep you working.


BWFS&SC asks our readers for their additions to this list.  Any tips?  Product recommendations?
Send us pictures of your home office set-up and we will post them as design ideas.

Additional Reading
Official IRS forms and instructions for deducting home office expenses
IKEA Office Planner
IKEA Hacker

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