Once you move into your new house, where will you spend the most time? If you are one of the millions of Americans who work at home, you’ll clock the most hours in your home office, and planning it should be a priority.
You may think your home office now is swell, and you want exactly the same setup in your new place.
Take another look. You may be churning out the work product because, like most people, you’re amazingly adaptive. You’ve got a desk, a computer, some bookshelves, and a nice view. What’s not to like? Quite a bit. Your only bookshelf is at the other end of the room. Going back and forth for reference material you use nearly everyday is a pain, so you keep them close at hand-in piles on the floor around your feet. Your printer is on the floor next to the bookcase so you have to get up to retrieve anything you print and every time you bend down to add paper your knees hurt. When you sit at your computer screen you overlook a neighboring park, but whenever the sun is out, you have to close the blinds or you get a headache.
Join the crowd. Most of us, when we think of the work we do in our home offices, focus on the article that must be written by 5 p.m. or the proposal that’s due tomorrow. We don’t perceive any connection between how the office is organized and how easily or quickly we produce the report. But there definitely is one, and when it’s factored into the planning of an office, the work will go more smoothly and productivity goes up.
How do you get from A to B and an office that’s tailored to you? There no rules of thumb for how to design a home office, as there are for kitchens. The main idea is that the work area is organized so that everything you regularly use, including your computer, printer and books are close at hand so that you can reach them without getting out of your chair. You also need some kind of storage to keep files, binders and office supplies
You might think that a little tweaking of the office furniture that you have now will do the trick. But if you’re like most people, what you have is a hodgepodge of pieces that defy workable arrangement. For your new home office you’re well advised to chuck them and start over.
The work area that will work best for you depends in part on your age. Are you over 45? Most people in this group use a computer, but still do a lot of writing on a yellow pad and want a sizeable writing area where they can spread out. This should be adjacent to the computer monitor and to the right if you’re right handed, to the left if you’re left handed. Work station arrangements that are L-shaped, U-shaped or galley-shaped with a desk-credenza arrangement so that a swivel of a chair puts you at the computer or the desk will work well.
Maybe you’re between 30 and 45. People in this age group are more likely to do almost all their work on a computer screen and center their work area on it. They still want a writing area, but it doesn’t have to be as big. If they use a laptop, they won’t need a separate desk.
Or, maybe you’re a recent college graduate and used to working on your laptop in just about any circumstance from a noisy Starbucks to a hushed library, in a chair or on the floor. People in this age group are likely to think they don’t need a separate home office at all – they can perch anywhere in their house. But I would argue that to do your best work you need a concentrated focus, and for that you need a separate office.
Another factor to consider in planning your work area is your personal working style, advised Dallas home office expert Lisa Kanarek. Though everyone has personal quirks, most people fall into one of three categories, she said.
Kanarek’s “collector” fills up every surface and every drawer, to the point of total inefficiency. For such an individual, even one over 45 who’s used to a huge desk area, limiting both the size of the work area and the number of drawers, will improve things markedly. Kanarek also urges collectors to designate a spot for an in-basket and commit to going through it every week The “bouncing ball” is easily distracted by nearly everything, including e-mail, phone, the spots on the carpet, and the to-do lists on the bulletin board behind the computer monitor. Such a person needs a work area that faces a corner or a wall with a calming piece of art, not out into the room. The “lookout” needs to have everything immediately accessible because when things are out of sight, they’re out of mind and often permanently lost. This person needs a large desk area, open shelves, open storage containers, and a bulletin board with phone numbers and other necessary information at their fingertips.
Sunlight and glare will affect your productivity. When you place your monitor in front of a window to get the view and the sun is out, the harsh contrast – bright sun can be five times as bright as your monitor screen – is a setup for a headache. Moving your monitor so that the window and view are behind you can still produce eyestrain because the daylight will reflect off your screen. The best place to put the monitor, and one that will eliminate these glare problems, is at a right angle to the window so that the daylight comes in from the side. Even then, you may still need window blinds when the sun is really bright. If your room exposure is southern, you can use horizontal blinds for sun control. If it is eastern or western, you’ll need more expensive vertical blinds that you can adjust as the sun moves across the sky.
Then there’s storage – how much do you need and where should you put it? File storage will loom larger for the over-45ers because this group tends to keep paper copies of everything. They often require both “active” file storage in their office, which should be next to the work area so that individual files don’t pile up on their desk, and additional “dead storage” in a basement or garage. The under-45ers tend to store things electronically and have modest file storage needs that for convenience should also be located next to the work area.
For books and magazines you’ll need bookcases. These can be anywhere in the room, but Kanarek said you need some shelf storage by your work area, so that you can reach frequently used reference items and telephone books without getting out of your chair.
You’ll also need a spot for printer paper and miscellaneous office supplies. One possibility is a closed cabinet, which can easily be combined in a unit with bookshelves above. If’ you like the built-in look, most cabinet makers (very likely including the one that your builder will use for your new kitchen), now make base cabinet-bookcase combination units as well as file storage units, desk units, and base cabinets that can be adapted to hold printers and computer towers (CPU).
When should you begin to plan your office? With all the other details and decisions to make for your new house, it might seem sensible to wait until you move in. But Ann Arbor, Mich., remodeler Bruce Curtis, who has done many home offices in new houses after the fact, said the planning should be done before construction begins. If you wait until afterwards you may find that the heating vents and the outlets for phone, cable and Internet are in the wrong place.
Even more important, Curtis said, planning ahead will avoid the disheartening discovery that your office in your new house is too small.
There are a number of books on home office planning. The best one I found is Lisa Kanarek’s “Home Office Solutions: Creating the Space that Works for You,” Quarry Books, 2001. In addition to the text, which is full of information on how to organize your office, the annotated list of websites for home office furnishings will help you furnish it. Marilyn Zelinsky’s “Practical Home Office Solutions,” McGraw Hill, 1999 is now out of print but available on amazon.com. It is chattier in style, but full of useful tips. For example, after reading about the man who purchased a used office chair with a four-castor base and then fell over backwards, you’ll steer clear of them.
Questions? A home-building story you’d like to share? Katherine Salant can be reached at www.katherinesalant.com.
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