If you’re planning to trade your traditional office environment for a home or virtual office, you’re in good company – more and more small businesses are embracing the benefits of working from home, and advances in technology are making that move easier than ever. If you still imagine your small business’s office looking and functioning like the stereotypical cubicle farm, though, you may want to reconsider.
The Pros and Cons of Home Offices
Gene Marks, CPA, President of the Marks Group PC and daily columnist for The Washington Post, started his company in a traditional office before transitioning to a virtual one in 2005.
Marks works from home as do his company’s 10 employees. He notes that the pros of this arrangement are lower overhead, improved flexibility and greater independence. Other benefits of working virtually include choosing your hours, breaking free of your commute, spending more time with family, and working in a comfortable environment free of distractions.
Of course, one person’s pro is another person’s con. Some workers need routine and a boss’s watchful eye to get things done; others find home, with its entertainment and snack options, more distracting than ringing phones or talkative colleagues. Another con for Marks was that when his team transitioned to remote work, they “lost the art of brainstorming and coming up with ideas that resulted from just spending time together.”
If a traditional office doesn’t feel right for your business, but you’re not committed to the idea of working from home, there is another option: a co-working space. For a fee, these shared work spaces provide furnishings, internet service and perks like coffee or the use of common recreation areas. These spaces can be a good option if your home is not suited for work due to limited space or the presence of children or pets. They can also be a plus if you need to hold meetings but can’t or don’t wish to host them in your home.
Plus, Marks notes, an office space shared with other individuals or companies has a different sort of benefit. It gives workers “a reason to get out and ‘go’ to work somewhere, which for some people is psychologically necessary.”
How to Organize Your Office
When setting up a home office, Marks advocates simplicity for where you’ll work in your home: “A room with a door. No bed. No TV.”
When it comes to physically arranging your furniture, deciding where to put the printer and how to store extra binder clips, think less about creating the perfect image of a professional office and more about how you personally work best.
Pay attention to the flow of your day and arrange your office around your productive work habits. Do you often need to access paper files? Don’t hide the file cabinet in the corner behind a chair. Do you always put your coffee mug down to the right of your keyboard? Leave plenty of room in that area of your desk so you don’t absentmindedly pour a hot beverage on your phone. Keep the items you use most frequently closest to you, and store lesser-used items further away.
Finally, if you’ll host meetings in your office, consider leaving extra space where any visitors will enter the room and set up a comfortable area for multiple people to sit and speak.
What You Need: Office Basics
Before you decide to plop a laptop on a desk in your guest bedroom and go to work, think about your insurance coverage. Your homeowner’s policy likely does not cover a home office. You need to ensure you have the right business insurance coverage so if you’re operating out of your home and something goes wrong, you have the coverage you need.
Marks doesn’t advocate a work space without comforts. He uses a good chair and keeps a floor heater, slippers and a tub of Dubble Bubble on hand. While he makes space for his bubblegum, he has learned not to overload his office with furniture and supplies. His essentials: “A desk that you can write on. A computer. A trashcan.”
In terms of technology, Marks’s picks include a telephone headset, a black and white laser printer (he prints color materials at FedEx), and two laptops, one for the office and one that travels with him. For storage, he opts for Dropbox.
Of course, your own preferences may differ, and your home office tech necessities will vary depending on the nature of your job, but the lessons here are to:
- Avoid cluttering your space.
- Calculate whether or not any given piece of equipment will be cost-effective for you in the long run.
- Define what comforting touches are truly helpful to you.
In addition to the basics, other office must-haves that business owners may initially overlook are reliable internet and phone service. Marks notes he personally has “good high-speed internet and a backup plan for when it sometimes goes down,” as well as a landline phone “because cell networks can’t always be trusted.”
To avoid getting caught unprepared, think of what you realistically do in an average day or week and identify how you could prevent likely mishaps. Perhaps you rarely need to make phone calls but you do depend heavily on a working postage meter to get your job done. In that case, you’d probably be fine with occasionally spotty cell service, but you should do thorough research before picking a postage meter company and consider keeping a stash of emergency stamps on hand.
While you’re at it, be honest about what makes it harder or easier for you to work. Marks notes that he needs “thick windows and walls to eliminate outside noises” along with a nice view. Perhaps you don’t mind noise outside your window, but dim lighting hurts your eyes. In your case, proper light fixtures would be a must.
More About Phone Systems
Many business owners, including Marks, prefer to go with a virtual phone system, the best-known example of which is Google Voice. Marks suggests using options like Grasshopper, RingCentral and VirtualPbx as an inexpensive way to make your small business look bigger. These services allow your business to set up a toll-free number with automated reception, voicemail and text messaging. They also accept faxes. If you hire additional employees, it’s easy to add more extensions for them, and while you can buy hardware from these companies, you can also choose to simply have all calls redirected to your smartphone.
Deciding how you’ll handle voicemail, conference calling and related needs is one area you should carefully research. There are seemingly endless choices out there with a wide range of options and price points. As with other considerations, the degree of support you’ll need from your phone service—or whether you’ll even need anything beyond a cellphone—depends largely on the size and type of your business.
Sources for Furniture and Supplies
While furnishing your home office, remember that you’re not obligated to replicate the traditional offices where you may have previously worked. Of course, if that arrangement is conducive to doing your best work, don’t feel the need to fix what isn’t broken.
Whether or not you choose conventional office furniture, you don’t have to buy it from the same vendors you may have relied on at your traditional office. Marks cites Craigslist as a source for used furniture. Other options might be IKEA, thrift stores or DIY projects if you’re handy.
When it comes to office supplies, Marks shops at Staples “because it’s easy, competitively priced and [he] can rack up rewards for future purchases.” Such loyalty programs can make a big difference if you shop often or buy in bulk, and many stores have them.
A final note on your furniture and supplies: Don’t underestimate the effect that being happy with your surroundings can have on your productivity. If you’d prefer a couch instead of a swivel chair, or rainbow-colored notebooks instead of yellow legal pads, go for it.
How to Declutter Your Office
In general, office clutter falls into two categories. The first is made up of unused technology or furniture. One example might be buying a large bookshelf when you don’t actually need to keep books in your office. For his part, Marks has purchased and then not used the following:
- A fax machine. “It’s easier to have a simple scanner for emailing files. And you can set up a number for the rare incoming fax with a service like eFax.”
- A color printer. “It’s just not worth it, the ink will kill you.”
- A calculator. “Every computer and smartphone has one.”
To cut this type of clutter periodically and realistically evaluate your work habits and get rid of large and possibly costly equipment if you don’t use it.
The other type of office clutter resembles home clutter and is comprised of small items like unopened mail, empty water bottles and meaningless decor. Marks’ clutter? A reported 10,000 pens and a coffee cup warmer. Yours might be free swag like key-chains printed with vendor’s logos. To stay on top of this sort of clutter follow consistent routines (e.g., clean up after yourself at the end of each day and deal with every piece of incoming mail as soon as you receive it).
If you decide that a home or virtual office is the best choice for you and your business, carefully research all your options. Resist making rash decisions about furnishings and equipment. Remember, it’s almost always easier and less costly to start small and expand gradually than to go too big too soon and have to scale back later. And, while you should consider expert advice and seek out reviews, don’t blindly follow someone else’s path. Always keep your own needs and goals in mind.