Organizing a Home Office

After working for six years as a bookkeeper for a large company, Carol decided to develop a home-based bookkeeping service so she could remain at home with her small children, at least until they started school. She soon found that to work productively, it was necessary to have a dedicated home office space.

John is a freelance writer who needs a space of his own where he can write without distractions and which has space for filing his manuscripts, correspondence, guidelines, and writing ideas. Both Carol and John have unique requirements and problems, but their common need is for an organized home office.

More people are working from home than ever before. The International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates the number of home offices is growing by about three million a year. They predicted that the number of home offices linked to the Internet would grow from 12 million in 1997 to 30 million in 2002.

A home office, just like a commercial office, needs guidelines and routine to be efficient. When working for an employer, there are company guidelines in place that help to keep things orderly. There are also different departments that take care of details such as supplies, bookkeeping and advertising that, in a home office, become our responsibility.

Some common organizational techniques apply not only to home offices, but also to other areas of the house, such as kitchens and closets: keep the things you use most often within easy reach; have a place for everything and be sure that it is replaced after each use; store items in a way that makes the best use of space, etc. Other techniques apply more to office space and it is these that this article will address.

Location

Perhaps the most important decision regarding a home office is where to have it. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a separate room available for office use. To a certain extent, the type of work done will determine where the office is situated. If customers will be visiting your home office, a corner of the living room or dining room may be a better location than in a bedroom. However, an office that is used for work that is done alone, such as writing, may be better placed in a part of the house that has less traffic. In this case, a bedroom might be an ideal spot. Other options are in the garage, in a large walk-in closet, even a spot in a pantry or utility room.

Different work areas may be required: a flat surface where you can spread out projects, a well-lighted area for reading and writing, an extra chair for clients or other visitors. If you have the space for it, an L-shape is ideal for an office area because it helps to put everything within reach. This works especially well with a swivel-type office desk chair with wheels, but even with a stationary chair, it is a good setup for efficiency. The important thing is to use to best advantage the space you have available.

Size

Good organization is important regardless of the size of your home office. A large space may foster spreading out, whereas a small space may encourage piles of papers. The cure for both problems is a good plan for organizing. I suggest that you make a list of all the supplies, books, and equipment you will need to have at hand in your office, then prioritize each item. Which need to be immediately at hand daily? Which ones can be stored out of sight? Which less-used items can perhaps be stored in another place entirely? This analysis will help you determine how your office, whether small or large, should be organized.

Accessibility

When you have a good idea of "what" the next step is to decide "where" and "how." There are many organizing and storage solutions. The key idea is to store things in a way that makes them easily accessible. It is also important to know where everything is, even those less-used supplies which may be hidden. An inventory list or diagram showing each location is helpful, especially weeks or months after you've stashed something away. Paperwork also needs to be handled intelligently. You don't want your important papers hidden under a pile of letters and bills. This leads us to the next item of importance, a filing system that works for your own individual needs.

Filing

A file cabinet is a necessity in most offices, but you can create alternatives that are both frugal and efficient. Plastic boxes fitted with hangers for file folders may be sufficient for someone whose occupation does not create a lot of paperwork. A few folding files may do the job for others. The important thing is to work out a system that enables you to have every piece of paper in a place where you can find it quickly, at any time.

In/Out bins or boxes help to sort incoming and outgoing mail. Don't forget to have a wastebasket handy. This may be the most effective sorting tool – it makes it easy to discard junk mail immediately rather than allowing it to pile up on your desk and interfere with your work. A bulletin board can be handy to keep notes, to do lists, and other reminders in an attention-getting spot.

Now to make another list, this time of all the papers, manuals, correspondence, etc. you will be handling. Then decide how you want to organize each in folders and create a master index to place at the front of your files to enable you to find everything easily. Perhaps the best filing tip is to label in such a way that is clear to you what each folder contains. Some people have very detailed labels, others more general. One person may file alphabetically, another by categories. This is a personal thing – use whatever method will help you find what you need when you need it.

Color coding can be useful to help categorize files. For instance, I store my current projects in a red folder and use a green folder for blank statements and invoices. I used to have a folder marked "To Be Filed" but soon discovered that it defeated the purpose of an efficient filing system. It soon became over-full of unrelated papers! The only benefit was that those papers were off my desk. Now I try to file each piece of paper I handle immediately.

Set Apart

Although one of the benefits of working at home is the ability to set your own hours, being at home also tends to blur the line between work and personal life. A separate space for work helps to delineate your roles. A separate address book for business-related contacts is also helpful. (There are other methods of setting apart your work from your home life. I read of one woman, a writer, who wore a special cap so her children would know when she was working and not to be disturbed.) Many people find it helpful to turn off their computers at the end of the work day to discourage checking their email after hours.

If a telephone is important to your work, perhaps a second phone line is in order. Depending on how much you use the Internet, you may also want to invest in either a dedicated phone line or DSL for your computer. DSL allows you to use your phone and be online at the same time and also increases your speed on the net.

Organizational Aids

There are many organizing aids available today. A trip to your local office supply store will offer many ideas. Often these ideas can be implemented without an expensive purchase. For example, I once saw a desk organizer that I was able to duplicate by gluing together different sizes of plastic cups and glasses. The kitchen or bath department at your local department store can also have things for storage that may fit in with your office décor. Baskets for papers, jars for pencils, small dishes for paper clips or rubber bands are both practical and attractive.

Benefits of Good Organization

When your home office is organized to suit your personal needs, you'll find that it will enable you to be more productive. No more wasted time looking for a particular letter or file – you'll know that whatever you need for your work has its own place within easy reach and will always be there. You'll be able to give your work your undivided attention.

One final suggestion: consider clearing off your desk at the end of the day so you'll have a fresh start the next morning. A few minutes of filing and rearranging papers will be worth the effort the next day. Without the frustration of a disorderly workplace, you'll have a better attitude and motivation. You'll find it will be a pleasure to go to work each day in your orderly and functional home office.

Additional resources:

Books:
Organizing from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office, and Your Life by Julie Morgenstern. (1998) Henry Holt & Co. New York, NY

Websites:
http://www.powerhomebiz.com/vol47/organize.htm
http://money.cnn.com/1999/01/12/smbusiness/homeoffice/
http://www.organizerswebring.com/poarticles/_disc11/0000001f.htm
http://www.businessownersideacafe.com/workathome/get_organized.php

© 2003 Marie DisBrow

[This article first appeared in the March 2003 issue of Simple Joy.]