For a growing number of American workers, home isn't just where the heart is. It's where the office is, as well.
More than 33 million workers in the U.S. -- including employees, contractors, and small business owners -- spend some time working from home, according to World at Work, the global human resources association that studies what it calls "telework" as a tool to attract, motivate, and retain workers. That number has risen more than 17 percent since 2006.
Where do they work? If they're smart, they have spent some time and attention to designing a home office. "Paying attention to the design and setup of your home office is a smart business move, since it translates into greater comfort, increased productivity, and ultimately more profits for your company," says Terri Lonier, who runs a consulting firm called Working Solo, which specializes in the small business and home-based business markets. "When designed well, your home office becomes a 'silent partner,' supporting your efforts and increasing your effectiveness."
In order to work with any seriousness from home, putting thought into where you're going to work, what you need, and where the best space is to fill your requirements is a must. "If you don't put it together in a way that is going to help you succeed at working at home, you may fail at working at home," says Neal Zimmerman, an architect and designer who specializes in home-office design and is the author of Home Workspace Idea Book (Taunton Press 2003) and At Work at Home (Taunton Press 2001). "That may translate as a failed business or that may translate as a job loss. Working at home is not just as easy as sitting at the kitchen table and flipping open your laptop. If you want to be successful and productive working at home you need to organize."
The following guide will help you determine how to design a home office and then how to set up your home office to make you as productive at home as possible.
Dig Deeper: How to Set Up a Home Office
How to Design a Home Office
Prior to setting up your home office, take time to assess how you will use it and what requirements it must fulfill. Will this be your primary workspace, or will it fill a secondary role? Is it a permanent location or a temporary setup?
Next, determine what your main activities will be in the office. Will you be working primarily at a computer or doing other tasks? Do you work on your own or are there others who will share the office with you? Will you meet with clients in this office? Each small business is unique, and the best home offices are designed with specific business needs in mind.
Zimmerman advocates following a five-step program to help you design a home office:
Determine your needs. Before you begin, you have to decide what is it that you need to work at home. "For some people, it's as simple as having a laptop and an Internet connection and power but for most people it's more than that," Zimmerman says. He uses the acronym CAMP to help people figure this out. It stands for the following:
- Computers. Determine how many computers and the types of computers you need. This will help you determine how many computer stations you will need to factor into your space needs.
- Administrative storage. If you are working at home more than just an evening a week, you will likely have papers to file, mail to sort through, bills to pay, etc. You need an administrative area -- "a place where you can pick up the phone and chat," Zimmerman says.
- Meeting space. Are you going to have any visitors in your home? Are you going to have any contract or part-time employees visit? Then you may need a meeting space where you can get together and share information.
- A project station. Some people who work at home do certain kinds of work not necessarily involving paper production. If you're a graphic designer, you may need a separate project station. This is a little extra area to do your work.
You may discover that you would like to have various stations for each of these purposes but that you just don't have the space. "You have to run through these and decide 'What is it I need and can they overlap?'" Zimmerman says. "In my home office, I have one surface that serves as an administrative area and a meeting area."
Part of determining your needs means figuring out what equipment you'll need, such as computers, printers, desks, tables, and storage areas for files and other records.
Pick a location. Look around your living area and figure out where the best place would be to set aside for your home office. Some people live in studio apartments in the city. They have small amounts of space. But, even then, setting up a place to work in that environment is important. "It doesn't necessarily need to be separated by walls, but it should be an area where work gets done and an area that is not impinged upon by what you do in the rest of that space," Zimmerman says. If you don't separate work space from living space that can lead to distraction and disorganization -- the two greatest enemies of working at home.
If you have a house in the suburbs, the odds are that you'll have more space for a home office. There are often spare bedrooms, finished basements, or attics to choose from. But, still, it's important that you choose the right space. Sometimes, people think they can work in the den, "but all of a sudden the kids come home from school at 2:30 p.m. and they want to watch TV or play video games," Zimmerman says. The den may still be the best place for a home office, but you may have to negotiate with other family members to restrict access to that space during business hours. "Not every problem can be solved with drywall," he adds. "Sometimes they need to be solved by negotiation."
Develop a plan. This step involves thinking about everything you want to put in your home office, how much space it will take up, where your equipment is going to go, what's going to power up everything, and where the storage space will be. "Sometimes you may pick a good location but won't be able to get everything into it," Zimmerman says. "Even if you pick a location and can get everything into it, can you afford it all?"
In this phase, if you're able to make a drawing to scale, you can do it yourself. But once you have determined your needs, it's a good idea to have a design professional help you with a rendering. "It's well worth it to get to the point that you know whether things are going to fit and what your budget is going to be," Zimmerman says. Once you have a plan, you can do the cost calculations of your home office factoring in not only the equipment but professional services if you need an electrician, an IT person, or a contractor.
Create a healthy environment. If you are working from home for someone else, it's important that they make sure you're working in a safe and comfortable environment, meeting all the requirements under federal and state laws. However, if you are working alone or on your own, it's your job to take care of yourself and make sure you don't end up with eye strain, RSI, back injuries, etc. "If the office isn't set up in an ergonomic way, it can come back to haunt you," Zimmerman says.
Define a place for who you are. When you are working for someone else, they decide what furniture, what colors, what is or is not allowed on the walls or cubicles. But when you are working at home it's your privilege and right to create an environment that makes you happy. "You might want to select light colors for a soothing environment," Zimmerman says. "You might want to surround yourself with things that are important to you, whether pictures of your dog or children or sports trophies or memorabilia." That's the reason you're working at home to begin with so you might as well work in a space that you enjoy, he adds.
Dig Deeper: Essential Tools for Every Home Office
How to Set Up Your Home Office
There are many elements that must come together in a typical home office setup, ranging from desk, chair, and lighting selections, to equipment decisions and layout. "By considering each element separately, as well as how it relates to the overall performance of your home office operations, you can maximize the output of the hours you spend working there," Lonier says.
- Determine your home office design and layout. The most efficient home offices employ an L- or U-shaped design, a layout that keeps entrepreneurs within arm's reach of the equipment and tools they need. "Think of this space as a cockpit that enables you to move from task to task with a minimal amount of effort," Lonier says. The primary space in your "cockpit" should be devoted to the work tasks you do most often and those that require the most mental energy and focus. "If that's computer-based work, then the location of your keyboard and monitor will be most important," Lonier says. "In contrast, if you review paper-based documents or attend to other non-keyboard tasks, then an open expanse of empty desktop will be your central workspace." Be sensitive to ergonomic factors when you design your home office layout because you don't want to risk hurting your back or developing a repetitive strain injury. Most desks are between 27 and 30 inches high, and minor adjustments to the height of your desk can often make a significant difference in your posture and overall energy output.
- Position your home office computer properly. The major decision here is whether you have a dedicated desktop computer or you use a laptop as your primary device. "In both cases, screen height is important, since you want to avoid hunching over a keyboard," Lonier says. Several companies sell laptop stands that elevate a laptop to eye-level, which are often used in conjunction with an external keyboard. A growing number of computer users use larger, and even second, computer monitors, which provide expanded virtual desktop space. If you have two monitors, for instance, you can use one for document creation, and the other to host toolbars and supplemental applications. Be sure to adjust the viewing distance to the monitors carefully so that you retain a comfortable posture and can read the screens easily.
- Select your home office desk chair with care. "Most home-based entrepreneurs spend more time in their office chairs than they do in their beds," Lonier observes. Unfortunately, many often skimp on this important piece of furniture, unaware of how much a chair can contribute to one's energy and health. Select a chair that swivels easily and offers multiple settings for seat height, tilt, arm height, and lumbar support, she suggests. Don't be hesitant to bring one home for evaluation to determine how it performs in your home office environment. "After a computer, a quality desk chair may be the largest expense in your home office setup -- and worth the investment," Lonier says.
- Provide abundant home office lighting. Poor lighting can create eyestrain and detract from your enjoyment, and productivity, in your home office. Your aim should be to create multiple sources of light so that no glare is created on your computer screen(s) or other work surfaces. "Indirect and natural light is often softer and less demanding on the eyes," Lonier says. If your work requires accurate color, consider investing in color-balanced lighting fixtures, such as those by Ott-Lite.
- Position your peripherals carefully. Give careful thought to the placement of your computer peripherals -- printer, scanner, label maker, etc. -- as well as equipment such as phone and fax machines. Some home-based business owners like to have all required machines within easy reach. Others prefer a less cluttered workspace, and enjoy the momentary exercise that comes from retrieving a computer printout on the other side of the room.
- Establish optimum space for home office storage and files. "Since the paperless office is still a dream for most home-based business owners, it's important to plan for adequate storage in your home office," Lonier says. Files used most frequently should be within easy access; others can be stored in more remote locations or even off-site. Establish regular sessions to purge outdated files and contain clutter to maintain an effective home office work environment.
As your business grows and changes, your home office needs will likely evolve, too. "Remain sensitive to issues of layout and access in your home office, and don't be hesitant to experiment and modify the location of furniture or equipment," Lonier says. "Often a simple shift can bring increased ease and productivity. Or consider what some home-based entrepreneurs do every few years: Rearrange your office to create a fresh perspective on your work environment. With a little planning, you can create a home office that invisibly supports your entrepreneurial efforts every working day."
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How to Design a Home Office: Recommended Resources
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The Telework Advisory Group
This group provides research and resources about telework sponsored by World at Work, an organization that is committed to advancing the growth and success of work independent of location.