Working from home, whether part-time or full-time, is a very appealing idea. You don’t have to concern yourself with a dress code, and you rarely need to set an alarm clock. You can ignore the traffic report, and you save a lot in gas money. Sure, home offices have disadvantages, but most people who adopt the lifestyle will assure you that the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Getting set up to work at home, however, can be another matter. You know how to get work done in an office, but you organized and decorated your house or apartment to be home. It isn’t always obvious how to shove a workspace into that area.
Plus, you are fully aware that if you’re disorganized or inefficient, that home/work arrangement won’t last long. If you’re a new telecommuter, your boss will be breathing down your neck to ensure that your work is completed on time; if you’ve gone into business for yourself, you need a place where you can focus. Here are a few tips — based on more than 20 years of home office life — that can help you establish a home office that works.
A Room of Your Own
The key to home office success is to create a space in which your work gets done. Ideally, it’s a room with a door that closes, which you can comfortably call “my office” — and which isn’t also called “my bedroom” or “the kitchen.”
However, even if your office setup must share space with another room, it’s important for your peace of mind to make your work environment separate from its surroundings. That is, your desk should have only work-related items on it — no kid’s toys, craft projects, grocery bags or lava lamps. (Okay, maybe the lava lamp.)
Even if you can’t physically close a door, it’s important to define an area that reminds yourself, “I’m at work, now.” Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to cook a dinner that requires three hours in the oven — but that doesn’t mean you have to spend three hours in the kitchen cooking it.
That division is important, because you will spend the first several weeks teaching your family the difference between work-time and home-time. To do so successfully, you must be very aware of that distinction for yourself.
Basic Equipment For a Home Office
It’s fairly obvious that you need some kind of Internet-equipped computer to work on. Even if your work isn’t computer-specific (say, you’re a furniture builder or a fisherman), you’ll use a computer to do your accounting, to pay bills online, and to correspond with customers. Many home office workers choose a notebook computer rather than a desktop system because it lets them move around the house, particularly if they also set up a wireless network. Hey, you could work from your back patio when the weather is amenable!
Consider carefully whether you need a dedicated telephone line. If you just hung up your own shingle, you almost certainly do need a separate business line. If you are looking to save money, consider using an Internet phone line. Having a separate phone line is all part of the separation between work and home, for your clients as well as for yourself. (This may convince the IRS that you’re running a real business, too.) Depending on your mobility, a cell phone may be all you need; consider one of the new smartphones that include e-mail and Internet access. Either way: be sure you can quickly find the “mute” button on that phone, as it’s very handy during teleconferences. Some people are (unfathomably) disgruntled to hear background noises that include dogs barking and children playing; they consider it unprofessional.
Do you need a fax machine? It depends on your job function, but increasingly the answer is “probably not.” If you’re moving to a home office after working for years in a regular office, you probably have some idea of your fax frequency. If you telecommute part-time, you may also be able to send not-quite-so-urgent documents on the days you’re in the office. There are also online services, such as efax.com, which let you send and receive faxes via the Internet; one main advantage to these services is that you don’t have to dedicate a phone line for the fax, and you can pick up the document from anywhere.
You probably do need a printer, however. If you’re still uncertain about the fax question, I recommend that you purchase an “all in one” system, which includes printer, fax and scanner. They’re a little more expensive, though not terribly so, and — a major benefit for home offices — they take up considerably less desk space than do the items separately. And no matter how big your home office is, desk space is always at a premium.
Another important — and often overlooked — home office requirement is electrical power. Even if you can turn a spare bedroom into your home office, it was designed to be a bedroom. There are probably only a couple of outlets. Once you plug in a computer, printer, lamp, telephone (my two-line system needs power), multimedia speakers… well, you’ve already used up one power strip. That’s another place you can’t be cheap: If this computer system goes down, you can’t work, and that probably means you can’t eat. Buy an uninterruptible power source. The least expensive of them is probably fine for your needs, as it gives you enough time to shut down the system without losing any data.
You don’t have to buy the most impressive desk and office chair, but I urge younot to settle for a poorly designed one. You will spend eight hours a day in that chair — at least that’s the idea — and if you aren’t physically comfortable, you won’t sit still. Also, invest in a decent desk lamp.
What Software Do You Need?
I’m sure you know which software applications are necessary for your job. But I exhort you to add at least one more to your home office suite: instant messaging. Among the top reasons for telecommuters to go back to the “real” office is a sense of isolation. While many of us work better alone (and in fact, that’s what drew us to home offices), we also want to feel “in the loop.”Instant messaging, as well as web conferencing, discussion forums and other social networking tools, can help you participate in your community, both local (home office) and global (other people in your profession) and encourage you to keep learning.
One more item to add to the software checklist: How will you back up your computer? Back in the office, someone else took care of it for you, or at least you knew enough to save important documents to a network drive. Now, you have to come up with an alternate plan. You could burn a CD with the data regularly, but then you need to store it off site (as a fire in your home would destroy both system and backup). You could use an online service like mozy.com. Or… well, there are other options, but the point is that you need to decide how you’ll handle the situation.
Don’t let the length of this checklist dismay you. Working from home is rewarding in so many ways — not the least of which is the opportunity to set the stereo just as loud as you like.