The first time I set up a home office I decided I needed everything to be perfect – the perfect desk, the perfect chair, filing cabinet, etc, etc.
I wanted the ideal home office.
In fact, I spent so much time and money on fiddling around with tiny details that I wound up losing heart in what I was doing, accepted a job with a local IT company, and all of a sudden I lost 4 years of my life.
What you need to do is to get the basics right when designing a home office, and then worry about the rest after that.
Learning how to set up a home office from scratch isn’t rocket science as long as you focus on the basics.
And there’s no need to hire home office designers to help you.
What you need for a home office
Okay, so the basic things every home office should have are an office desk and a comfortable office chair.
The reality is that working from home requires a computer of some kind, but I cover that later on in the article.
Location, Location, Location
Wherever you decide to set up your office at home it has to be a space dedicated just to that, unless you have absolutely no other choice. Yes, you can work from your kitchen table on a laptop, but it’s far from ideal because you’re going to get interrupted every few minutes.
My home office at the moment is in the smallest room in my home – it’s 7.5 x 7.5 feet. All that was in here before was an old wardrobe, and a small guest bed that nobody ever used. So, I threw all that stuff out and created my working space.
I like my little office space because it gets lots of natural light, but also has heavy blinds, and I can see trees and fields from where I sit.
With a little bit of creative thinking (and some serious bargaining with your partner) you should be able to find at least one corner of your home that can be your dedicated office space. If there’s literally not a single inch to spare inside your home, then how about your loft/attic area or is there a warm, insulated shed you could use?
The reason why I’m stressing the importance of having your own space is that you’ll simply be far more productive working from a dedicated home office.
There are just far fewer distractions when you do things this way.
Your home office desk
Assuming that you have a dedicated room for your office then the bare minimum measurements for your desk should be 42-inches long, 30-inches deep, and 27-inches in height.
You can get desks that are much smaller than that, but you’re going to wind up with all your work crammed on top of you, and constantly banging your knees against the side of the desk.
If you have a bit more space to work with then ideal desk dimensions are 48-inches long, 30-inches deep, and 28-inches in height. This is more than enough space for a desktop/laptop with a dual-screen setup and enough space for pens, notepads, whiteboard markers, empty coffee cups, snack wrappers, and all the other stuff you promised yourself you’d never clutter your desk with.
Do yourself a massive favor and choose a desk with a flat surface – those multiple tier desks might look cool, but they’re really uncomfortable to work on.
The last consideration is the shape of your desk – you can either choose a conventional straight edge or l-shaped desk. You can also choose from a kidney-shaped desk, where a portion of it is cut away to allow you to sit closer to your keyboard and mouse.
Which one is best?
Whatever one works best for your office space – you could even go as far as using a standing desk if that suits you.
DO NOT skimp on your office chair.
Your ass is going to be planted in this for several hours each day, so it needs to be at least somewhat comfortable.
Probably the biggest mistake I see people make when first working from home is sitting on a kitchen chair, or something equally uncomfortable.
Now, I know those fancy office chairs you’ve seen on Amazon like the Herman Miller chairs look amazing, but they’re probably outside your budget.
You should look for the following features in any office chair you plan on spending a lot of time in:
- 5-wheel base – knowing that your chair won’t collapse underneath you is always comforting
- Adjustable backrest – some chairs offer incremental adjustment settings, where others are either set to fixed upright or full freedom of movement.
- Mesh back (thought I’d hate this feature, but it’s way more comfortable than a fabric or leather backrest)
- Adjustable arm wrests
- Height adjustable
- Swivel base
- Lower back (lumbar) support
- Made from breathable fabric
What you’re looking for is a chair that’s ergonomically friendly, but that doesn’t cost a small fortune.
Ikea also does a nice line of relatively affordable office chairs, so make sure to check them out too.
Setting up your home office on a budget
I understand that a lot of people reading this are probably sitting there going, “Yeah, fine. I’ll just whip out my maxed-out credit card, and go buy myself a desk and chair right now”.
Here’s the thing: It will never, ever be the right time to start your own business, and that’s coming from a guy who’s had his own fair share of success and failure.
So, the last thing you should let get in your way is that you don’t have enough money to buy the basics.
You’ll find office desks and chairs being given away either for pocket change, or free, on sites like Craiglist, Donedeal or Gumtree. A quick search on Facebook will find a “Buy and Sell” group in your area, with plenty of people looking to simply throw out perfectly good office furniture.
Let’s assume though that neither of the above options exist.
In that case, look for large offices or call centres in your town – anywhere there’s a lot of asses in seats – and try to make contact with their facilities manager.
Why would you bother doing this?
Well, because every year or so these big companies take any worn or slightly damaged desks and chairs and toss them into dumpsters by the dozen.
Again your only expense here will be the cost of traveling to pick the desk or chairs up, although some facility managers will charge you a token amount for the desk or chair.
But even if you do pay $20 for the desk and chair, that’s still a good deal – they’re probably worth $200 each, but because somebody spilled coffee on the chair or scrawled their name in the desk, you’re getting them at 10% of the market price.
If you are struggling with your finances the only book I can recommend here is The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey.
Dave’s book is a great way to get honest with yourself about your finances, and how you can dig yourself out of whatever financial hole you find yourself in.
A home office in a small space
Don’t panic if you don’t have an entire room to use as a home office, or if you can’t afford to have your loft converted – it’s still possible to create a usable home office workspace even where you think you have no options at all.
The first places to look are closets that are never used, or are just filled with junk which should have been tossed in the trash years ago.
Every single home has that one nook or corner where people cram stuff they’re going to “use later”.
Your next step is to measure the width of that space and see if it falls within my guidelines for adequate desk space. If so, then you have a small space that’s not quite a home office, but will allow you to work in without going nuts.
If you don’t have any closets or cupboards you’re not using then look underneath your stairs.
In most smaller homes this is usually where household items are stored, like jackets, cleaning equipment, etc. Simply clearing that space out would allow you to fit a desk and chair underneath your stairs, and again, although it’s not a dedicated room, it’s better than working from your kitchen table.
The only real downside to working in a smaller space is that you’ll probably have to use a laptop instead of a desktop PC, but you’ll still be able to fit two small screens in there, so you get a dual monitor setup regardless.
If you have to use a smaller space like this to work from then invest in a good pair of noise-canceling headphones, and get a “work playlist” ready, because you’ll need to drown out the background distractions of people talking on phones, your TV, and all the other household noises that will break your train of thought.
Your home office computer setup
So, how much computing power do you really need for your home office?
Not an awful lot to be honest, well not unless you’re a professional graphic designer, or video editor.
I’ve seen all too many people drag their heels on setting up their home office because they can’t afford the newest, fastest, shiniest computer…which is just plain silly.
The reality is that most people working from home need a computer that can handle web browsing, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and maybe a few other small programs like that. Anyone who really needs more computing power won’t need advice from me on what to choose, but for those of you dithering about what type of computer to choose.
Here’s the best advice I can give: Buy what you can afford, and you can upgrade later on when you can afford it.
A reasonable budget for buying a new computer setup for your home office is around $800, including a basic printer.
But if you find that you’re struggling to buy the cheapest new computer you can find then I’m glad to tell you there’s a solution – buy refurbished office computers instead.
These are older models, but are usually ex-government stock, so have been well maintained by in-house IT teams.
Yes, they will have a lower specification than a newer computer, but at a fraction of the price.
The dual-monitor Dell setup above costs around $350.
You can save yourself a small fortune and get yourself a perfectly good home office computer by buying refurbished gear.
You can get them for as little as $100 each, and except for a few scratches the computer will be in perfect working order – I know because I’ve bought several of them.
A quick Google search for “refurbished computers” will turn up plenty of results, no matter where on Earth you live.
One area I will advise you to spend some extra cash is by investing in a dual-monitor setup for your computer.
This is the single best office setup tip I can give you to really improve your productivity. Working on a computer with a single screen makes me feel like I have one hand tied behind my back.
Your home office tech essentials
By this stage you know what type of desk you’re getting, you have a good idea of what type of chair won’t leave you with life-long back problems, and you’ve also settled on what a desktop or laptop computer for your home office.
So, what else is there in terms of tech stuff?
There are a few other items you might want to add to your shopping list.
The first is a set of noise-canceling headphones and there are a few reasons for this. The first is that they’ll obviously help you drown out background noises.
The second is that when somebody sees you working while wearing a pair of headphones they’re far less likely to interrupt you – headphones on = work mode.
Good quality headphones are also important because you’ll need your “work playlist” to help you focus. I’m going to cover this in more detail in another article, but listening to certain types of music can help put you in what’s called a “flow” state, where you’ll be far more productive than if you weren’t listening to it.
And then finally you’ll need some form of data backup device or service.
I actually use several – I’m super paranoid about data loss and with good reason – but to preserve your own sanity you need at least something to back your work up to. I’m a recovering tech nerd, and I can’t tell you how many friends and friends of friends I’ve had at my front door literally in tears because their laptop died and they’ve lost all 4 years of college work/all their work documents/all their wedding photos. Basically, if you’re not backing up your data then you’re asking for trouble – it’s only a matter of time before you suffer a data loss incident.
So, at the bare minimum I’d recommend getting a 32GB or 64GB USB flash drive to store documents on. If you can afford to spend a bit more then maybe consider a USB external hard drive- my favorites are the WD (Western Digital) My Passport models because they don’t need a separate power source and seem to be almost indestructible. I own several of them and not of them has ever failed. Not once. The only real downside to either of these is that you have to remember to backup your data, which is why I use both Dropbox and Mozy for off-site file backups. I also use a second internal hard drive to backup my data on a daily basis, so I’ll never lose more than a few hours worth of data. I love Mozy because it automates the entire backup process for both mass local and remote file backup, but Dropbox is really useful for keeping a second dedicated copy of my client work that I can access anywhere.
What office supplies do you need for a new office?
And finally, we need to take a look at paper, pens and all that other stuff for your home office.
Again, you don’t need to remortgage your home to buy what you need here. My setup is a stack of A4 legal pads (the yellow kind) because I find them easier to make notes on. My favorite pens are Papermate Flexigrips because they’re very easy to write with, and come in multiple colours, which is ideal for the type of work I do.
Something I’ve recently started doing is journaling as part of my business. I’ve tried so many different apps, spreadsheets, and trackers to store different ideas I have, but nothing has worked better than paper and a pen. That probably makes me sound like a bit of a Luddite (somebody who’s afraid of technology) but I’m not. I’ve just found that the act of having dedicated journals for different topics works really well.
For example, I have one small journal that contains all the different topics and research I’ve done for this website. Another journal is for ideas for my fiction books, and another one is just for general business doodling and ideas. I use a mixture of A5 and A6 journals from a company called Silvine for this, but that’s only because I’m too cheap to pay for Moleskin notepads.
Seriously though, if you’ve never tried journaling you should. It’s helped me set a number of concrete goals I can refer to in a way that just doesn’t work in any digital format.
So there you have it – my somewhat imperfect guide to setting up your home office.
Remember the things to focus on are:
- A comfortable desk and chair
- A decent computer
- As much natural light if possible
- As few distractions as possible
As you can see, you kind of learn how to design an office as you go along.
But as long as you stick to the basics you’ll find working from home can be a lot more comfortable (and enjoyable) than you thought.