Make sure your home office is conducive to working

Working out of the home has its highlights — planning your own schedule, an easy commute down the hall, accessibility to family members. These are just a few reasons why an estimated 60 million people will work at home by the end of this year.

But what stumps many newcomers to the home-office world is creating an environment that's conducive to work.

In his book "Home Office Design," Neal Zimmerman tackles many of the challenges facing people who must work from home.

"The vast majority of home-office workers do not have access to professional design assistance, though the physical organization of their work environment at home is as important as it was in the office," he writes.

In fact, a productive work environment may be even more crucial for home-based workers because they need to draw a hard line between work and personal activities.

Whether you have a separate space devoted to work or must set up shop in the family room, it's important to plan ahead, say experts and home-working veterans.

"If they have a separate room, they should consider how comfortable they'll be in the room, how much equipment they'll have to put in it," says Nancy Nisselbaum, managing editor of Home Office Computing magazine.

Lisa Brainin-Greenberg, who started a public relations firm two years ago, agrees. "I would have had a professional come in and set up a system that I could follow," she says, noting that staying organized has been a tough hurdle.

Your needs may be simple when you're just starting out, but they'll quickly multiply as the business grows. Whether you're looking for computer equipment or furniture, it's important to anticipate future needs.

Before buying the first fax machine or filing cabinet, come up with a workable floor plan. Are you going to need lots of bookshelves for research materials? What about filing cabinets and shelving for storage? Will computer equipment require special furniture? Will you need a small conference table for consultations with clients? Will employees enter the picture?

Books like "Home Office Design" help with the planning process. So do the services of an interior designer who specializes in this area. You can be sure you'll need more storage space than you think.

To that end, Nisselbaum advises, "Make sure the furniture you buy can be expanded." Modular units are a good choice for this. Generally, they're affordable, and you can add pieces as needed, such as a rolling filing cabinet or a bigger desk hutch for more storage. And consider the whole space, including above and below: Hutches add shelving up to the ceiling, and organizing systems can be stashed under the desk. Furniture also should accommodate future equipment purchases, including computers, monitors, scanners, fax machines, etc.

When shopping for furniture, look for quality. "You don't want to buy something that's just going to fall apart," says Nisselbaum. Office supply stores and discount furniture outlets have competitively priced pieces. Even retail furniture stores have sales that put high-quality furniture within reach of the small-business owner. Shopping at secondhand furniture store also saves money.

A high-quality chair is a wise purchase.

"You're going to be sitting in it all day," says Nisselbaum, who suggests sampling several different models to find the best one. A lot has been written about ergonomics, but Nisselbaum believes that it really comes down to what is most comfortable for you.

A good chair should offer lumbar support and allow your feet to rest flat on the floor; shorter people may need a footrest. The ideal chair is easily adjustable, especially if someone else is likely to use it when you're not.

The physical setup should be efficient. Many people like a U-shape configuration so they can easily turn from one task to the next. Keep what you need on a regular basis — computer, reference books, fax machine — close at hand.

Communications are a home-based worker's lifeline, which is why Nisselbaum says it's crucial to have a separate phone line for business.The first thing Brainin-Greenberg did when she set up her business was install separate lines for the business phone and fax; now she wishes she had a third line dedicated to e-mail.

Computer equipment is another must for many home workers, and this is an area where it's necessary to anticipate future needs. Remember, you'll inevitably need more memory and speed than you think. Buying a slower modem to save money, for example, is false economy.

But Zimmerman cautions against investing too much in expensive hardware or software before you have the business to support it. Initial investments should be geared toward equipment that will generate new business.