Everything you need to know to set up a functional home office, from decorating tips to storage organization to setting up meeting space.
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:
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.
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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Office Chair Advice
Advice, tips, and reviews on office seating.
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.