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Space Quest

What is the best space in your home for your home office space? The answer depends on you. Here's how to find it.

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Ready to do your high-powered entrepreneur thing from home? Or maybe you've already joined the millions who have opted for this popular work style, and your current space feels cramped, cluttered or wrong for reasons you can't figure out. Perhaps you've already created a home office that works, but your lease is up and it's time to move to a new home.

Convenient and predictably more comfortable than someone else's warren of cubes, a home office lets you have it your way while dramatically reducing wardrobe, commuting and day-care expenses. And get ready to notice how working from home reduces psychological wear and tear. Now, instead of sneaking off for those mental health moments, you can sack out in the comfort of your own executive suite--which just may be the living room adjacent to the closet you've converted into a diminutive but powerful high-tech office.

But none of this can happen without careful planning. You'll need to develop a relatively high level of awareness about your work style before you can create a truly effective work environment. Lucky for you, those who have already explored this brave new world of work have pretty much figured out how to choose and configure a home office space. Here are some steps to follow and crucial details to consider.

Evaluating Your Work Style

Before rushing to plug in the computers or install extra phone lines, take some time to determine how and under what conditions you work best. Work style has to do with the practical realities of how you produce--the pace, flow and rhythm of your workday. Can you work effectively with all hell breaking loose around you or do you need monastic-like silence? Do you roll out of bed at the dawn's early light or do you prefer cutting deals under the cover of darkness? Do you need to wander around as you plan your next move or do you stay pretty much glued to your desk? What does all this have to do with creating functional work digs? Your work style will determine where to locate your home office and what you'll need to put in it.

If you live alone, the degree to which you pander to your preferred work style is constrained only by available space. It can get a little more dicey once others enter the picture. If you're married, living with a significant other or have kids on the scene, you'll need to recognize--and account for--their presence in or near your workspace. Clearly you don't want to set up your office in a corner of the rumpus room if your kids have claimed the entire area. Nor will you want to take over the spare bedroom next to the bathroom everyone uses because it has the one and only shower stall.

If this seems like an obvious "duh," you'd be surprised by how many people stake out what seems to be prime territory, only to be driven nuts by family and even neighborhood traffic patterns they never noticed before. This is why even after you've found what you think is the perfect homebased space, hold off staking a claim until you've spent at least an entire day--and preferably two--in your chosen environs. Better to find out that you can't escape the sounds of neighborhood kids after three o'clock in the afternoon before you start drilling shelves into the walls.

Work style also has to do with whatever space you'll need to work at peak efficiency. Can't live without two computers, three printers, a scanner, and top-of-the-line full-sized stereo equipment? You'll be needing quite a bit of room, so forget about squeezing into the pantry off the kitchen.

Taking Your Work Preference Into Account

Choose a location by first taking a thorough inventory of your work preferences--one that includes all your quirky predilections in the way of storage space, lighting, sound and electrical equipment. Make a list of your current and future technology needs as your business grows. Answer the 20 questions on the following page to make sure you've covered all your bases. Then, with clipboard in hand, wander through your living space to see where you might be able to set up shop. Some fortunate souls have an extra bedroom that doesn't have to be shared with visiting dignitaries (like in-laws), a basement that never floods, or an attic in which a fully grown adult can stand without getting conked on the head. If this is your deal, rejoice and simply choose a place that protects and preserves your most precious idiosyncracies--like your nonnegotiable need to have Fido camped out under your desk.

For most people, however, the search for home office space is a more complex mission, one requiring a fair amount of creative imagination. You'll want to tour your home in search of nooks and crannies you can easily convert. If you can annex space that includes a door or allows one to be installed, even better. But remember, all you really need is enough room for a work surface, your most essential desktop stuff, a source of electricity and a way to create decent lighting. Keeping these minimal requirements in mind, consider the possibility of tucking an office underneath a stairway, at the end of a hallway or on a landing in between floors--and invest in ear plugs.

Renovations are also an option, depending on your budget, time frame, sense of adventure and tolerance for disruption. New frontiers open up if you have the financial and psychological wherewithal to withstand the stress of construction, not to mention the mysterious way contractors estimate deliverables. Decks, patios, porches and balconies can be transformed, as can carports and garages. What you absolutely do not want to pick is somewhere that gives you the total creeps. Now is absolutely not the time to work through whatever residual childhood issues you may have about attics or basements. Nor do you want to run a business from your bedroom, unless you already have a profound sleep disorder or don't mind developing one.

Storage, Lighting, Sound & Wiring

  • Storage. Tempting though it may be to have everything in one place, you don't have to jam all your supplies, files and reference materials into one room. In fact, you'll probably boost your productivity by removing this kind of visual and physical clutter. Office supplies and dead files that can weather any temperature can be stored on shelves out in the garage or up in the attic. Stash paper supplies in one of those flat under-the-bed boxes. (Don't forget to store essential documents in fireproof boxes.)

But what about the stuff you absolutely must keep close at hand? Does it all have to be in paper form or can you transfer a lot of it to a disk? Look up: Is there wasted space above doors where you can put shelving? Meanwhile, resist any urge you may have to bolt bookcases onto the walls or to build in desks and other work surfaces until you've had time to more fully comprehend your storage needs.

  • Lighting. Unless you thrive in the dark, you'll want to light up your work life with a combination of fixtures that provide moderately bright, uniform lighting and lamps that provide focused or "task" lighting. Using three-way bulbs and dimmer switches expands the possibilities. Make every effort to avoid using flourescent bulbs, which, over time, create more stress than comfort. Set up all your lighting fixtures, then sit down at your desk to assess the situation. Is light bouncing off your computer monitor? Are you illuminating your trash basket instead of your desk? Do you have enough natural light? Maybe you ought to consider punching a skylight into the ceiling. No, not with your fist after a bad client encounter. Call an interior designer instead.
  • Sound. Let the decor soak up as much sound as possible by installing acoustical ceiling tile and carpeting with the highest grade padding you can afford. Make sure every window is properly weather-stripped and replace the hollow-core door to your office with something more solid. If your office doesn't have a door, you might want to rethink its location. In addition to providing a barrier against noise, you'll be wanting something to close at the end of the day as a mental health move. If an office with a door just isn't possible, there are other effective ways to block sound. Don't rule out the use of "white noise" and environmental sounds machines. Just make sure you choose a sound that doesn't lull you to sleep (for example, crickets) or stimulate too many bathroom breaks (for example, babbling brooks).
  • Electrical Wiring. Despite the trend toward home offices, few homes are built with the electrical needs of entrepreneurs in mind. Sure, you can plug everything into power strips, but consider springing for additional electrical outlets, which are ultimately safer and more aesthetically pleasing. And while the electrician is in, install at least one outlet above desk level to make life easier and put one near the phone jack. Check out the feasibility of placing all office wiring on a separate circuit breaker, preferably one that doesn't require a trip to the basement every time something blows.
  • But I Live in an Apartment!

Apartment living doesn't preclude the possibility of creating a totally fabulous home office. If you don't have or can't afford a separate room, you can still do a lot to convert closet space into workspace. Just take off the door, remove the clothing rods, install shelves and a work surface, and then add lighting. These days it's also possible to find furniture that's both beautiful and functional, pieces that look like armoires, but open up to provide desk space, file drawers and shelves. If you must resort to using a corner of your bedroom, plan to enclose the work area with a decorative screen or perhaps a plant jungle. While you're at it, choose hardy plants that improve air quality (for example, ferns, spider plants, a dracaena) but won't poison your critters (for example, philodendrons).

20 Questions to Ask Yourself

Before you commit to your home office space, ask yourself these 20 questions:

  1. Do you want clients or visitors traipsing through your home to get to your office?
  2. Do you want your family trooping through--or even past--your office?
  3. Are you doing mostly desk work?
  4. Do you need space to sort, store and ship stuff?
  5. Are you producing and assembling a product?
  6. Do you want--or need--to keep your work-in-progress on-hand and available for tweaking at a moment's notice?
  7. Does noise or activity easily distract you?
  8. How much and what kind of sound can you tolerate while working?
  9. Do you work more efficiently when you can see and touch reference materials?
  10. Do you wilt in the absence of natural light?
  11. Do you need a desktop computer or would a notebook do just as well?
  12. Are you left- or right-handed?
  13. Do you need a separate entrance to maintain clients' privacy or your own sanity?
  14. Is your work life completely separate from or fairly integrated with the rest of your life?
  15. Do you need help maintaining healthy boundaries around your work?
  16. Is your work something in which your family can participate?
  17. Will you be adding more equipment in the near future?
  18. Does listening to music boost your creativity?
  19. Do you need space to hold meetings?
  20. Does your town or city have special zoning requirements for homebased businesses?

Meredith Gould has worked from a home office for more than a decade. Additional tips for working happily and healthily at home can be found in her book, Working at Home: Making It Work for You.