Setting up a home office

How to turn your home into a working spaceAn office in your hall just won’t cut the mustard. A dedicated space is de rigueur.

A home office is one of those great ideas in theory. What’s not to like about a neat, ordered space to answer emails, pay bills and dedicate more unpaid overtime to your employer? The problem with the home office is that it becomes triffid-like. It starts in a small corner but soon explodes into a mass that spreads through entire living areas.

Some design gurus suggest setting up a “small unused space” in a corridor as an office or transforming an “out-of-the-way nook” such as the corner of a lounge room into a media space. Amanda Sarden is a professional organiser and she says no one should listen to such nonsense.

“The biggest mistake people make when setting up a home office is not putting it in the right location,” she says. “Most people just set up in any old spare corner and then find it is the wrong place to ever get any work done.”

The home office set-up

Sarden says a spare room with its own door is the ideal location for a home office. If you don’t have an entire room, set up a screen or furniture such as a couch to delineate office space from domestic space.

“The hallway is never a good place to try to be productive, especially if other people are walking past you,” she says. “You need enough space to have everything you need close to hand: keep the printer close to your desk; have a filing cabinet nearby; and always use a proper chair so that you don’t get backache.”

Sarden says it is best to invest in good office furniture from the outset rather than resort to the picnic table from the garage and the old dining chair you inherited from Granny.

“It’s better to buy things that match rather than get any old thing because it was cheap. You want the environment to be nice to work in,” she says. “People always think they can get by with a small desk, but they can’t. You need enough space. And you need to be productive in that space.”

The Housing Industry Association’s chief economist, Harley Dale, says renovation statistics suggest more people are extending their houses to add home offices.

“It’s been a trend for people to want larger homes, which include a space for a home office,” he says. “I don’t think that’s going to change. In fact, it will probably grow.”

The home office decor dilemma

There is a decor dilemma with home offices. Computers and phones and printers and desks and office chairs are ugly, ugly, ugly. Even those nifty little desk-in-a-cupboard things that Ikea and Freedom sell like hotcakes don’t really blend in to a home environment.

And what about all those chargers, cords and cables – what’s a person to do with so many bits and pieces?

Go wireless, says Rutland Smith, the general manager of computers at Harvey Norman. Households are signing up to a single broadband connection and creating a wireless network to share the internet across two or more computers.

“The number of people setting up wireless networks has doubled year-on-year for the past three years,” Smith says. The home office is destined to become more like a “residential server room” with one central computer while laptops and entertainment devices are hooked up wirelessly in other parts of the house.

“As more and more entertainment is delivered over the internet, you’ll find more than one computer in each house,” he says. “There will be a main computer in the home office and the kids upstairs doing their homework on the internet.”

Home office organisation tips

Sarden says the key to setting up an efficient home office is to file, organise and cull the clutter regularly. “We’re supposed to have a paperless office, but it hasn’t happened that way – people need systems to stay organised,” she says.

“The only items you need to keep on your desk are the ones you use daily or weekly. Anything else is excess clutter. Things you only use once a month can even be put in archive boxes and stored in another room.

“I like to have colour-coded filing. I put all my clients’ files in orange folders and taxation in green,” she says. But what if you don’t file at all? “Well, 80 per cent of material in filing cabinets is never looked at again, so that’s normal,” she says.

I decide to turn over a new leaf, and follow the professional organiser’s tips. With each item on my desk, questions are asked and decisions are made.

  1. Is a ratty old blister packet with one paracetamol tablet worth saving? No. Two tablets are needed to kill a headache. Bin it.
  2. How did 32 biros manage to hide under all those notebooks when yesterday I couldn’t find a single pen? Get a mug from the kitchen in which to store pens. As I am right-handed, I place important items on the right-hand side of my desk. That’s called a “system”.
  3. Oh, look: another ratty old blister packet with one yellowing paracetamol tablet underneath three unpaid bills. Retrieve other blister packet from bin. Place within easy reach of my workspace.
  4. There. A home office with headache pills close at hand. That’s the way to do it.


This article was written for Sydney Morning Herald’s Essential liftout.