Working From Home: Set up a Professional Office

Gain an efficient, attractive work space in your own home by following these recommendations.

October 1, 2009

With companies scaling back on square footage and downsizing staff, more people are working from home on a full- or part-time basis. If you have a spare bedroom, big basement, or finished attic, you have a perfect place to establish a home office. Even if you don't have a separate room to spare, you can still dedicate a corner of a kitchen or family room to efficient, productive quarters.

You may benefit, too. A well-outfitted space at home can provide you with an area to write marketing brochures, download photos, and make calls to finalize a transaction.

Furthermore, the average mid-priced office redo pays back 54.6 percent of its $28,000 investment, according to the 2008 Cost vs. Value report.

Here's how to create a home office that is professional and aesthetically appealing.

Where to Locate It

The "where" should depend on how you work and your family needs. "If you've got young children and want to keep an eye on them, a central location, perhaps in a kitchen corner, may be best," says Joshua Zinder, a Princeton, N.J.-based architect.

In other cases, a kitchen corner may be too highly trafficked for someone requiring quiet, says Atlanta designer Johnna Barrett. For different reasons, she frowns upon offices in master bedrooms. "You have to put away work every night so it's not in view or it will be tough to get away from it," she says.

And even where there seems to be no space, use some imagination. Zinder designed an office nook in a hall for his wife, a pastry chef, to manage family finances. Scott Swanay uses a corner of his New York studio apartment for his Web-based fantasy baseball and football business.

"The space is challenging, but I elevated the bed so it works," he says.

Other questions to ask before deciding on where to locate your office:

  • Do you need privacy, quiet, and a door to keep family out?
  • Do you need sunlight and views—which may rule out a windowless basement?
  • Do you need room for clients to meet with you? If so, you should nix a walk-in closet, alcove, or second-floor spare bedroom as options.

What Furnishings You Need

Think about how you like to work: Do you like to sit at a desk or big table to spread out papers, stand up, or have mobile work stations in several rooms?

If long periods need to be spent working at a computer, Kristie K. Abruzzo, owner of The Back Place in Kalamazoo, Mich., stresses the importance of having the right work surface, monitor, keyboard, chair, and storage.

  • Work surface. A work surface should be level with your elbows so you are able to get close enough to the keyboard without leaning forward or reaching up, which puts extra pressure on your neck and shoulder muscles, says Abruzzo. Leaning against the back of the chair for support is also important, she says. Barrett has found attractive, functional, and mid-priced desks at retailers like Crate and Barrel, Ikea, and West Elm.
  • Computer monitor and keyboard. Your computer monitor should be large enough so you're not hunched over and looking down at it, which is why many prefer a desktop over a laptop, says Jeffrey Crane, founder of Concept to Creation, a Gilbert, Ariz., company that consults on home design. To ensure the right height, the monitor may need to be propped atop a stand. If a laptop is preferred, you might have a separate keyboard that will help keep it at the proper level, says Abruzzo.
  • Chair. Despite the array of ergonomic chairs on the market, home office workers needn't spend a lot of money on a chair with a dizzying number of levers and handles. Instead, Abruzzo recommends those with three adjustments so you can raise and lower the height of the chair, tilt the seat, and control the back. "The goal is to keep feet planted flat on the floor, knees no higher than hips, and the back where it's comfortable," Abruzzo says. A chair with arms offers additional support for typing and decreases neck and shoulder pressure, she added.
  • Storage. Storage eliminates clutter, which improves focus, says Wendy Ellin, president of Momentum, an Atlanta-based firm that helps clients master good work habits. She also recommends an organized junk drawer to stash odds and ends. Jason Heredia, vice president of product marketing for Coalese, a division of furniture manufacturer Steelcase, divides essential storage into three categories:

    • What you need now—so it can't be left out.
    • What you anticipate needing, but isn't urgent.
    • What you can put away or archive.

Here are a couple of other factors to consider:

  • Lighting. Good natural lighting is always a perk but needs to be supplemented on cloudy days and at night with artificial illumination, such as ceiling cans and task lamps.
  • Extra furnishings. What's also useful is a secondary work surface for a printer, scanner, shredder, and telephone. Some, like Abruzzo, suggest placing it away from the main surface so you can get up and stretch periodically. Barrett prefers keeping it within easy reach for efficiency. Pat Wexler, a salesperson with Baird & Warner's Highland Park, Ill., office, hired a cabinetmaker to construct a six-foot-long, L-shaped counter so she could spread out papers in her home office. She also hangs racks on walls to view files she's working on. When space permits, you might also consider including bookshelves and a comfortable chair to sit, read, or think in your workspace.

What Technology to Install

You'll need high-speed technology — whether hardwired or wireless — and enough electrical power to handle your growing technical needs with sufficient outlets. These are critical for an efficient workspace. Crane advises concealing wires behind a desk or taping them to a wall to avoid an eyesore, not to mention tripping.

Add Some Extra Pizzazz to Your Office

For some, a TV (or multiple TVs), sound system, artwork, photos, refrigerator, and microwave can make a workplace more enjoyable. For one client, Zinder designed niches to display his wife's pottery.

Elizabeth Tranberg, a designer with Orren Pickell Designers & Builders' CabinetWerks Design Studio in Lake Bluff, Ill., is currently designing an office for a trader that rivals a mini-newsroom with multiple monitors that rise from a custom desk and multiple TVs installed on the wall.

But before you invest in too many toys, Barrett advises thinking about how you work so you avoid unnecessary purchases and don't end up creating more distractions.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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