At first glance, the thought of having your own office at home to run your small business can sound exciting. You'll have the freedom to set it up exactly the way you want, without having to conform to the restrictions of a corporate environment. For some business owners, that feeling of euphoria is short-lived when they realize that they don't have the expertise to design a workspace for maximum efficiency.
According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released in October 2012, an estimated 13.4 million people—or about 9.5 percent of the American workforce—worked at home at least one day per week in 2010. Even people who are typically well organized can easily find themselves overwhelmed by the endless tasks of managing paper flow, storing records, stockpiling equipment, and battling the clutter that mysteriously appears. Before the tower of reports and client files at the edge of your desk comes crashing down, here's some practical advice from three design and organization experts.
Finding an adequate amount of space seems to top the list of priorities when planning a home office. Even when you think you've allotted a sufficient amount, it's not uncommon to outgrow it quicker than expected—a problem that can afflict professional designers, too.
"We actually have an office in our home that is the whole basement level, and we're always looking for more space," says John Loecke, partner in Madcap Cottage, a New York-based design firm. "If you have a really tiny home or studio apartment, maybe you're better off getting a space outside the home because you're always going to find you never have enough space."
For small business owners who want to stay put, however, Loecke suggests finding a space away from high traffic areas. Instead of using standard issue industrial office furniture, a vintage table or desk can transform a dull workspace into something unique. Loecke prefers natural light, as well as paint colors and decorations that reflect your personality.
Using your imagination can extend to other necessary but unattractive items, too. "Filing cabinets can be hidden inside of something or they can be skirted and hidden under a table top that's used for something else," Loecke says.
For example, Loecke faced a dual space and storage problem when he designed a home office for a mortgage broker who lived and worked in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. "We did a wall of built-in cabinets that not only hid the desk which folded out, but also hid all of the cabinets," Loecke explains. "The desk chair got put away when everything was folded up. It didn't look or feel like an office, except when she needed it to function that way."
Managing paper flow and being able to retrieve documents efficiently is an ongoing dilemma for many small business owners. As with designing an office that reflects your personality, establishing a filing system should match your individual way of thinking, too.
"Some people think linear from A-to-Z, others by categories, still others by merchants," says Kim Oser, a Certified Professional Organizer and owner of Need Another You, a Maryland-based service. "There's no one cookie cutter system for everybody."
Oser herself uses a monthly system created by FreedomFiler. Everything that is not a permanent or tax-related document goes into a monthly folder and gets deleted every two years.
"I set up two sets of monthly tabs: January through December odd year and January through December even year," Oser explains. "For example, this year we're in July, odd year. So when I got to July 1st, I had stuff in there from July 2011. I could take that whole stack and stick it in the shredder. So now I had an empty clean folder for anything that came in for July of this year. It self-recycles."
Storing old and current items can be perplexing, but Oser suggests using an A-B-C-D method to streamline the task. An "A" location is for items that are easily within reach when you're sitting at your desk. A "B" location is for items where you would have to swivel in your chair or reach down to pull out a file drawer. Items in a "C" location would require you to get up from your chair and walk across the room. And a "D" location is for items in a distant location, such as a basement.
Have a concrete plan
Thinking vertically—such as using tall bookshelves as opposed to short ones—is a particularly efficient use of space, especially in apartments or cramped spaces. Keeping your space free of senseless distractions is another.
"Be mindful of what I call beautiful clutter," says Angela Kantarellis, founder and owner of New York-based AKorganizing. "It's an item that has something in it, such as a container, that you don't use. You want to reduce, reuse, and recycle clutter."
For example, Kantarellis was doing some decluttering of her own when she came upon a binder and a beautiful leather notebook for business cards that she never used. She took the business cards out of the binder, so she could reuse the little plastic sheets for something else, and gave everything else to her sister.
One of Kantarellis's pet peeves is what she calls the Someday/Somehow Syndrome: setting a worthwhile goal that never seems to get done because there is no concrete plan. To counteract that, she suggests setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound, or what goal-setting experts call SMART for short. For example, saying that you will organize your files by a particular date, instead of getting around to it someday.
Spending time at the end of every day—15 to 30 minutes—to organize your desk and writing down your plans for the next day can be a huge boost to productivity. "Keep your files rotating, so you only have active files on your desk," Kantarellis says. "Do a seasonal review—say, every quarter—in addition to the daily decluttering. Keep the files that are no longer important or active in your archives in a different place."
Small business owners can find an assortment of filing systems today. For a client who hated traditional filing systems, Kantarellis found a multi-drawer storage cabinet, manufactured by Bisley, and also available at The Container Store. "He was able to stack things in piles based on projects," Kantarellis says, which eliminated the stress and clutter in his office.
Taken as a fun challenge, organizing your home office may actually be good for your bottom line and your disposition.