All the Comforts of Home Offices

When it comes to setting up your home office, form and function can collaborate to create a space both pleasing to the eye and built for business.

To perfect your work environment, you should periodically evaluate it in three key areas: your space, your furnishings and your personalization. If you’re new to home office setup, consider the attributes of your former company’s office, and borrow some of those elements to maximize performance and productivity in your home-based workspace.

Selecting your space

Before heading out to the office-supply superstore, survey your home. Where will your office be located? If you’re lucky, you have a spare bedroom, an ill-used basement or other space that can serve as a dedicated home office.

A dedicated space provides several key benefits. First, you will have separation from the rest of the home and family. It’s been said that there are two power tools in the home office: the Internet-connected computer and a door that closes. Doors serve two purposes: They close off the sounds, chaos and distractions of the home when you’re working, and they also close off the allure of the office after hours. By closing the door when the work day’s done, you’re less inclined to amble back in for a few more minutes—only to find yourself at your desk hours later.

Another benefit of the dedicated space is the simplicity of deducting it on your tax return. If you run a writing business from your home office, it’s easier to defend the deduction if it’s a dedicated space that’s used “regularly and exclusively” as a place of business. That means it doesn’t double as a bedroom, guestroom or kids’ playroom when the worker isn’t on site.

But erstwhile bedrooms aren’t the only way to go. For those with little space to spare, find an out-of-the-way corner of a larger, little-used or lightly traveled room, like a corner of the living room, den or even master bedroom. Just try to minimize family distraction. Separate the space from the rest of the room with a row of potted trees, a Japanese shoji screen or portable divider, or even a bookcase. This both shields you from the home, and again, blocks off the office from your view after hours.

Whether it’s a whole room or just a corner of one, your space should accommodate all your office furniture, supplies and any other accessories you need. Mine, for example, has a large desk, chair, four-drawer file cabinet and plenty of shelving for books, stacking trays and other items. But it also has a black leather loveseat that serves for light reading and as a perch for our dog, Riley.

If you prefer natural lighting and a view of the outdoors, find a space with windows, sliding glass doors or other sources of sunlight. Windows also can provide a view of the world outside, and stimulate the creative mind more than a barren wall.

Furnishing your space

Three types of furniture are must-haves in most offices: the desk, the chair and the filing cabinet. Selecting these wisely can make the difference between creating a space you enjoy or a space you tolerate.

The desk. Desks and work surfaces can range from a Spartan throwback from your college days (a door laid atop two sawhorses) to something more elaborate, like my custom-designed 10-foot desk that perfectly suits my needs.

Find a desk that serves your work purposes. If you’re tight on space, or are a computer jockey who rarely deals with papers, then a smaller secretarial desk (around 30 inches by 60 inches) could suffice. If you need the paper space and have more office room to work with, an executive desk (36 inches by 72 inches) provides ample sprawl space. Hutches, credenzas and accessory tables for the printer, fax or even the computer can make the space more functional.

For those really cramped for space, desk alternatives also include the armoire office or a roll-top desk. When closed, an armoire office looks like a traditional armoire or vertical dresser. Once opened, it reveals space for a computer, filing, accessory and printer storage, and includes a pull-out work surface and full lighting. Alternatively, a roll-top desk can be a suitable workplace for a laptop user.

The chair. Kitchen or used office chairs have no place in the home office. Think ergonomics: the science of designing a space to match the worker’s physical needs. And no, ergonomics is not a synonym for expensive. Quality ergonomic chairs can be found for as little as $100.

Here are quick tips on setting up your home-based office:
  • If possible, dedicate one room of your home to your office to eliminate distractions and the temptation to work after hours. A clearly defined office space also helps defend home-office deductions at tax time.
  • Don’t go cheap on the chair. An ergonomically correct chair will ease stress on your neck, back and legs.
  • Every writer needs a filing cabinet. Accessorize it with folders and tabs—stay organized.
  • Sitting in a chair for long stretches can cause discomfort in the legs, back and neck. Ergonomically designed chairs feature adjustable armrests, seats and backs that ease stress on the arms, shoulders and back. It should have five legs for support when you’re reaching for a file and don’t want to topple. Avoid leather; opt instead for a breathable cloth fabric. Also, a footrest can help ease strain on the lower back and upper legs. This can be as simple as two phone books stacked atop one another or as elaborate as a $30 store-bought model.

    The filing cabinet. Paperless, shmaperless: A file cabinet still has a place in the home office. A 20-gigabyte hard drive cannot store one newspaper clipping, an Amex receipt or your 1996 tax return.

    Look for cabinets with full extension drawers; this will provide access to files at the very back of the cabinet. And don’t forget to purchase file folders and dividing tabs. Organization is an important (but often overlooked) ingredient in home office planning.

    If you’re tight on space, combine functions. Two-drawer filing cabinets are 27 to 29 inches tall. Ergonomists and office designers recommend a desktop be about 29 inches tall. By laying a 6- or 8-foot Formica-lined kitchen counter (available in a variety of colors and styles at any home improvement store) across two, two-drawer cabinets, and then affixing the contraption together with simple L-brackets, you’ve got the perfect work surface. Need a drawer for accessories? Buy an organizer for one of the cabinet drawers for your stapler, paperclips and sticky notes.

    If you’re tight on money, shop around. Office supply superstores often have scratch-and-dent desks, shelves, chairs and file cabinets available at a significant discount. Also search the classified ads for bankruptcy liquidations or office sales, as well as thrift stores, consignment shops and office rental companies for high-quality, used furniture.

    Personalizing your space

    Unlike the corporate office, you’re the designer for the home office. The art, accoutrements and aesthetic accessories that accent your space are yours to choose. From a desktop stereo or waterfall for background sound, to art, knickknacks and mementos, personalizing your space will make it a place in which you enjoy working.

    After all, if you have to work somewhere, shouldn’t you enjoy where you work?

    This article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Writer’s Digest

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