From the August 1998 issue of Startups

Are you wasting more than one month each year working in an inefficient home office? If you waste just one hour a day, five days a week, at the end of the year, you'll have wasted more than 32 eight-hour days. Whether you've just recently opened your homebased business or have spent many years working from home, an inefficient home office can waste your time, stunt your business growth and reduce your cash flow. Before you spend one more day (or month) looking for lost items, fighting with an office arrangement that you've outgrown or adding more unread magazines to an already towering stack, stop what you're doing and consider making a few changes.

Location, Location

Perhaps you started your homebased business in any old spot in your home, just to get going. Now it's time to settle into a more strategic location. Designate an area in your home, whether it's a spare bedroom, a room above your garage or space in your dining room, that can best be used as your office. Keep the area clear of nonbusiness-related items and handle only work-related tasks in this area. Although a particular room may seem ideal for your office at first glance, consider whether it's a place where you can maintain your productivity, keep track of papers related to your business and, more important, work with minimal interruptions.

Decide whether a particular room is worth spending the money necessary to convert it to a home office. For example, you may want to install phone lines or hire a contractor to set up better lighting and ventilation. Think long-term. It's better to invest in improving the right location than to settle for a space that costs less but will no longer suit your needs in a year or two.

Easy Pieces

One advantage to working from home is that your furniture options are limited only by your budget, rather than by corporate tradition. Space within a home office is often confined, making the choice of a huge, traditional desk impossible. Fortunately, there are several ways to furnish your office and design it for maximum efficiency.

Take a close look at the furniture you already own, and determine what's missing. Do you have enough filing space, drawer space or room to spread out while working? If not, decide which parts of your current setup aren't working and add more shelves, work surfaces or additional drawers.

Is your computer equipment resting on an old dining room table or a computer desk that no longer accommodates all the technology you've since acquired? A good option is a computer stand with a hutch to hold all your equipment that also leaves you with surface room for writing or temporarily storing information you need to enter in your computer.

If you need to keep your work space compact and unobtrusive, use an armoire to store your computer and other electronic equipment. Then when you're finished working for the day, close your "office doors."

Before you buy any piece of furniture, check it carefully for quality. Look for sturdy pieces with reliable hinges and drawer glides. You may be tempted to buy "bargain" items, but be aware, you may end up replacing that same item several times because it falls apart easily. When shopping, remember the old proverb "You get what you pay for." Homebased business owners now have the option of purchasing high-quality, affordable furniture that comes already assembled (a big plus for those of us with limited assembly skills). On the other hand, don't spend thousands of dollars on furniture that looks impressive, yet lacks enough storage and work space. Keep in mind that function is more crucial than appearance.

Perfect Arrangements

When setting up your office, consider three basic layouts: the U shape, the L shape and the parallel layout. The U-shaped work area, the ideal of the three, allows you to keep everything within reach on three surfaces. The L-shaped work area offers the important advantage of getting equipment off your desk and onto a secondary surface, without taking up as much room as the U. With the parallel layout, one surface is placed opposite the other, still giving you two surfaces of work space.

The arrangement you choose depends primarily on the size of your office, the type of furniture you have and how much work surface you need. Keep in mind that if someone else is sharing your office, you may be limited in the type of arrangement you can use.

Don't place your computer in front of a window. The glare will be hard on your eyes. Make sure your computer screen is either facing a wall without a window or at a right angle to a window.

If you must place your computer in front of a window, make sure you have curtains or blinds that will block the outside light while you're looking at your monitor.

Remember to allow space for opening a file cabinet drawer--about an additional 24 inches. The cabinet itself may fit in a convenient space next to your shelves, but it will be useless if you can't open the drawer all the way.

The Right Stuff

Equipping your office with the right technology will help you increase your productivity. However, the technology in your office, whether it's a PC, printer, fax machine or other electronic equipment, is only as effective as the person using it, and it can create organizational challenges. If you keep too much information stored on your computer, get in the habit of purging your hard drive the same way you would the papers in your file cabinets. If you know you'll never refer to a document again, dump it. If you don't, you'll waste too much time searching through unnecessary documents.

Don't wait until your computer crashes to think about backing up your data. One of the best purchases you can make is a reliable backup system. You can choose between removable media drives or external hard drives. If you don't back up your data, you'll waste endless hours attempting to recreate the information and you'll inevitably lose valuable data. Equipment is easy to replace; data is not.

Buy the highest quality printer you can afford. It's easy to spend more money on your computer and skimp on your printer, yet consider that clients will probably see only the correspondence or other documents you generate, not the computer (or the office) from which you generate such materials. Whether you're preparing a proposal, newsletter or four-color brochure, it's important to give your clients the highest quality printouts you can afford.

When faxing documents, include on your cover page a brief list of everything you're sending in case the entire fax is not transmitted. This also serves as a record of what you faxed. Remember, if you have a thermal paper fax machine and want to save a particular fax, you must photocopy it before it fades. A plain paper fax machine is a good alternative to buying several pieces of equipment. Some models allow you to make copies and also serve as printers and scanners.

Information Overload

Putting a piece of paper in a file folder is easy; finding it again is the hard part. There are ways to make your files easier to use and your papers easier to find. Invest in a sturdy, four-drawer file cabinet. Spend the extra money it takes to get quality and durability. You'll spend more money replacing a cheaper file cabinet a few times than buying a reliable one in the beginning. You may not have enough files to fill the cabinet now, but believe me, you'll need it in the future.

Before you buy additional cabinets, weed out unnecessary files. The natural tendency is to buy more cabinets to hold the papers you've accumulated. The more filing space you have, however, the more tendency you have to keep unnecessary papers.

Keep the number of hanging file folders you use to a minimum. Rather than putting only one interior folder in each hanging folder, group three to five interior folders in each one and label the hanging folder with the main category.

Minimize your paper files by using a scanner to store them electronically. There are hand-held, sheet-fed, flatbed and optical pen scanners available. You can even use a scanner to enter business cards into a contact management software program.

Designate one place in your office for magazines, newspapers and any other publications you don't need to read right away. Select another place for papers that need to be filed. Stacking bins--they're larger than stacking trays and have legs--keep papers to file and papers to read separated, yet in close proximity to each other. You could also use wicker baskets near your desk to hold these materials. The point is to keep this inactive information off your desk and keep you focused on more important tasks.

You don't have to spend a fortune or a lifetime organizing your homebased business. Take the time to select the right location for your home office and evaluate whether your current furniture and setup is meeting your needs. Then design your office so you can find information quickly, and create a filing system that reduces the time you spend searching for important papers.

Disorganization can cause lost time and money and eventually may cause you to lose sight of the reason you started your business in the first place: to enjoy what you do each day.

Take Five

1. The only items you need to keep on your desk are the ones you use daily or weekly. Anything else is excess clutter. When your desk is clear, you'll spend less time searching for an open space to work, leaving you more time to do what you need to do.

2. Stacking trays are a good tool for organizing incoming and outgoing paperwork. However, they only work if you take time each day to clear your "in" tray and put papers in your "out" tray. If you don't have an assistant, take a few minutes to clear your out tray by the end of each day.

3. If you're left-handed, keep your phone on the right-hand side of your desk, and vice versa, to avoid trying to write over a phone cord.

4. Think vertically, and add shelves near your desk. Use these shelves for the items you use less often, including a three-hole punch, extra supplies or reference materials.

5. Organize the items in your desk drawers by using drawer dividers. They'll keep everything separated, saving you time spent looking for the items you need. You can use products specifically designed for drawers or ordinary silverware trays to keep your supplies divided.

Case Studies

Case Study #1: Suzanne Passman

The owner of two Dallas homebased businesses--one offering brokerage services for employee benefits and the other, administrative support--Suzanne Passman had the ideal office space in her loft. But she wanted to make the space more efficient.

First, we rearranged two downstairs closets to make room for the clothes and shoes she had been storing in the loft and moved the items accordingly. When we finished, she had closet room to spare. Then we moved an antique buffet from her family room to her loft and placed it behind her new computer table (which replaced her old desk). We moved the file cabinet containing personal files to the other side of the room next to a couch table used to assemble marketing kits, and switched her personal desk from a space in front of a window to an empty wall to bring more light into the room.

Passman uses the buffet to store extra supplies, computer documents and manuals, and her current files; and her two-drawer file cabinet for business reference files. She prefers to store a majority of her files electronically, and therefore needs less file cabinet space. We replaced her stiff dining room chair with one that swivels and rolls, offers back support and is adjustable. Finally, we put several out-of-control cords in a single tube, added "in" and "to file" stacking trays and placed a spiral notebook next to her phone for messages.

Case Study #2: Bill Vick

President of Recruiters OnLine Network, a virtual network of recruiting, employment and search firms worldwide, Bill Vick faced an organizational challenge that is becoming all too common for business owners: too much equipment. Vick's computers, fax machine, video camera, printer and other technological necessities were taking over his office and creating a tangled web of cords. He needed to store this equipment efficiently, while still keeping it accessible. The solution? We consolidated all the equipment into his closet.

Vick had converted a closet that was too small for storage into a work area with counter space, shelves and overhead lighting. He had purchased a custom-designed desk/conference table and placed it to the left of the closet and added a long table to the right, forming a U shape.

First, we removed a PC that Vick no longer uses from the closet work space and replaced it with the PC he uses daily, then purged knickknacks from his main work space. We put his printer on the shelf above the PC and moved his phone routing and answering system from the table on the right to a shelf below and to the right of his computer. The best place for his phone was above his phone system, which handles nine incoming lines. When he replaces his headset, Vick will move his phone next to the answering system, leaving the headset next to his computer.

Vick uses his laptop and scanner primarily while traveling, but he occasionally uses it in the office. We moved both the laptop and scanner to the table on the right, leaving Vick plenty of space to spread out his papers while working. We put all the cords into long plastic tubes. We solved Vick's frustrating problem of where to put incoming and outgoing papers by moving a rolling cart that was previously under his desk to the space between his table and closet work space. Vick calls his new work area his "communications center."


Lisa Kanarek is a nationally recognized home office organizing expert and the author of Organizing Your Home Office For Success, Everything's Organized and 101 Home Office Success Secrets. Visit her Web site at www.everythingsorganized.com.