Published June 1998 on WomenOfColorado.com
Making a Home For the Office
by Tia Jenkins
THE TERM "HOME OFFICE" has more connotations today than ever before. Most home offices are an anomaly, in the sense that houses were traditionally designed for "living", not for business. If you want to do it right, the modifications required to bring a true "office" into the home can be a frustrating endeavor. But the long-term advantages of an efficient and functional home office are worth the effort.
THE STAND ALONE OFFICE
Offices within homes have developed from many different scenarios. The first is the home office exclusive of a conventional office. This is typical of the self-employed person or the moonlighter who has no connection whatsoever to a "mother" office. The work being done there is independent of a larger or networked operation. All the equipment and furnishings are proprietary to that individual's method of doing work. It is stand-alone, separate and remote.
"Telecommuting" is a buzzword borne of the years and millions of dollars spent to research the projected and idealized efficiency of the remote workplace. The premise is simple: a company outfits an individual with a complete home office, including computer and software, furniture, filing, lighting, supplies and whatever else that individual needs to accomplish the specific tasks outlined by the company.
Workers can electronically transport the work by modem to the office, check in and communicate via telephone or facsimiles, and ultimately reduce their actual interface with other employees. Telecommuting is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The worker is offered autonomy and flexibility while the employer gets a break on square footage. However, all benefits aside, telecommuting will be subject to more scrutiny as tax issues, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Workman's Compensation guidelines, and other traditional business regulations are applied.
THE AFTER HOURS OFFICE
The third type of home office is a hybrid of the first two. That is, the worker's home office equipment is subsidized in some way by the organization he or she works for. The subsidy may be in the form of a loan for a computer, a copy of a software program, furniture sold at wholesale prices, or other such incentives for the employee to work at home. The theory is that the employer trades this assistance for the hope that the employee becomes more self-directed, flexible, and ultimately, more productive.
The home office should be designed to accommodate specific work tasks. The most frequent problem in locating a home office is that houses were designed for "family living", not for business. Obviously, the ideal solution is a dedicated room to serve as a quiet, organized work environment. But most people end up carving out an office niche from the living room or kitchen-dining areas, which are typically the busiest places in the house. Quieter, less-traveled locations are a better solution. Further, if outsiders need access to the space, they should be able to reach it without infringing on household privacy.
Interior designers and space planners are experts at finding the optimum proximity of people and equipment. While the home office worker will probably not have the luxury of a professional to design the space, common sense can serve as a guide. Choose a location that is easy to modify in terms of adding electrical and phone outlets, and preferably an area that can be closed off for personal privacy and to reduce visual clutter.
COST AND COMFORT
Outfitting the home office with the latest technology isn't cheap. While the company outfits the telecommuter, other home office workers must focus on making the most of their purchases. In this respect, the home worker's best friends are large-volume office supply companies. These companies provide competitively priced office equipment and sundries for virtually any office.
Today's furniture systems, chairs, desks, tables, file storage units, demountable walls, lighting and other workplace components are designed with a focus on ergonomics, or the study of how people and things interact most safely and efficiently. A dining room chair can be used in place of an ergonomic task chair, or a door atop cinder blocks can pass for a desk, but imagine the sacrifice in comfort and efficiency. One can have state-of-the art computer technology, but if pain becomes more of a concern than the work itself, how efficient will the overall operation be?
A common mistake made among home office workers is the sacrifice of comfort and efficiency for perceived monetary savings. A lightening fast PC and all its peripherals might cost several thousand dollars, and significantly increase efficiency. But if your back hurts from sitting at the wrong height in relation to your desk, your efficiency has been compromised. A better strategy is to make your work environment--acoustics, lighting, ventilation, views, and furniture--the main priority, and let the equipment follow.
Cost is relative. Finding the right balance in disbursing the furniture and equipment dollars, along with the right location are the most important steps in building the home office.
Space planners and interior designers are trained to locate and group activities to provide the most efficient plan layout of an office suite. The same planning skills are needed to set up the home office.
Computers by their very nature (short cords!) are typically set up in close proximity to peripheral equipment such as scanners, printers, digitizers, etc. To optimize space, you must identify the essential equipment. Plan your work layout around the equipment that you utilize the most, storing supplies and underutilized items elsewhere, perhaps even in other rooms of the house. Finally, take a careful look at the items that are cluttering your work space. Consider how many times a day you actually use a piece of equipment, and whether it could be accessed someplace else.
The bottom line? For long-term success, a home office should not be developed as an offshoot of household activities. Create a space for work, augmented by the furniture and equipment within.