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A Home Office That Does the Job

A year ago, my bosses at BusinessWeek (MHP) gave me a year off to write a book. It was a terrific opportunity, but it also meant that after two decades of working in the comfortable confines of an employer's office, I'd be on my own. I had to set up an office in my home, without the luxury of company-owned technology, a built-in support network, and all that top-notch office furniture.

I'm hardly alone. According to the National Federation of Independent Business, more than 21 million Americans worked from their homes in 2007, the most recent period for which data are available. That number has undoubtedly grown with the recession as laid off workers find themselves trying to generate income on their own.

To the new group of home office workers, let me share a few of lessons I learned. I didn't make too many mistakes, except for one expensive piece of technology I shouldn't have purchased. Indeed, I'm quite happy with my setup, mostly because I took the right first steps, creating the office that worked best for me.

Picking a LocationFiguring out how to set up a spot in my home where I could be productive was a significant undertaking. Most important was picking a location where I knew I'd be happy spending hours at a time. I had shared a tiny office in the basement with my wife, where we did all of our home computing. But it's dark and somewhat claustrophobic. We call it the dungeon. There was no way I was going to spend all of my working hours there. So my wife and I got creative. We figured out a way to turn a playroom into a bedroom for my youngest son, and I took over his old room on the second floor for my office.

Once you find your space, you'll need to consider what you'll need to do your job best. There's no one right way to do this, of course. Much will depend on your space, your budget, and your job requirements. After moving my son downstairs, I brought in a contractor to rewire the room. It wasn't inexpensive, about $900 for the work, a bill that also included some painting and supplies, The new wiring, though, allowed me to move my wireless router from the old office in my basement to my new workspace to ensure I'd have a solid connection to the Internet access provided by my cable company. The contractor also added a second electrical outlet near where I'd be putting my desk, so I'd have enough spots to plug in all the gadgetry—everything from lights to computers and my iPod speaker system.

My office is hardly gold-plated, and where I probably saved the most money was on furniture. I wasn't planning on any visitors, and I wanted to make sure I made the most of the advance my publisher gave me to write the book. So I bought a used desk from a friend for $100 and a couple of inexpensive filing cabinets from Staples (SPLS) for $285. Lighting is key, particularly in the dark winter months in the Pacific Northwest. My money-saving answer: a $25 desk lamp from Ikea to augment the ceiling fixture already in the room. I already had a good office chair. Most ergonomists will tell you that it's one area where you shouldn't skimp.

My biggest expense was technology. I couldn't use my BusinessWeek-issed laptop while I was on leave. So after shopping around, I decided on a MacBook Air. It was not an inexpensive option, at $1,750. But I've been increasingly impressed by Apple's (AAPL) software. And while the MacBook Air has some limitations—it doesn't have a DVD drive, it has only one USB port, and enterprise software programs aren't always optimized for Macs—it's perfect for my needs. Its small footprint meant more space on my desk where I could take notes and spread out files. I also traveled a fair amount to report my book, and the impossibly thin MacBook Air felt like next-to-nothing in my briefcase.

Backing Up DataI also knew I needed to system to back up my computer data—all of the reporting and writing I was doing. There are several ways to do this. The cheapest is to simply buy a high-capacity flash drive, a pack-of-gum sized gadget that slides into the USB port. You can find a 32 gigabyte version for less than $75. But it means that you need to manually back up your work. And you'll want to do that regularly. There are also external hard drives, many of which come with software to automatically back up data.

I opted for Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) $580 MediaSmart Server, mostly because it was designed to easily back up data from the two other Windows PCs in my house, used by my wife and my kids. I still needed to back up the MacBook Air on my own. In hindsight, the MediaSmart Server wasn't a good choice. The software isn't the least bit intuitive. I do a fair amount of backing up my Windows PCs manually. And I often forget to copy the files from my MacBook Air for weeks at a time. I probably would have been better off with Apple's Time Capsule, which automatically backs up data from a Mac and doubles as a Wi-Fi base station.

Some folks will need to think about connecting to the Web, and making sure that all the computers have access to that connection. That wasn't a problem for me since I already had good Internet access and a wireless router. Depending on your needs, you might want to look into upgrading an older Wi-Fi base station that uses early technology, such as a standard called 802.11b or 802.11g. The newest routers use 802.11n, which, when paired with a laptop running the same technology, can mean faster connection speeds.

There's plenty of mundane technology to consider, too. Most folks will want a phone for their work. Generally, it's easy to add a second land line. But you might consider using a mobile phone instead. I bought an iPhone, which works well with my MacBook Air. In addition to taking calls anywhere, it also means I can send and receive e-mail when I'm out of the office.

Wireless PrinterI also wanted a printer and a fax machine, and there are plenty of quality choices that combine those two technologies, often with a scanner. I picked up a HP all-in-one printer for about $200 that connects wirelessly to my home office network. That way, all the computers in the house can print on it. And for the handful of times I need to use a fax, it's there.

Of course, your acreage may vary. I have a neighbor who is an engineer who also works from home. He needs more space in his office for a drafting table. Graphic designers may need more high-powered computers with big monitors. Work styles differ, too. Some people work best using Post-it notes or whiteboards that I have no use for. Others may have space for conference tables to spread out files for their particular projects.

As for me, now that my leave is over, I'm continuing to work from home. The cost savings, both for me and BusinessWeek, is significant. And the luxury of being able to greet my kids when they come home from school and eat dinner with my family every night is something I don't want to give up.

Click here to view a slide show of home office products that combine form and function.

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