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Summary:

It’s hard to know what you’re going to need of your office when you’re first starting out, so I asked some fellow WWD bloggers and my Twitter followers what tips they might give to people setting up a home office. Here’s what I learned.

Dawn's Home OfficeI started working from home occasionally when I worked at Intel. It started on an ad hoc basis when I was waiting for a delivery at home or for conference calls in the very early morning or late at night to talk to people in other timezones. When I started working from home on a regular basis, it didn’t take me long to realize that my existing home office setup wasn’t going to cut it.

It’s hard to know what you’re going to need of your office when you’re first starting out, so, for the second of our Web Work 101 series of articles, I asked some fellow WWD bloggers and my Twitter friends what tips they might give to people setting up a home office. Here’s what I learned.

Simon’s biggest mistake was assuming that his home office was adequately equipped for full-time working when it clearly wasn’t. An unstable internet connection meant that he frequently had to venture out and find somewhere else to get online. For printing and faxing, he had to pop out to a print shop. All these interruptions really put a crimp on his flow at the start.

When I started out, I underestimated the importance of having a reliable phone with amazing battery life, headset and speaker for the marathon conference calls that were a requirement of my job.

This doesn’t mean that you need to have every tool, gadget, or office supply your first week. As @jasonglaspey says, you shouldn’t scrimp on the things that you know you will need, but take some time to think about whether you really need some of the less frequently-used tools.

Meanwhile, @zuggy recommends spending the extra money on a good chair, and likes having a couch or another chair in his office for a change of pace, especially when reading. Productivity will tank if you are constantly uncomfortable. A second monitor to expand your screen real estate is another good productivity investment.

You are now also the IT department for your home office. As @zuggy mentions, you need to make sure that you have reliable backups of your data. Personally, I backup my laptop to Amazon S3 about every 6 hours (I’m a paranoid ex-sys admin).

Separating office space from play space and work from family was another common theme. Keep the office far away from the television and other distractions while creating enough privacy to have serious business conversations. (Thanks @joewevans, @kevinfox, and @Ron_Barrett.)

@sarahgilbert stresses that “if you have kids, make sure that your door to the office locks from the inside and outside.” You need to be able to keep little people with sticky fingers out of the office regardless of whether or not you are working.

People like light. Good lighting and large windows are a great way to make sure that you enjoy working in your office. You want to avoid prison cell or dungeon decor at all costs.  (Thanks @TiEsQue and @Ron_Barrett.)

A huge thank you to all of the people who contributed tips to this article!

If you’re setting up your own home office, feel free to ask questions in the comments. Established web workers: What was your biggest mistake in setting up a home office? What advice do you have for new web workers on their first office?

  1. I agree with the need to have a separate area for work from the rest of your house. A door is absolutely necessary.

    I occasionally work from home and this need became very true when my daughter (now 18 months) came in to my life. She’s adorable, but she’s a distraction when I need to get work done.

    Also, consider getting an all-in-one device that can copy/fax/scan/print. They’re a little expensive, but extremely useful!

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  2. The biggest complication I have to working from home is also the kids.

    I have a 3yr old and a 2yr old. It never fails once I’m on the phone… that’s when a fight breaks out between the two.

    It’s easy enough to avoid while I’m working with my wife home as well. But most of the time, when i’m working from home, it’s because I need to take care of the kids.

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  3. @zuggy is right on about chairs and displays – running two displays takes some getting used to, but you don’t appreciate how much app-switching you do without the second one, until you actually plug it in. And chairs? Well, that’s a no-brainer… avoid my mistake, and see to it BEFORE you throw out your back.

    Speakerphone audio tends to annoy folks at the other end, so if you do a lot of teleconferencing then a headset – whether connected to your phone or obtained to use with a Skype Pro account – is also a good idea.

    My own thought is that simplicity trumps everything else. Group your acquisitions into three categories:

    **Need**

    * Adequate hardware (including at least one good mouse or trackball)
    * High voltage surge protector
    * Top tier residential Internet access at minimum
    * Big table or desk: at the bare minimum, a 72in utility table, the more space the better
    * Good chair
    * Good light: lamps, adequate space near a window
    * Ventilation and climate control: this probably means a window AC unit if you have a lot of hardware
    * Printer, for a lot of folks
    * Modicum of supplies: notebooks, multipurpose paper, Post-Its, envelopes, folders, pens, pencils, spare cables (power, USB, Firewire, Ethernet), cleaning supplies (for keeping workspaces and displays free of dust and other crud)
    * Storage space, closet or cabinet: the space occupied by supplies, cables, crates, and files starts to add up PDQ
    * Good WiFi router or repeater (i.e., not a Linksys WRT series)
    * Hardcopy address book (at bare minimum, sync your contacts on multiple devices)

    **Should get**

    * UPS (which gets promoted to the Need category if you live in an area with frequent thunderstorms)
    * Cash on hand (even if it’s just $20)
    * Additional displays (and video cards, if necessary)
    * External hard drives and jumpdrives (above and beyond those already used for backups)
    * Theft (e.g., renter’s) insuramce
    * Decent speakers (unless you’re one of those who requires dead silence to be productive)
    * Spare jewel cases, disc mailers, and One Rate mailers (the alternative is to blow away afternoons on errands)
    * Good coffeemaker or electric teakettle
    * Large-format checks (Stateside, at least)
    * Destination and return address labels
    * Business card organizer

    **Nice to have**

    * Weather radio (at bare minimum, install a standalone Twitter client and follow @weatherwatches – this goes for folks in Northern California and the Northwest, too)
    * Wall art
    * Noise abatement/baffles
    * Hardwood office door with deadbolt
    * Fireproof safe
    * Motion-sensor-activated lighting
    * Hand sanitizer
    * Toys (worry beads, Koosh/squeeze widgets, SIMPLE handheld skill toys): useful for breaks, and far less captivating than television; smokers and meditation practitioners may find their existing break modalities adequate

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  4. …Forgot something on the must-have list, and a few things on the should-have list.

    * Wastebasket: this is easy to forget until you realize that you’ve forgotten it. Ideally, it’ll sit within arm’s reach of where you usually sit at your desk.

    * Legible clocks: if you can’t check the time in a fraction of a second without taking your hands off the keyboard, you’re doing it wrong.
    * Cable organizer (or some method of getting at cables without grief): when you need to leave the house with a notebook on a moment’s notice, nothing sucks worse than being forced to crawl under your desk to unplug your laptop! This last is why I sing the praises of utility tables over desks; they don’t pose challenges for getting at stuff.
    * Shredder: If you print a lot of stuff, you’ll probably be shredding a lot of stuff… and confetti is less bulky than stacks of paper, when it comes time to take out the trash.

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  5. What about software? As a Microsoft web developer, I need my Visual Studio, SQL Server, Expression Web, Microsoft Office, and Photoshop. You should make sure you have your familiar software tools on your home PC before you find yourself working freelance. Just installing all that crap will take a day or two.

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  6. I’ve been doing this for 4.5 years now, and @ben is mostly right.

    I’d correct his point about a good WiFi router and just say, you need a hardware based router with firewall. It does not need to support WiFi. You really shouldn’t be plugging your broadband connection directly into your PC if you are still one of those folks.

    I’d also promote the UPS to a *need*, when you are in the middle of something and all the neighbors AC units kick in at once and you lose your work (or your hardware) due to a brown-out, you’ll know why.

    His “hardcopy address book” misses the overarching point, you need a good backup plan, and it needs to work. Preferably, it should run daily and automatically, and shouldn’t be stored on a hard drive connected to your computer directly… can you say virus?
    This really is a whole subject on it’s own.

    A separate work area is a must. It cannot be near the kids or the spouse or the TV if you ever expect to get anything done.

    Speaking of the kids, working at home with the kids… something is going to suffer, either your work and client relationships, or your kids due to lack of parenting. I try to avoid it.

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  7. Dual monitors are key….
    but…
    ergo keyboard tray, good mouse (I use the switch mouse) and a footrest. I do use a top of the line ergo chair.

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  8. My own checklist was meant to be as platform-, process-, and location-agnostic as possible.

    It’s been more than ten years since I lived in a place where the air conditioning was on the same circuit with computers etc., so I hadn’t considered local brownouts when discussing UPSes, thus what someguy said.

    Not everybody reading is a Web developer… but since we’re on the subject, if the thought of going down to the bare metal (i.e., doing production in a text editor) gives you the cold shivers, it wouldn’t kill ya to train up. The underlying problem is evident in micro every time a new version of Photoshop is released: some “improvement” breaks or vastly complicates task performance. Frankly, the thought of being dependent upon a single vendor for my tools gives ME the cold shivers.

    In the same vein as having a separate work area, if you live alone, do NOT put your workspace in the bedroom, no matter its size. Beds have a tendency to start singing a siren song when you’re burnt out the night before a big deadline and can’t spare the time.

    If you must have a futon sofa or comfy chair near your workspace, set a task on your workstation that will play appropriately rousing music, and create a shortcut to its properties dialog on your desktop. The impact on mood compared to that of a monotonous, blaring alarm is near to immeasurable.

    Proceed on the assumption that you WILL have people over from time to time for the sake of business.

    Placing your desk near a window is recommended, provided it doesn’t face east or west.

    Arranging your workspace so that you work facing the door (or primary ingress) is also recommended; the alternative is to completely disengage from the task of the moment at every interruption. This is doubly true for anyone who’s vulnerable to clinical anxiety.

    To clear up any ambiguity from someguy’s comment (convention ftw!), I’m actually @bhenick on Twitter.

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  9. ben/@bhenick

    I had in mind brown-outs to the mains (older building in an older neighborhood + hot day = unreliable power for the whole neighborhood), though I have on occasion tripped a circuit too in my newer space. Both are good reasons for even a cheap $60 UPS.

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  10. I’d give anything for an extra room in the house with a door I could close! My office? Try the kitchen table and a laptop! My son took my office 7 years ago for his bedroom. You guys are living in luxury!

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