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.

By Meredith Gould

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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

Convenient and predictably more comfortable than someoneelse's warren of cubes, a home office lets you have it your waywhile dramatically reducing wardrobe, commuting and day-careexpenses. And get ready to notice how working from home reducespsychological wear and tear. Now, instead of sneaking off for thosemental health moments, you can sack out in the comfort of your ownexecutive suite--which just may be the living room adjacent to thecloset you've converted into a diminutive but powerfulhigh-tech office.

But none of this can happen without careful planning. You'llneed to develop a relatively high level of awareness about yourwork style before you can create a truly effective workenvironment. Lucky for you, those who have already explored thisbrave new world of work have pretty much figured out how to chooseand configure a home office space. Here are some steps to followand crucial details to consider.

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

If you live alone, the degree to which you pander to yourpreferred work style is constrained only by available space. It canget a little more dicey once others enter the picture. Ifyou're married, living with a significant other or have kids onthe scene, you'll need to recognize--and account for--theirpresence in or near your workspace. Clearly you don't want toset up your office in a corner of the rumpus room if your kids haveclaimed the entire area. Nor will you want to take over the sparebedroom next to the bathroom everyone uses because it has the oneand only shower stall.

If this seems like an obvious "duh," you'd besurprised by how many people stake out what seems to be primeterritory, only to be driven nuts by family and even neighborhoodtraffic patterns they never noticed before. This is why even afteryou've found what you think is the perfect homebased space,hold off staking a claim until you've spent at least an entireday--and preferably two--in your chosen environs. Better to findout that you can't escape the sounds of neighborhood kids afterthree o'clock in the afternoon before you start drillingshelves into the walls.

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

Taking Your Work Preference Into Account

Choose a location by first taking a thorough inventory of yourwork preferences--one that includes all your quirky predilectionsin the way of storage space, lighting, sound and electricalequipment. Make a list of your current and future technology needsas your business grows. Answer the 20 questions on the followingpage to make sure you've covered all your bases. Then, withclipboard in hand, wander through your living space to see whereyou might be able to set up shop. Some fortunate souls have anextra bedroom that doesn't have to be shared with visitingdignitaries (like in-laws), a basement that never floods, or anattic in which a fully grown adult can stand without getting conkedon the head. If this is your deal, rejoice and simply choose aplace that protects and preserves your most preciousidiosyncracies--like your nonnegotiable need to have Fido campedout under your desk.

For most people, however, the search for home office space is amore complex mission, one requiring a fair amount of creativeimagination. You'll want to tour your home in search of nooksand crannies you can easily convert. If you can annex space thatincludes a door or allows one to be installed, even better. Butremember, all you really need is enough room for a work surface,your most essential desktop stuff, a source of electricity and away to create decent lighting. Keeping these minimal requirementsin mind, consider the possibility of tucking an office underneath astairway, at the end of a hallway or on a landing in betweenfloors--and invest in ear plugs.

Renovations are also an option, depending on your budget, timeframe, sense of adventure and tolerance for disruption. Newfrontiers open up if you have the financial and psychologicalwherewithal to withstand the stress of construction, not to mentionthe mysterious way contractors estimate deliverables. Decks,patios, porches and balconies can be transformed, as can carportsand garages. What you absolutely do not want to pick is somewherethat gives you the total creeps. Now is absolutely not the time towork through whatever residual childhood issues you may have aboutattics or basements. Nor do you want to run a business from yourbedroom, unless you already have a profound sleep disorder ordon't mind developing one.

Storage, Lighting, Sound & Wiring

  • Storage. Tempting though it may be to have everything inone place, you don't have to jam all your supplies, files andreference materials into one room. In fact, you'll probablyboost your productivity by removing this kind of visual andphysical clutter. Office supplies and dead files that can weatherany temperature can be stored on shelves out in the garage or up inthe attic. Stash paper supplies in one of those flat under-the-bedboxes. (Don't forget to store essential documents in fireproofboxes.)

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 ofit to a disk? Look up: Is there wasted space above doors where youcan put shelving? Meanwhile, resist any urge you may have to boltbookcases onto the walls or to build in desks and other worksurfaces until you've had time to more fully comprehend yourstorage needs.

  • Lighting. Unless you thrive in the dark, you'll wantto light up your work life with a combination of fixtures thatprovide moderately bright, uniform lighting and lamps that providefocused or "task" lighting. Using three-way bulbs anddimmer switches expands the possibilities. Make every effort toavoid using flourescent bulbs, which, over time, create more stressthan comfort. Set up all your lighting fixtures, then sit down atyour desk to assess the situation. Is light bouncing off yourcomputer monitor? Are you illuminating your trash basket instead ofyour desk? Do you have enough natural light? Maybe you ought toconsider punching a skylight into the ceiling. No, not with yourfist after a bad client encounter. Call an interior designerinstead.
  • Sound. Let the decor soak up as much sound as possibleby installing acoustical ceiling tile and carpeting with thehighest grade padding you can afford. Make sure every window isproperly weather-stripped and replace the hollow-core door to youroffice with something more solid. If your office doesn't have adoor, you might want to rethink its location. In addition toproviding a barrier against noise, you'll be wanting somethingto close at the end of the day as a mental health move. If anoffice with a door just isn't possible, there are othereffective ways to block sound. Don't rule out the use of"white noise" and environmental sounds machines. Justmake sure you choose a sound that doesn't lull you to sleep(for example, crickets) or stimulate too many bathroom breaks (forexample, babbling brooks).
  • Electrical Wiring. Despite the trend toward homeoffices, few homes are built with the electrical needs ofentrepreneurs in mind. Sure, you can plug everything into powerstrips, but consider springing for additional electrical outlets,which are ultimately safer and more aesthetically pleasing. Andwhile the electrician is in, install at least one outlet above desklevel to make life easier and put one near the phone jack. Checkout the feasibility of placing all office wiring on a separatecircuit breaker, preferably one that doesn't require a trip tothe basement every time something blows.
  • But I Live in anApartment!

Apartment living doesn't preclude the possibility ofcreating a totally fabulous home office. If you don't have orcan't afford a separate room, you can still do a lot to convertcloset space into workspace. Just take off the door, remove theclothing rods, install shelves and a work surface, and then addlighting. These days it's also possible to find furniturethat's both beautiful and functional, pieces that look likearmoires, but open up to provide desk space, file drawers andshelves. If you must resort to using a corner of your bedroom, planto enclose the work area with a decorative screen or perhaps aplant jungle. While you're at it, choose hardy plants thatimprove 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 these20 questions:

  1. Do you want clients or visitors traipsing through your home toget to your office?
  2. Do you want your family trooping through--or even past--youroffice?
  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 andavailable 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 whileworking?
  9. Do you work more efficiently when you can see and touchreference materials?
  10. Do you wilt in the absence of natural light?
  11. Do you need a desktop computer or would a notebook do just aswell?
  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 integratedwith the rest of your life?
  15. Do you need help maintaining healthy boundaries around yourwork?
  16. Is your work something in which your family canparticipate?
  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 forhomebased businesses?

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

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