Do you dream of a 15-second commute to work rather than a 45-minute commute? Do you want to squeeze some extra time out of the day by cutting out that commute time completely? Do you think you might get more done if you didn't have the interruptions inherent with traditional offices?
If you're thinking about any of these things, you've probably been dreaming of a home office. In this article, we'll find out what makes an effective home office, and we'll get you started setting up one up.
Working from home can be a joy or a terror, (just like some two-year-olds you may know.) You may love the idea of the freedom, the flexibility, and the relaxed atmosphere your home office will have. You may relish the idea of working in your bunny slippers and bath robe.
Note that I said the "idea" of. In reality, working from home can be great, but it can also be just as frustrating as working in a traditional office and commuting. You have to set it up right and set some rules for yourself. The rules you set must be based on your situation, what works for you personally, and the type of work you are doing. Here are some guidelines that will get you started:
- Set aside a special space for your office, especially if you hope to claim a home-office deduction on your taxes!
- If you have a door, close it.
- Try to minimize the number of distractions that are in your immediate work space (for example, TV, Gameboy, Nintendo, children).
- If you have small children at home, don't look at those magazine photos of the home-based working mom talking on the phone and studying a spreadsheet while a delightful nine-month-old plays at her feet. That's a fantasy world. It really doesn't work that way! Get an in-home caregiver or family member, anyone, to help out. Your nerves, and your children, will thank you.
- Make your workstation as comfortable as possible -- you may be spending a lot of time there!
- Get organized. This means buying file cabinets, file folders, labels, and then putting them to use.
- Try to set a work schedule that suits your own high productivity cycles. Everyone has a time of day that they work at their best. Find yours and make that your prime working time. (Assuming, of course, you have control over your schedule.)
- Set some rules for yourself like... a break every hour, a set time every day that you leave your home (even if it's just to walk around the block), no surfing the net except for business-related surfing (and then don't cheat!). Your rules should address your own weaknesses. If you know you'll have a problem with the refrigerator always calling your name then make a "no food at the computer" rule.
- Set a limit to your after-hours work. While you may have clients that call you at 9 pm, that doesn't mean you have to "always" be available then. Let your answering machine pick up calls unless you know there is a tight deadline and are willing to do it. On the other hand, additional hours of availability may be just the advantage you need to give your business (or job-security) a boost. Just keep in mind that workaholism is high among those who work from home.
- Working from home can also be very isolating. Make a point to pick up the phone and call someone, or visit a neighbor, or something just to make contact with a live person occasionally. If you find yourself working for 10 hours straight without speaking a word, you may not last long in your new home office.
With that said, let's move on to the hardware you'll need to set up your home office. We're starting with hardware rather than furniture because it's quite possible you don't need a desk or designated office area. You may be fine working from your kitchen table or porch swing. Of course, you may not even need a computer, but... we're going to cover it anyway.
What Hardware do You Need?
If your work involves traveling to client locations or other places away from your home base, you should probably consider buying a laptop computer rather than a desktop system.
With a laptop you will always have your files with you and won't have any of those embarrassing moments when you leave an important document at your office, because...well, your office is with you. While a laptop may seem a bit cumbersome to always travel with, there are many lightweight models out there that are very powerful. Just make sure you get a good carrying case that has a shoulder strap and room for your hard copy documents.
If always working from the keyboard and small screen of a laptop doesn't appeal to you, there are other solutions. Yes, they've thought of everything! To make using your laptop more efficient in your home office, a docking station can be set up that you can simply plug your laptop into. Docking stations make it easy to have a standard monitor, keyboard and mouse, printer, fax machine, scanner, and other peripherals always hooked and ready to use. If you plug your laptop into the docking station, you can use it just like a standard desktop system, and you won't have to worry about transferring or synching files to another computer.
If you do not travel, or if you do not need access to all of your files while you travel, you can just get the traditional desktop computer system. Make sure you have plenty of hard drive space, memory for running several programs at once, and a moderately fast processor. If you're doing graphics work (anything involving photo images, illustrations or animations), you'll need a much faster processor and as much hard drive space and RAM as you can afford.
Other equipment and hardware options you might consider include:
- A black and white 600-1200 dpi laser printer if your final documents require crisp, high quality black and white output. Laser printers also provide the fastest output, so if you know your volume will be high you should also consider a laser printer.
- A color laser printer if your documents need high quality color illustrations, photos, or charts. These are quite expensive so make sure you compare the print quality with a less expensive ink jet printer.
- An inkjet printer if you need good quality text, color charts and graphs, or photos. With inkjet printers, the paper that is used often makes the biggest difference in the print quality. Get paper that is best suited for the job you are doing. Also, try to get a test print from different models to compare quality before you buy. Inkjets can provide very good quality but are not as fast printing as laser printers.
- A fax machine if you will need to fax paper documents often. There is also the option of online faxing services such as E-Fax.
- A scanner if you will need to scan documents or photos. You can also use a scanner along with e-mail or fax software in place of a regular fax machine.
- A CD burner if you need to provide clients with large files electronically, or if you want to back up your files on CD. There are many business uses for a CD burner, not to mention the ability to make your own music CDs.
- A DVD writer (DVD-RAM) if you need to provide clients with extremely large files, such as video.
- A removable media storage device. Iomega™ offers the most common drive of this type, called the Zip™ drive, but there are many others like it. Data is written to the disk just like it would be to a floppy diskette. The difference is the amount of data that can be written. Currently, there are 100 Mb and 250 Mb disks available for the ZIP drive. Iomega also manufactures Jaz™ drives that use disks that can hold up to 2 Gb of data.
- A modem for accessing the Internet, faxing electronically, and e-mail. This can be either a standard modem that you use with your existing phone lines for dial up access, a DSL modem that also uses your phone line but does not tie up your line, or a cable modem that uses the same cable your cable television is hooked up to. DSL and cable modems are for broadband Internet access and require special connections.
- A digital camera if your work requires photos for presentations, reports, a Web site, or other documents. While you can also use a regular camera and scanner to get digital photos for documents, you may find the immediate access you get with a digital camera more efficient than waiting for film to be processed and printed. The quality of the digital image is still somewhat better with actually photos that are scanned, but for most business applications digital cameras produce sharp enough images. Images for use in marketing materials may need to be of higher quality.
- A multi-purpose scanner, fax machine, copier, printer if your space is limited and quality not as critical. Keep in mind with this type of equipment, however, if one part of it stops working you'll be without the other functions until it can be repaired!
For obvious reasons, mainly because equipment in the technology world changes more often than some people change underwear, we'll not go into the technical specifications for the computer equipment you'll need in your office.
In addition to computer equipment, you'll also need a good telephone. Caller ID helps by allowing you to screen out telemarketers or other calls you can't take at the moment. A second telephone line for your business phone, fax, and Internet access is also a plus.
There are work-arounds if you don't want to shell out the extra money for the additional phone line. For example, if you have a cell phone, which is recommended, you can use that number as your business line. Or, if you have dial-up Internet access that uses your home phone line, you can have calls forwarded to your cell phone when you're online. There is usually only a dollar per month charge from the phone company to forward calls when the line is busy. You just have to make sure you turn off call-waiting when you go online by adding ,*70 before the number you dial. The limitations here are, of course, the signal strength you get on your cell phone. If you work from your basement there may be problems getting a good enough signal to actually carry on a conversation. If your cell phone service offers voice mail, you at least have the chance of getting a message left even if you can't actually talk with the person at the time.
There are also services that answer calls while you are online and play the message immediately from your computer. If you want to return the call you can disconnect and do so. Callwave and Pagoo are two of the most popular services. They charge about $5 per month for the service.
A surge protector is necessary, not just to give you additional outlets for your computer and its peripherals, but to protect your equipment.
You may also need a personal digital assistant (aka PDA, Palm Pilot, Handspring, etc.). These are quite handy if you travel and need access to contact information, e-mail, or the web.
What About Software
On the software side of things, there are several options for you to consider. If you're a sole proprietor and have no employees you need to communicate and coordinate with then fulfilling your software requirements is not so difficult. Here are some categories of software you may need along with links to some of the most popular packages:
- an e-mail program -- You can use an e-mail program that your ISP provides, but programs such as Microsoft Outlook Express or Eudora will give you good e-mail functions and you won't have to change programs if you change ISPs.
- a word processor -- Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, and Lotus Word Pro
- spreadsheet and database programs -- Microsoft Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, Intuit QuickBase
- presentation software -- Microsoft PowerPoint, or Astound.
- virus protection software -- McAfee, or Norton AntiVirus
- a utility program for computer maintenance -- Symantec Norton Utilities, McAfee, or TechTool Pro
- Portable Document Format (PDF) reader software - Adobe Acrobat Reader -- This software is very helpful for reviewing formatted documents such as brochure layouts from outside designers or co-workers.
- graphics and/or image editing tool -- CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Freehand, Deneba Canvas (Image editing software may also accompany your scanner.)
- Internet browsers -- Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer
Many business applications come packaged in "suites" that provide all of the above product categories and then some. Some of the more popular packages include:
Many programs also have less expensive "light" or "limited" versions that may work for smaller businesses. They are also usually available for both Windows and Macintosh computer platforms.
If you are working with others, and have the need to coordinate scheduling, access central files, maintain a contact manager, meet in chat rooms, etc. then you have more of a challenge. There are programs available, such as Lotus Notes or Novell Groupwise, that provide these types of features as a software solution. These solutions may require quite a good bit of computer knowledge and an IT person to manage the system.
As an alternative, there are also online management services that provide these types of services on the Internet for access with your browser. These are fairly simple to use. They offer many features to promote coordination of information between members of a team, client interactions, or simply communication and file-sharing with co-workers. They typically charge a small monthly fee per user, or a larger flat rate for unlimited users. Some include free limited versions, however. Below are some of these services available on the net:
Your software needs will vary greatly depending on the type of work you are doing. Check with similar businesses or your industry association to find out what programs are preferred by your peers.
Don't forget about shareware too. There are a lot of great programs that may perform all of the tasks you need without the high price tag.
Where Will You Put All the Hardware?
You'll need a desk with plenty of workspace. It should have space for a computer, as well as room to spread out paperwork if necessary. A corner "L" shaped desk works well for this. Make sure the desk has a large keyboard tray that can accommodate your mouse pad and mouse, as well. Many computer desks don't have large enough trays. Don't forget about space for your printer, scanner, fax and other equipment.
Shelves, cabinets, and file cabinets are also necessities that help tremendously by utilizing vertical space and keeping things organized. You may also be able to use the tops of these shelves and file cabinets for your printer, scanner, fax machine, etc.
Also, don't forget to invest in a comfortable chair that offers good back support. It should have as many adjustable parts as possible to help it fit your body. Arms on the chair will also make it more comfortable, particularly if you will be doing some work other than that on a computer. For more information on setting up your home office visit About.com's Home Office Furniture page.
Connecting with the Outside World
The Cyber World
All of this hardware and software won't do you any good if you don't have a connection to the Internet. Your best bet is a broadband connection if you can get access. The term broadband just means a high bandwidth technology like DSL, or cable that allows you to send and receive files, sound, and video over a single connection.
If you can get cable television in your home then most likely you can also get a cable modem and Internet access. DSL uses your standard telephone line, but requires that you be located relatively close to the provider's central office (in some cases 3-4 miles). Check with local providers to see if DSL is available in your area. Many providers offer online tools that simply require you to enter your phone number to determine if service is available at your home.
If you live in an area without cable or DSL access, you still have the option of Internet access via satellite. These systems offer fast connections, but require satellite dishes and receivers as well as special modems. Click here for more information about satellite Internet access.
If you get an "always on" broadband connection then you also need to put in a firewall. Read our article about How Firewalls Work to get the skinny on protecting your files from hackers.
Regardless of the type of connection you get to the Internet, you will need an ISP (Internet Service Provider). In addition to access to the Internet, your ISP will give you an e-mail address, and possibly 5-10 Mb of free space for a website. You can also get additional e-mail addresses from sites like HotMail or Yahoo or Excite. These are free and the advantage of having one is that it doesn't have to change if you change your ISP. You can keep the same e-mail address and have the mail from that address forwarded to any other e-mail account you wish. It simply eliminates the process of sending out notices to all of your contacts that your e-mail address has changed. If you have an e-mail address from your company that you use for business, it is often a good idea to get a separate e-mail address for your personal e-mail.
If you need to connect multiple computers in your home, read our article about How to Network Your Home.
The Real World
What about your business address? If you're running a business from your home, you probably don't want your home address used as the business address. Depending on the type of business it is, it may just not give the impression you need. In this case, you have two options. You can rent a post office box, or you can use a CMRA (Commercial Mail Receiving Agency) mailbox service that gives you a corporate-sounding address and a suite number.
Each option has the drawback of requiring you to go somewhere else to get your mail (although there may be services that will deliver your mail to you). Post office boxes have the additional drawback of not allowing you to receive packages because couriers won't deliver to a P.O. box. If you use a service that gives your business a suite number (actually, just another name for a box number), you can receive packages. You also have 24-hour access and can request notification when a package has arrived.
What about client meetings?
Meetings with clients can't always take place in cyberspace, or at the client's location. When you are faced with this situation, rather than having the client come to your home (assuming they are in the same city), look into executive suites or hotels that offer space that can be leased for short periods of time. If you own your own business and this is a common occurrence, you may want to consider leasing an Executive Suite that provides you with a receptionist, voice mail, e-mail, and other services, along with time-limited access to private offices, a reception area, and a meeting room. If you don't need this type of arrangement on a regular basis, you can also rent spaces on an hourly basis at a fairly reasonable rate.
For example, using Offices2Share.com, a meeting room at The Blake Building in Washington, DC with a seating capacity of five, reserved for three hours would be $75. A room for 15 for the same amount of time would be $120. These types of services can often be reserved online and maps, written directions, contact information, photos and information about additional room needs is also provided.
Of course, there are also always the other standard meeting place options that include hotel lobbies, restaurants, golf courses, etc.
Communications today are drastically different than they were even 15 years ago. E-mail has become a way of life and the only communication method you may have with some people. If you think about how you communicated in business in 1985 as opposed to how you communicate in business now, there's no comparison. You probably used your office phone, and... well, there wasn't a heck of a lot more back then... maybe a telex machine. Shortly after that, however, fax machines began to enter the market, then car phones and e-mail hit the scene. Things changed very quickly after that. As technology advanced, the expectations of the amount of work produced also advanced. Now, we produce a lot more work a lot faster and expectations of higher productivity continue to climb because technology is enabling us to do it faster.
With technology advancing so rapidly and workloads increasing along with it, the desire to work from home and alleviate some of the stress that comes along with commuting, juggling family life, etc. has also become very strong. In that respect, the same technology that took away our freedom is also allowing us more freedom than we've ever experienced ... well, except for back before technology forced us to work so hard.
So, what does that have to do with communications and how we can communicate in a virtual business environment? A large part of work in any business, whether you're a sole proprietor or work for a corporation, is tied into communications of one type or another. If you can communicate effectively you can work more effectively. Take advantage of the technology available for communications and use your new found freedom to take back some of your life. Here's how:
- With a simple cell phone you can go to your child's softball game without fear of missing an important call.
- By using wireless web technology via cell phone or a Personal Digital Assistant, you can go the grocery store while you're waiting on that e-mailed file that needs your approval before it can be submitted.
- With a virtual assistant or readily available office services, you can work from your basement but have a professional address, and a receptionist answering your calls.
- With video conferencing you can communicate face-to-face with clients or co-workers across the country without ever leaving your city.
- With teleconferencing combined with Internet presentation software, you can communicate with several people in real time while you're all viewing the same presentation from locations around the world. Sonexis offers these tools.
- Using web hosted office tools you can perform scheduling, send files, communicate via chat rooms or instant messaging with co-workers, or clients.
- In custom chat rooms or with instant messaging, you can have a discussion with several people from different locations and in situations where you can't necessarily talk.
- Via web conferencing you can hold live interactive seminars, meetings, or other get togethers.
So, as you can see, communications in any office environment, whether virtual or not, are now quite simple and possible from almost anywhere. Don't forget, you also have the old standard, wired, corded, telephone you can use.
For some additional advice and information about working in a virtual environment, visit How Virtual Offices Work