Nine Steps Toward the Home Office of Your Dreams
BY Debra Cash
What to think about when it comes to design, equipment, and management.
The cover story of Inc. Technology #1 for 1998 looks at dream offices - three home offices that work for the entrepreneurs that created them and use them. (See "There's No Office Like Home.") Here, we present nine tips for how to build your own fantasy work space.
Remember: Great home offices come from self-knowledge. Think about the office conditions in which you did your best work. Did you have everything in one place? Did you spread out your papers on a conference room-size table? Did you leave Post-it Notes for yourself on your monitor, cork boards, porcelain boards? Where do you keep your current work - on your desk or on your hard drive, in your personal digital assistant or in your briefcase? Don't try to squeeze yourself into some imaginary model of efficiency: extrapolate from the way you already work most comfortably.
Pay attention to light. Don't make do with the glow from your computer monitor. You need good task lighting to look at the papers on your desk and talk on the phone. Just because you made do with flickering overhead fluorescents at your last office job doesn't mean they were good for you. No windows? Invest in full-spectrum bulbs that simulate sunlight.
Think vertically. Usually people with home offices forget to use the walls around their desks as resources to keep their work surface relatively clear and supplies close at hand. If you're stymied for ideas, tour kitchen or bathroom retail display rooms for innovative storage options and inexpensive hardware. Racks sold for pot lids can be used for files or magazines; drawer dividers are as useful for paper clips, pens, and glue sticks as they are for knives, forks, and spoons.
Think ergonomically. Pay attention to the relationship between your chair, your computer screen, and your keyboard. Pianists learn to hold their wrists up; keep yours up as well or rest your palms on a foam pad level with the keyboard, available in many office supply stores. An adjustable chair - where you can adjust its height, the tilt of the seat, and the lumbar support - is a good investment. And remember the Charm School Rule: sit straight up with your feet flat on the floor. You'll be surprised how much less tired you feel at the end of an hour in this position.
For chronic back pain, try working at a standing desk. Novelist Thomas Wolfe is said to have done this. And look how productive he was!
Also remember: If you can't find it, you can't use it. This means that file folders have to be labeled, URLs bookmarked, supplies kept in the place designated for them. If you "steal" your tape dispenser and scissors from the kitchen to wrap a birthday present, make yourself a promise to put them back immediately. Remember the old adage to have "a place for everything and everything in its place" and put them away in the same place every time. Better yet, buy multiple sets of oft-used supplies and put them in all the different spots you use them.
Buy the most memory you can afford, and back up habitually. Any new computer system you buy for a home office is likely to have a good amount of memory. Then back up your disks religiously. Critical data must be kept someplace other than just your hard drive - on backup disks at your office or a friend's house, or even in cyberspace as part of the storage allotment you get from your Internet Service Provider. If you are working at home as a contractor, make sure your employer specifies how long data must be kept and with what degree of security.
If you're building a home office from scratch, wire smartly. If you can afford it, consider wiring the walls with the new hybrid telephone cable that mixes traditional copper lines, coaxial cable, and fiber-optic technology. That way, if and when your telecommunications and electrical needs expand, you won't have to break through the walls to upgrade. (Forget about this if you're betting that your television, computer and phone system will all go wireless.)
Consider the management of your home office as much of a business issue as the management of a regular office. Working at home is not just a lifestyle decision, it's a business proposition. That means you'll need not just a dependable infrastructure but a serious - and possibly contractual - approach to the work you take on. If you're establishing a home office at the behest of your employer, for instance, consider how problems will be handled and who will absorb the costs. Who will support at-home computer systems? If the computer system crashes or the network won't transmit, who is liable? What kind of disaster backup is available? How will home work and office work be coordinated? Has the cost associated with extra secretarial or administrative support at the main office been budgeted? Think through the process in as much detail as possible, and get what you can in writing. Review the process at six-month intervals.
Debra Cash is a workplace analyst and designer in Belmont, Mass.