Giving ad hoc offices a second look

Working from home wasn’t supposed to work this way.

Ideally, teleworkers have the luxury of planning every detail for their entry into the home-based workspace – a dedicated office with a door that would house a big desk, ergonomic chair and a corporate laptop with a high-speed Internet connection. Instead, following the events of Sept. 11, many workers have been thrust into makeshift home offices. The kitchen table and a hardwood chair – or the all-too-small family desk – serve as a workstation; a store-bought telephone wire connects the weak family PC to a phone jack. Lighting is abysmal, and distractions are abundant.

While such workers have been relatively productive – and might argue conditions are better than suffering a long commute to some other facility – that doesn’t mean such set-ups don’t deserve attention. To bring your ad hoc home office up to code, follow these suggestions.

Pick the best space. If dedicated space with a door that closes is unavailable, choose some out-of-the-way corner of a den or other room – as removed as possible from family bustle. To shield the workspace from the rest of the home, consider a row of potted plants or a Japanese shoji screen. This will create seclusion both during work hours – and after, when the temptation to return to the office may strike.

Select the right desk. Whether it’s store-bought, a hand-me-down or a consignment-shop special, select a desk that best suits your work needs and size constraints. If your job is paperwork intensive, select a desk with a large work surface. If you spend your day typing on a laptop computer, a smaller secretarial desk could suffice.

Sit well. While it doesn’t have to cost much, an ergonomic chair promotes healthy posture and more comfortable, long-term seating. Look for one with adjustable armrests, seat and back, a wheeled base with five arms to prevent tipping and cloth instead of leather to allow the fabric to breathe. Add a footrest – or two phonebooks stacked atop one another – to prop the feet and alleviate pressure on the legs and lower back.

Phone etiquette. If you haven’t yet, get a dedicated voice line for business and ask your company to pay for it, along with broadband service, if available. Purchase a full-featured phone that accommodates two lines (for homes that have personal and business lines), and includes speakerphone, hold, conference calling, a built-in message waiting light and headset capabilities. In fact, a headset can help reduce neck strain that comes from cradling a phone between the head and shoulder.

Light it up. Face it: While you may say you’ll stick to your 9-to-5 office hours, there will be times when you’re working before dawn or after dusk to meet a deadline. Create ample illumination by coupling an overhead or broad light source – like a corner lamp or ceiling fan with a light fixture – with a desk-top task lamp.

Create a soothing environment. Plants, a fish bowl or aquarium, wind chimes, a small waterfall, artwork and some light music all can help soothe the soul and create a personalized workspace. This isn’t the cubicle back at the office but your home. Make it a place where you enjoy working.

Secure your data. Use a battery backup and surge suppressor for your computer and peripherals. Back up important files, and avoid downloading sensitive or confidential documents at the office to carry home. Instead, download files once in the home office, and upload completed files back into the corporate server before returning to work. Be sure to remove them from the laptop; if the computer is lost or stolen, the data won’t fall into the wrong hands.

Secure your space. Make sure all your doors and windows have secure locks. When you’re not in the office, close the curtains or blinds so outsiders cannot peer in and see your computer and other electronic equipment. Discuss equipment insurance needs with your employer or homeowners policy agent.

Set the right tone. Educate family members, roommates and friends to respect your home office. (And remind them if you don’t work, you won’t get paid.) As for kids, they’re distracting, disruptive to the work flow and present an unprofessional appearance. Do your best to arrange for out-of-home child care. In the late afternoon when kids return from school, make sure they know to be quiet or arrange for a “mother’s helper” to watch them.

Jeff Zbar is an author and speaker on telework, free agency, and small or home office (SOHO) issues. His books include Safe@Home: Seven Keys to Home Office Security (FirstPublish, 2001) and Your Profitable Home Business Made E-Z (Made E-Z Products, 2000). Jeff works from home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Questions or comments? Write him