By Diane White McNaughton
Janice Jackson calls herself a “total minimalist.” So when the pandemic forced her to work from home four days out of five each week, her home work space followed suit.
Not knowing how long she would be working from her cozy rancher, Jackson refused to spend a lot of time, money and brain power on an extreme home makeover. She set up home base in her bright gray and white kitchen in the front of her sun-lit home. Her boss in her financial services firm bought her a laptop for her kitchen table. All she needed was her daily bottle of water, her glasses, and her papers, and she was in business.
The joys of working from home became readily apparent. She was able to spend time with the high-energy pit bull mix she rescued in May, after her beloved husky died at the beginning of the pandemic. Jackson was also able to save gas, time, and money now that her daily 45-minute commute to work, each way, had abruptly gone the way of the handshake and the all-you-can-eat buffet.
No more tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, daily stops for coffee at 7-11, pricey visits to the hair salon, or dry-cleaning bills. Plus, she got to sleep in an extra 45 minutes each day.
Life in her DIY home office is like Groundhog Day. Slide out of bed. Make coffee. Shower. Open the laptop. Work til 5. Rest. Repeat.
Her work space usually features her laptop at her kitchen table. Her cat Ziggy frequently objects to not being Job One by sitting squarely on her keyboard. She can look out the window when she needs a break and walk her dog.
Her kitchen chair is wooden, and has a firm back so she is not hunched over her laptop. Her home is quiet, so loud distractions are not an issue.
She did it far more economically than most.
The costs of building a home office run in the range of $20,000 to $30,000, according to homestratosphere.com. According to howmuch.net, it can be done much more cost-effectively, estimating it costs about $9,200 to turn a 150-square-foot room into an office. This may include the need to erect a wall, buy furniture, and install a window or soundproofing.
Jack Sherzer, founder and principal of the public relations firm Message Prose, set up his home office, pre-pandemic, when he first bought his ranch home in Susquehanna Township. He has been working from home since 2012, when he was offered a buy-out from his long-time position at the Harrisburg Patriot-News. The shift from frenetic newsroom to total isolation was jarring.
He uses his second bedroom as a home office, though there is still room for a guest bed. Over time, he has gradually amassed a host of office equipment: two computer screens, a shredder with a feeder, a printer, and an inexpensive but vital phone holder for long phone calls and Zoom meetings.
They and other tele-workers offer these 10 key must-haves to make your home office your castle.
1. DO buy an ergonomic chair. Most of us have Prolonged Sitting Disease, which is reputedly worse than smoking. Working from home without moving can lead to back and neck issues, carpal tunnel syndrome, weight gain and more. Sherzer’s friend wound up requiring months of physical therapy because he was hunched over a laptop for 10-12 hours a day, with a posture that would make his grandmother’s blood boil, causing lower back spasms, and sciatica pain.
“You must have a comfortable chair. Spend the money,” Sherzer says. “Don’t try to use a kitchen chair. I bought my office chair from Staples. It has wheels on it and a plastic chair mat underneath so I’m not scratching the hardwood or ruining carpet.”
And try it on for size, experts insist. Even if you want to buy a chair online, try to find that chair somewhere and try it on for size. It’s like a pair of shoes. The chair has to fit your body, Sherzer says.
2. DON’T stay in the dark. Good lighting is a must. Nicole Criswell of L & L Window Fashions notes that one of the first things they consider when decorating a home office is where your computer will be.
“We want to look at glare on the monitor. We want to get the appropriate amount of light control so you can see your screens.” Several different trendy window fashions, including shades and blinds, are available depending on whether you need room-darkening or a stream of sunlight. Sherzer uses layers of lighting, employing a lighted ceiling fan above and an adjustable architect’s lamp at computer level. He believes he doesn’t need much lighting because his computer is lit. He keeps his blinds shut during the day to minimize distractions and shed more light on the monitors. Experts advise right-handers to keep their light to the left so it doesn’t impair vision.
3. DO surround yourself with inspiration. Decorate with things that inspire you. Sherzer prints out his favorite sayings in a decorative font and tacks them to the wall, including “Procrasti-pain,” and “Delay is the deadliest form of denial.” Many others surround themselves with family photographs. Sherzer also keeps a shoebox on his desk where his Siamese cat frequently curls up for hours.
4. DON’T follow the sound. Seek the sounds of silence. If your home office is in a high-traffic common area, like a kitchen, your work may stop every time someone’s appetite restarts. That is why one Department of Revenue staffer says he started out working from home in his kitchen, then moved to the dining room, and then the bedroom, in a traveling work show. Another state worker worked at her dining room table alongside her husband and her daughter, a high school senior. It was difficult not to be distracted, to chat, or to run and throw in a load of laundry. It was especially hard because her work often consisted of phone calls, which her entire family could hear.
5. DO spend the money on good equipment. Spring for a state-of-the-art computer and all the fixings. Make sure you have high-speed internet, at the highest speed you can afford. Internet expenses can be a 100 percent tax write-off, Sherzer reminds home-workers, if their home is their only office. Many people these days are using two screens, so they can type their work product on one screen while reading from another screen.
6. DON’T be stingy with storage space. Teleworkers need both virtual storage and hard-copy storage. Sherzer recommends that home-workers pay for a good cloud back-up system like Dropbox.. If you subscribe to Microsoft 365, it will keep Microsoft Word and other programs up-to-date, including Mail, Excel, and Power Point. If your company doesn’t pay for them, they are also tax write-offs. Sherzer can put up to five computers on the software. If his hard drive crashes, his vital information is stored on back-up.
“That’s imperative,” Sherzer says.
He also purchased a back-up hard drive from Best Buy, so he has double back-ups.
He also recommends a great scanner and printer.
7. DON’T become a packrat for paper or go solo with tech problems.
If teleworkers are keeping stacks of paper, it is easy to run out of filing space quickly. His cat loves to luxuriate in the sea of paper. Sherzer encourages workers to go as paperless as possible. He also recommends that you get a decent filing cabinet at a used office supply place, or buy online.
And pay for professional IT help if your company won’t pay, such as Geek Squad, who can take over your computer remotely if you run into a problem you cannot solve on your own.
He also recommends a mouse pad and keyboard that you can rest your wrists on, to avoid wrist pain and Carpal tunnel syndrome.
8. DO get an inexpensive cell phone holder, for $25-$30. For longer phone calls and Zoom meetings, the phone holder is a must. If you take many phone calls, use a hands-free device on your call. Sherzer uses Apple ear buds. This allows him to walk around and talk, so he is not stuck at his computer in the same old seat.
“If you’re buying equipment for a home office, spend as much as you can afford,” Sherzer recommends. “Don’t cheap out on it.” It will last. If you buy a desktop, you can save money if the hard drive goes bad, because you can replace just the hard drive, and not the whole computer.
9. DON’T blur the lines between work life and home life. The key: A door. Laurie Foster, an interior designer from Wolf Furniture, says a door is the one thing you have that can separate work from the rest of life. When that door is closed, that’s your signal to work. When you walk out the door, the rest of life begins.
10. DO look on the bright side. You can save time and money at home. A gas tank can last a month and no mask is needed when you are parked on your sofa. You can work remotely without remotely working.