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Setup a Great Home Office

Setting up an office is a lot harder than working in one. Suddenly you have no colleagues to back you up, no support staff, and dozens of dilemmas: For example, you’re confronted with the initial expense for office equipment and furniture: How do you keep that cost to a minimum without sacrificing comfort and productivity? And how do you establish an office in your home that’s really an office and not just a makeshift work area on the kitchen table or in the bedroom closet–or a retrofitted garage with a telephone?

At first, all of these daunting questions overwhelmed me with anxiety. But my fears were quickly allayed as I discovered an entire universe of support on the Web and from friends who had previously taken the home office plunge. Encouraged by the copious advice that came my way and armed with a checklist of the steps I needed to take to get started, I found that I could be up and running in no time, without spending a fortune.

My Office Setup Checklist

Okay, so you’ve decided to relocate your office from the kitchen table to another area of the house. You’re going to clean out the small, unused den in your home (or an unused corner of the den, anyway). Once you have the location squared away, a slew of other considerations arise. Here are the most important ones:
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  • Computer: desktop versus laptop
  • Peripherals: desktop or laptop necessities, depending on your scenario
  • Printer: stand-alone printer versus multifunction device (combination fax, scanner, and printer)
  • Phone: landline versus cellular versus Voice-over-IP
  • Phone message service: machine versus phone company service
  • Fax: online versus landline
  • Furniture: the right chair facing the right desk
  • Networking: hardwired versus wireless
  • Security: for the computer and for the office as a whole
  • Environment: your office location

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The Brains of Your Operation: Picking a PC

Now that I am on my own in my home office, I’ll be relying on my PC to do more of the heavy lifting for my business than before. In addition to creating documents and worksheets, I need to create promotional materials, write and organize invoices for my work, print out mailing labels, organize a contacts database, and cruise the Internet at warp speed. I also have to keep my PC in good shape–and have backups in case one day it conks out. (For backup strategies and tips, check out “Get in a Good Habit: Back Up Your Data.”) I didn’t have to worry about most of this stuff when I worked for a large corporation; but now my computer needs to have the power to handle these sundry duties. It also has to be compact enough to fit in my limited workspace.

Though notebook PCs tend to be a tad more expensive than desktop systems, today they can be just as powerful as their desktop counterparts. And they have the advantage of being smaller, lighter–and portable. On the other hand, desktop units are easier to upgrade (read: last longer for less money), and many models are compact enough to occupy only a modest amount of space on your desk. In fact, many of the budget desktops now come with flat-screen LCD monitors, which are much slimmer and lighter than CRT monitors of the same size.

No matter what type of PC you decide to buy, check out PC World columnist Jim Martin’s advice about the equipment you’ll need. See “Essential Hardware for Home Office Dwellers.” And for software to complement your hardware, read “Great Software for Your Home Office.”

If you’re shopping for a computer, take a look at PC World’s desktop PC and notebook PC buying guides. And finally, for the latest product reviews, ratings, and prices, consult PC World’s Top 15 Desktop PCs, Top Cheap PCs, and Top 15 Notebook PCs charts.

Don’t Forget the Sidelines: Peripherals to Consider

I eventually settled on a desktop replacement-style notebook. But while my laptop might replace a PC tower, it didn’t have a stand-alone mouse or keyboard–absolutely essential to my comfort if I were to use the notebook all day. Some keyboards and mice sell for as little as US $10, but I would avoid buying them, since most cheap input devices offer no ergonomic comfort. Instead, spend at least US $25 on a separate mouse and even more on a keyboard. Buying a wireless mouse/keyboard combo is cheaper than buying each input device separately. Depending on the product you buy, you’ll typically connect just one cable (or adapter) to the PC.

Even if your desktop PC has a standard (most likely low-end) mouse and keyboard, consider replacing them with higher-quality ones. Ultimately, you need to invest in the right input devices for both your ergonomic comfort and your productivity.

While testing keyboards and mice in a store is a good start, using them in your office for a few hours will determine whether they’re a good fit for you. So always buy them from a retailer that has a good return or exchange policy. For other shopping guidelines, see “How to Buy Input Devices.”

For notebook users, unfortunately, there is a catch. Even if your notebook has enough USB ports to handle a mouse and a keyboard, you still have to deal with all the cabling. In my case, each time I wanted to move my notebook, I had to disassemble a bunch of cables. If I didn’t insert the device cable into the same port that it occupied previously, Windows treated it as a new install, further delaying the PC startup. That was enough reason for me to invest in a universal port replicator–a small USB device that supplies ports for all your devices (printer, mouse, keyboard, speakers, you name it) and only one plug to connect to the PC.

Vendors such as Belkin, Targus, and Codi make universal port replicators that cost from US $50 to US $140. If all you need are additional USB ports, buy a USB hub for US $10 to US $30 from one of these companies.

The Ultimate All-in-One, Budget-Pleasing Printer

Would you rather hire an assistant who could only do one task or someone more versatile? The question might seem like a no-brainer, but I asked myself something similar when choosing between a stand-alone printer and a multitasking workhorse that combines printer, fax, scanner, and copier functions (a.k.a. a multifunction printer or multifunction device).

On my shoestring budget and for my home office, an MFP made the most sense. A good one costs as little as US $200, but you save a lot more money over what it would cost to buy a separate device to handle each function. The MFP’s printing speeds may pale in comparison to those of an individual inkjet or laser printer), but the device pays you back by letting you dispense with trips to a copy shop and sessions with an online fax service like EFax, which charges customers US $13 a month, whether they send a fax or not.

If your business requires photo printing and graphics-laden pages, a stand-alone inkjet printer is probably right for you. On the other hand, if you need printouts of crisp text regularly–for clients, say–you can’t beat a laser printer. For detailed shopping advice, see “Should You Buy a Multifunction Printer for Photos?” And check out PC World’s picks in the Top Multifunction Printers and Top 10 Monochrome Laser Printers charts.

Talk Is Cheap: Your Choice of Phone Services

My home telephone, with its ancient audiotape message recorder, had served me well for personal calls (maybe not that well), but it certainly wouldn’t do for an office. Fortunately, there are many inexpensive landline and cellular phone service options to choose from. You can subscribe to voice mail, caller ID, call forwarding, and call waiting from the local phone company, but why pay extra for them–up to US $25 per month–when they’re included as part of basic cell-phone service plans? That’s what I concluded after comparing rate plans between landline and cellular phone companies.

Scaling back on my landline service was easy: I ordered the lowest rate for service and added call forwarding so that I could send callers to my cell phone seamlessly. That should reduce your monthly landline bill. I also recommend that the phone hardware you select come with a speakerphone capability–or at least a headset port–so you can work hands-free when you need to.

Now that Voice-over-IP technology lets people make voice calls over the Internet effectively, we have another low price option to consider. Starting at about US $20 per month, VoIP services offer unlimited calls in North America via your regular phone handset (Some services include fax options, which you can use with your existing fax machine.) Right now, the drawbacks of Internet phone services include the inability to place local 911 emergency calls and the possibility of slow or no connections if trouble arises anywhere on the provider’s network.

Well Seated: The Most Important Office Purchase You Will Make

After just one hour of working while sitting on a rickety kitchen chair, I got a stiff back. And after using the same chair for an entire day–even with the cushion I wedged into it to support my back–I was in pain. So the advice of office designers and ergonomists is right on target: Buy the best office chair you can afford, and make sure that it provides solid and adjustable back support. Look for a chair that will be comfortable to sit in for hours at a time, whether you’re shuffling papers at your desk or staring at your computer screen. A used office chair can save you major bucks, but inspect it carefully for wear and damage before buying. For a thorough rundown on chair adjustability options you may want to check out Ankrum Associates’ Office-Ergo.com Web site.

Making Connections: Networking Your Office

A cable jungle has always lurked under my desk, but the advent of wireless devices and networking makes conquering cable clutter much easier. As I created my small office from scratch, I made a determined effort to lose as many wires as possible. By adopting wireless networking via Wi-Fi (802.11g) or Bluetooth products, I found that I could move my notebook from room to room in my house, access the Web, and print–all without dragging cables around.

Until recently, wired home networks were considered more reliable and secure than their wireless counterparts. But the latest wireless network routers, which incorporate firewalls and other security measures you need to guard against Web intruders, run at higher speeds than their predecessors did and offer reliable Internet access. Furthermore, I can easily expand my network to include other computers and devices by configuring them with my wireless network ID codes.

Security Inside and Out: For the PC, for the Office

Home offices generally are not covered in home owners’ or renters’ insurance policies for liability, fire, and theft. For protection, you need either a separate policy or a rider to your current one. Of course, burglars who break into PCs–via viruses, worms, spyware, and other furtive methods–are harder to detect than burglars who break into homes. So make sure that you add security software to your system. Much of it is available as freeware or low-cost shareware.

Office, Sweet Office

My office may be in my home, but I do my best to ensure that my home is not in my office. Maintaining professional integrity and business backbone demands a clear division between work and everything else. So even if your home office is just a cubbyhole in a corner of your bedroom, it’s important to preserve that invisible wall up–and to let family and friends know they shouldn’t intrude.

When I’m in my office, I am the boss–and even my cat knows not to enter. Of course, I still have one dilemma that I didn’t have when I worked in the downtown office building: the kitchen refrigerator. It’s just so conveniently close. To resist temptation, I probably need something more durable than my invisible wall, don’t I?

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