Where do you set the incoming mail in your household? The kitchen table? That’s a fine place, but then the mail must be opened and somehow sorted, checks written, and records kept. Today, many families are opting to set aside an office area in the home. And if you are one of the growing number of Kentuckians working from your home, an office becomes almost a necessity.
Whether you need space for telecommuting, a home business, or a household office, this is an excellent time to be doing it. There are more choices than ever before as furniture, technology, and storage-unit manufacturers come up with products and ideas for the growing market of people setting up work spaces in their homes.
One out of 10 U.S. homes has a dedicated home office, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The association expects that number to grow in the next decade.
But before rushing out to buy a lot of furniture and equipment, create a plan, says Stephanie Denton, immediate past president of the National Association of Professional Organizers.
Three steps Denton recommends for getting started: choose the space that the office will occupy; rid the space of items you won’t need; and think through exactly how the office will be used.
Wendee Walker, co-manager of the Organized Living store in Louisville, sometimes sees customers intent on buying furniture even before measuring the dimensions of the room or corner. Creating an office is a process, not something that can be done in one shopping trip, says Walker.
These days, use of technology can dominate the home office planning process. In many ways, the home office has become a media center, says Office Depot’s Kirby Salgado, divisional merchandise manager for furniture and accessories. Traditional office products and high-speed Internet technologies work side by side.
One person who blended the high-tech and the homey is Lisa Kanarek, home office expert, founder of HomeOfficeLife and author of Home Office Solutions: Creating a Space that Works for You (Rockport Publishers) and Organizing Your Home Business (Socrates Media).
Kanarek designed her own home office with French doors and windows looking out in the back yard, a window seat, and white oak furniture. The office provides quiet working space that can still be used as overflow space when she and her husband entertain. As her home is wired with a high-speed Internet DSL connection, she can work anywhere in the house—even on the patio overlooking the family swimming pool.
Even though she doesn’t always work in her office, Kanarek says it’s still important to have a designated place for work items and files.
Dr. James Davis, a researcher with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has an office at the Center, as well as a room in his home designated as the office. But usually (and especially when colleagues stay at his house), the family room and living spaces become “the office,” and “an Internet café” as he calls it. He and his wife and visitors each work at laptop computers, using a wireless router connected to the cable that comes in through the basement.
The secret is to create an office area—large or small—that fits your style and personality. “Ask yourself: how do you work?” Walker recommends. “You have to work within your personality.”
She planned to utilize her husband’s home office as the place to do the family’s bookkeeping, but somehow found herself doing this in the family room. The solution was a decorative rattan hinged stationery box that she sets on the sofa while writing out her bills on a TV tray. When the work is done, she stores the box on the top of her refrigerator and potential clutter is out of sight.
Designing the Space
The exciting part about creating a home office is not having to follow the rigid, one-size-fits-all rules of the corporation, says interior designer Christopher Lowell. “The office is about you being inspired.”
Lowell says that to decide on the look of your office or work area, analyze how you’ve arranged the rest of your house. “Seven Layers of Design,” detailed in his book of the same title, will work in the home office:
- paint and architecture
- installed flooring
- upholstered furniture (especially a comfortable office chair)
- accent fabrics
- non-upholstered furniture (your desk)
- plants and lighting
Lowell recommends choosing a design theme for the office. That will eliminate a lot of choices and you’ll be guided by what fits the theme and what doesn’t.
The main goal should be creating an inspiring atmosphere, says Lowell.
Not sure what colors to use in your office? Go to your closet and take out all your black and white clothing. What colors remain? That’s a clue as to whether you prefer warm or cool shades.
Paint your walls with rich deep color. It can be calming. And don’t paint your ceiling white but rather a medium shade of the room’s main color. When in doubt about paint color, go darker.
Beautiful and functional office furniture and accessories is a growing trend in office design. Fashionable accessories in bamboo, wicker, tin/metal, leather, and suede add texture and interest to a room.
“Make a home office a reflection of who you are,” says Lowell, who hosts the Discovery Home Channel’s Christopher Lowell Show and Wall to Wall.
Window treatments add luxury. Place mirrors at opposite ends of the room, and they will double the light. Sales representative Joan Wright, of Perry Park, notes that a mirror also serves as a reminder to smile while doing business on the phone.
Lowell recommends finding one style of picture frame that you like. The crown molding of the frame will add elegance. Four wall-mounted frames across and four frames underneath with cherished photos is one suggestion. It also keeps extra picture frames from cluttering the desk.
If you have only a small amount of money to spend on a home office, focus on accessories, lighting, and color, says Lowell. Track lighting with halogen bulbs will cast pools of light into the room. A matching pair of lamps on a desk can add character to an office.
Furnishing the Office
The desk will generally be the office’s largest focal point. Peruse the wide variety of desks sold at department and discount stores, and office-supply stores.
A full pedestal desk has a wide flat top and drawers on both sides of the knee space. Workspace can be added to some desks with a connecting unit to create an L-shaped desk. An executive U-shaped desk can be created from three or four pieces, but this configuration generally does not work well in small spaces.
Joan Wright made one of the desks in her home office using two filing cabinets and a hollow veneer door that had a defect on one side and cost about $15. If a door has a doorknob hole already drilled in, combine a piece of plywood, epoxy glue, and a small glass to create a pencil holder. One of Wright’s later desks cost $2,000. The door desk and expensive handmade desk worked just the same, says Wright, who has worked for a number of major companies from home offices in Maine, Kentucky, and Ohio.
Susan Shanbar and her sister, Marjorie Rubin, operate a promotional products and apparel company, Plentyfull Presents, from home offices that are about 60 miles apart in Massachusetts. Shanbar just upgraded from a personal computer to a laptop.
“I got rid of the tower…and all the wires….It’s wonderful,” she says, marveling at the extra desk space that resulted.
Because of laptops and flat-screen computers, writing desks have come back into vogue in some home offices. Professional organizer Amy Lee of Louisville affixed a pull-out keyboard tray to a client’s antique writing desk. Still, as many people continue to utilize large desktop computers, office furniture manufacturers are building in grommets for cord and cable access.
“Furniture evolves as the technology evolves,” observes Salgado from Office Depot.
Another evolution has been in the aesthetics of office furniture. People want a more residential look to office furniture in their homes, so today’s office furniture is both functional and beautiful. An example of this is the Christopher Lowell Office Collection, sold exclusively at Office Depot. Lowell has actually created four collections, each with a specific theme and color palette: Town, City, Country, and Shore. At a glance it looks like heirloom furniture, but it can be disassembled, just as the plain utilitarian computer desks that proliferated in the 1980s with the introduction of personal computers.
Denton recommends buying an L-shaped desk. This allows you to work in one area, and have your current or forthcoming projects within easy reach. An L-shaped desk can be created by buying modular units to add to a desk.
Another desk option is a computer armoire or a credenza with a hutch. With many furniture lines, matching pieces—credenzas, bookcases, storage cabinets, lateral and upright file pedestals—can be bought to coordinate with a desk or at a later time.
If you already have a desk but aren’t happy with your office, consider rearranging the room. Sometimes making a U-shaped arrangement of existing furniture or adding more bookcases will enable you to use the space more efficiently. If your home office is in a corner of a room and you want additional privacy, design some sort of a physical separation. A portable folding screen or a drapery between the desk and the rest of the room are possible approaches when space is limited.
Beware of two tendencies. Typically, home offices become the dumping ground for the household’s unwanted furniture. That old dining-room chair is not the best choice when you’ll be sitting at the computer for hours at a time. Invest in a good adjustable, ergonomically designed chair.
“Make-do pieces can slow productivity,” says Denton.
Another common tendency (and taker-up of space) in home offices is defective equipment brought home from the company, observes Don Aslett, author of The Office Clutter Cure (Adams Media). Your intention might be to fix and use the equipment, but often it just gathers dust.
If you have formed an attachment to certain cluttering items in your office space, consider that you can discard an object but still hang on to the memories it evokes. “No one can take the memories from you,” says Organized Living’s Walker, who also has an interior design background.
Getting into the (Paper) Flow
An estimated one-fourth to one-third of companies will provide some initial assistance to employees who transition from a desk within the company office to a desk at home. But once the transition is made, you generally won’t have the same administrative help that you would on-site at the company. This means having to create and maintain a system for both everyday paperwork and its eventual storage.
Stephanie Denton, president of Denton & Company in Cincinnati, says paper flow needs to be considered as seriously as furniture and technology choices. The mail and work-related paper “make it through your office as a flow.” This aspect is actually “managing information and opportunity,” says Denton, who authored Kentucky Living’s May 2004 article, “The Organized Home.” Even as technology has made many processes paperless, paper is still an everyday dilemma.
Create an in-box. The information there needs to be sorted to one of four places:
- passed on to be handled by another person
- kept for future reference
- acted upon
Amy Lee suggests that an in-box be further expanded to include slots such as “Items to be Read, Items to be Filed, Bills, and Correspondence Needed.”
Active files need to be separated from reference files, with the active files placed closer to the desk. Lee sometimes recommends that vertical file holders be placed on the wall next to the desk as a place to store several active files.
Professional organizers recommend full-suspension file cabinets because this type will roll all the way out, as opposed to inexpensive models where the back files are difficult to reach.
Organizational problems in the home office stem from items being out of place, says Aslett, whose five books and one CD on clutter reflect the countless offices he has cleaned, as chairman of the board of Varsity Contractors. About 80 percent of organization, he believes, is one’s attitude rather than not having the right filing or storage system.
We underestimate the amount of paperwork we have to deal with, he says. It seems cheap and convenient at the time, but the cumulative results of too much paper can have far-reaching effects. Office clutter—both in the corporate and home office—makes you late, takes up space, hurts your image, and announces your “ability status.” A cluttered office says we’re not available and not entirely in control.
A Place for Everything
The experts agree: assign a place for specific items in the office.
“If you have a place for an item, it takes five seconds to find,” says Aslett. If you know the general vicinity of an item, it may take five minutes to find. If the information is in one of numerous piles, it can take hours.
Shanbar’s company can personalize and distribute some 800,000 products. These products, though, don’t clutter her second-floor office. Instead, samples are stored in a hideaway that opens into the attic.
Lee has found good storage solutions not only in office-supply store aisles, but among kitchen products. For instance, a heavy-duty holder for placemats can be used to store paper files. Look beyond a manufacturer’s stated use and adapt a product to how you plan to use it.
Organization gives you control in a world we don’t have much control over, says Organized Living’s Executive Vice President Hope Margala-Klein. Time spent organizing gives you more time in the long run, and we benefit from the peace of mind and accomplishment of being organized.
Customers coming into Organized Living stores usually have a problem for which they need a solution. For instance, they’ll say, “I’m getting ready for tax time,” or “My magazine stack is out of control.”
James Davis, like most scientists he knows, tends to use piles as a means of organization.
One day, acting on an idea suggested to him by an administrative assistant, Davis bought a literature organizer, much like the kind you see in school offices, with 3-inch-high slots for 8-1/2×11 pages. The unit he bought has about 20 slots that he labels and uses to store papers for current projects.
“That changed my life,” he says.
“Wow, where did you get that?” colleagues asked, as if the cubbyholes were some miraculous invention.
Most people aren’t interested in the same level of organization of all things, says Margala-Klein. A person might have everything neatly organized within the computer and yet have dozens of software boxes stacked, unorganized, in a corner.
Georgetown professional organizer Sue McMillin suggests a formula to her clients: for every hour in the office, spend about a minute organizing and putting things away. Thus, after a 10-hour day, you need to spend about 10 minutes of maintenance.
“You have to be even more professional than someone in a corporate office,” says Kanarek, mentioning how even small things, like unnecessary noise in the background, can create the wrong impression.
One time Kanarek had an appointment with a graphic designer whose office was at the back of the house. The route to the office did not look very businesslike. She remembers asking herself, “Will my work get mixed among the clutter and children’s toys?”
A successful home office flows from good choices of design, furniture, technology, and storage, and a multitude of factors. Foremost, though, is the attitude that you bring to it.
“It all comes down to organization and work ethics,” Wright says.
But most of all, as Christopher Lowell says, “Give yourself permission to enjoy the space.”
Home office secrets: DESIGN
- Have a plan
- Choose a theme
- Use mirrors and window treatments
- Mount photos and souvenirs on the wall
Home office secrets: ORGANIZATION
- Have an in-box
- Use full-suspension file cabinets
- Have a place for everything
- Spend 1 minute organizing for each hour of work
- Get in the habit of putting things away ASAP
Home office secrets: FURNISHINGS
- Consider a versatile, space-saving laptop computer
- An L-shaped desk provides two work surfaces
- Avoid hand-me-down furniture, especially office chairs
PLANNING QUESTIONS FOR YOUR HOME OFFICE
1. What will the office be used for? (As a satellite office for your job and employer, as the main office for your own business, as a family management or media center, or a combination of uses?)
2. What is your goal in creating a home office?
3. How many people in the house will be using the office?
4. What is the quietest room in the house? Will customers or clients be visiting your home office?
5. How mobile do you want your office to be? Is your work done best behind a desk, or do you need a more mobile office at various sites, via a laptop and palm-held technology?
6. What items and paperwork should I retain and what should I discard? In regard to items you are afraid to throw out, ask yourself: is keeping this stuff getting me any closer to the goal I have? (These considerations help determine the amount of space you will have and will need, and the storage needed.)
7. What information do I need easy access to (your active files) and what information is best stored for reference or later retrieval (passive files)? (A consideration to help decide the best storage options and their placement within the room.)
8. What needs to be in my home office to make it a place where I want to be and where I can work efficiently?
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: FOR MORE INFORMATION
For a list of resources on home offices, click on: home office.