Home Office, Simplified – Industry Trend or Event
Jeferey D. Zbar
Break bad habits and gain control of your workspace
WORKING FROM HOME ISN’T AS SIMPLE AS IT SEEMS. WHETHER YOU RUN YOUR OWN BUSINESS, freelance, or telework, it’s important to have an organized and functional home office. But that’s easier said than done. Home-based workers lose up to a third of their workday ferreting out lost papers, searching for crucial information, and wading through documents, says Greg Vetter, president of Vetter Productivity Inc., an Atlanta-based organizational consultancy. Add faxes, e-mail, cellular phones, and the Internet, and you’ve created an environment in which data comes in faster than you can process and organize it.
“Organization that leads to productivity gives people control,” says Vetter, who’s also the author of Find It in 5 Seconds: Gaining Control in the Information Age ($20; Hara Publishing Group). “So many people haven’t even learned a system for organizing their paper, and now you’ve got a digital world. Create a working system, and it can be an awesome relief.”
To find out what it takes to set up an organized and productive workspace, HOME OFFICE COMPUTING recently teamed up three home workers with their own organizational experts. To pinpoint areas of improvement, the experts evaluated several aspects–including work flow, organization, effective use of office space, and the role of a personal assistant–that could help home workers save time, energy, and money. Our subjects learned that the choices they make directly affect their productivity–and their bottom lines.
Getting It Together
William C. Nicholson realizes his weaknesses. As founder of SohoLobby.com, a Raleigh, N.C.-based online professional and political action community for small-business and home office professionals, he spends much of his workday thinking about new business. He just can’t easily implement or even write down his streaming visions because his home office is so cluttered. Nicholson admits his incoming documents, as well as his notes, correspondence, and new ideas he’d written down, were in disarray. If he had a better way to organize his space, he could focus on developing business ideas and strategies, he says.
“I have the stereotypical weaknesses of the entrepreneur,” says Nicholson. “[My] mind is always in chaos. You have to have some structure if you want to do business with others.”
Working with Barbara Hemphill, CEO of the Hemphill Productivity Institute in Raleigh, the two scanned Nicholson’s office and charted a path to greater productivity.
His Goals To set up a system that makes documents easily accessible, to create a discrete place to plan new ideas, and to make better use of his home office space.
The Plan First, Hemphill helped Nicholson create Temporary Action Files–to-do files that need his attention on a daily or weekly basis. These he stores in a desk file drawer. Using Hemphill’s Taming the Paper Tiger software ($80; 408-734-9494, www. thepapertiger.com), Nicholson created categories for his files–mirrored in both the file cabinet and on his PC.
As for furniture, Hemphill recommended Nicholson ditch his traditional upright file cabinet in favor of a lateral one that holds more papers and also provides a space for his printer and fax machine. This will help him free up valuable office real estate.
Because Nicholson often entertains at home, Hemphill recommended he purchase a filing cabinet with a lock. This ensures that sensitive data–such as business plans, financial statements, the business checkbook, and other proprietary information–is kept from prying eyes. Incorporating security could save him the future grief of misplaced data, Hemphill says.
Nicholson has another often-overlooked filing space: the walls. Typically neglected in a space-starved workspace, Nicholson’s walls now are home to a map of the U.S., which helps him visualize and track target markets, and his company’s organizational chart, which includes partners, the public relations firm, his attorney, the accounting company, and the support team.
Hemphill also introduced Nicholson to ergonomics, by helping him create a comfortable yet efficient work environment. For years, Nicholson worked on a half-backed office chair without wheels. “It was more like a dining room chair,” he says. At Hemphill’s recommendation, he purchased an ergonomic, wheeled office chair, and a plastic floor mat to place atop his carpeting. This lets him move quickly around the workspace, and the adjustable seat lets him reset his position if he gets sore.
Get Help Hemphill’s visit also made Nicholson realize one important thing: He needed help around the office. Although his finished basement is 350 square feet, complete with a supply room and several offices, Nicholson is a staff of one–he does all the office work himself.
Bad move, says Hemphill. Like many home-based workers, Nicholson has an accountant to handle his taxes and a lawyer for legal issues. But he doesn’t spend $10 an hour for an office assistant. Although most home offices typically don’t have the space for staff, he has no excuse, she says.
Nicholson commands upward of $300 an hour, and the right assistant could boost his productivity by 30 percent if that person worked 20 hours a week. “It adds sick amounts to my bottom line. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out,” he admits. “But it does take a business coach to say, `Suck it up and get it done.'”
Most organizational experts charge between $50 and $250 an hour, with a typical three-hour minimum requirement. Why the disparity? It depends on the consultant’s experience as well as the project. It’s the difference between “a haircut for $8 [at a chain] and one at a salon for $58,” says Hemphill.
Hemphill says many home-based workers fall down in terms of productivity by saying, “I have to do it myself.” She adds, “That’s insane. They should do things that contribute to their business, not [spend time] stuffing envelopes.”
Nicholson realizes that one hour spent with Hemphill won’t solve all his problems. But he knows he can be more effective by putting what he’s learned into practice. In fact, he now works with Hemphill regularly to tweak his organizational skills.
On the Road, Again
Matt Haskins already has his own administrative assistant at company headquarters in Loomis, Calif. But she’s an underutilized resource that could help this Seattle-based road warrior boost his own productivity.
Integrating his assistant with his work routine is only part of Haskins’s solution, notes Ellen Langan, principal with Langan-Bigelow Organizational Consultants in Seattle. Langan and partner Mary Bigelow spent a morning with Haskins in his home office to help him get more use out of his PC.
As director of business development with Monsieur Henri Wine Co., Haskins is home-based, but spends more than 60 percent of his time on the road meeting with customers and retailers. He uses a company-issued Toshiba Satellite 4080XCDT notebook as his primary computer; but one look at his Windows Explorer screen was akin to a novice investor reading the daily stock listings–it was all a jumble.
His Goals To better understand and use his existing technology–and to take advantage of having an office assistant.
The Plan Langan suggested Haskins start by having his assistant, Glennis Evanchak, scan, digitize, and electronically file all his faxes, mail, and correspondence on the company server–so he can access them from home or the road. Even the inbound paper that reaches Haskins at his home office should be sorted, bundled, and shipped off to Evanchak for scanning and filing, Langan says. That way, he can access it via his notebook, downloading important files in case the company server goes down.
He’s already quick to ditch needless paper and e-mail documents, Haskins admits. Now it’s time to deal with the rest of the paper that clutters his workstation and three desk drawers.
“His paper load is very light, but it’s a small space,” says Bigelow. “If he could let go of most of his hard copy, it would free up his time to do more work,” she adds. By doing this, he can access only the information he needs, and eliminate clutter.
Digitize, Organize But scanning paperwork isn’t the only answer. One look at Haskins’s icon-jammed laptop display, and Bigelow saw disaster looming. Haskins was given a laptop with no instructions on how to use it properly–or how to tap into its powerful organizational tools. For instance, he didn’t realize he could set up subdirectories to file related documents together.
Bigelow showed him how to set up subdirectories that mirrored his paper filing system, putting vendors, products, states, territories, and other important categories into separate folders. She also created an E-Mail Action or Tickler File, which reminds Haskins to act on e-mail from clients, vendors, and the company.
When Langan asked about his data backup routine, Haskins shrugged. He hadn’t backed up his data in a year. This likely stemmed from the PC training he never received, says Bigelow. She recommended Haskins use an online backup service such as Skydesk (prices vary per megabyte; www.skydesk.com), an external Iomega Zip drive, or tape backup device.
The company might also have a backup system that Haskins may not even know about, Langan adds. Within an hour, Haskins had dragged and dropped hundreds of errant files into more useful directories; and because those folders are mirrored on the company server, his assistant can also drop scanned documents for him to retrieve whenever he needs them. By knowing where documents are–and where inbound documents should go–Haskins will save several hours each week, Bigelow estimates.
Haskins admits the time spent with Bigelow and Langan was like opening the owner’s manual to his laptop PC, operating system, and his own workstyle. Before the meeting, he had no idea how to maximize his notebook’s functionality or delegate work to his assistant.
“Now I have to apply all this,” Haskins says, “or at least find the time to.”
Work in Progress
As director of operations for Boardroom Communications, a Plantation, Fla.-based public relations firm, Shawn Rosenthal works from home two days a week. On those days, she uses Symantec’s pcAnywhere and a dial-up connection. If she’s out driving carpool, her staff or clients can call on her cellular phone. In her home office, a Brother Intellifax 770 machine is on a shelf nearby, with a Tech Solutions shredder tucked into an armoire.
So far, so good, says Kim Caruthers, an implementation director with Telecommute Solutions. The Atlanta-based consultancy helps companies set up telework programs–ensuring that teleworkers have the same tools and support as their office-based counterparts. Caruthers also evaluates an employee’s potential for working effectively from home.
Before giving an assessment, Caruthers had Rosenthal complete a verbal five-part questionnaire that tracks job skills and work flow, as well as technology and communications needs. “Basically, the home office simulates what you have at your cube,” she tells Rosenthal.
In addition to the survey, Caruthers asked Rosenthal to recount her workweek to get a better idea of her workstyle: Before she leaves Boardroom’s offices on Monday and Wednesday, Rosenthal takes about 5 minutes to pack files into her briefcase. She grabs active account folders, press releases she’s composing, in-box documents, and personnel files she might need. She then rushes home to take over for the nanny.
Her Goals To make a seamless transition between home and office, and reduce communications expenses.
The Plan At home, Rosenthal works while toddler Hanna naps or plays at her feet and her two older sons are at school. Caruthers notes that Rosenthal is fortunate to work for a company whose owner also teleworks with her children around, since companies typically frown on the idea.
Once Hanna is awake and starts playing, Rosenthal should stop calling clients or doing the company’s books and focus on work that doesn’t require silence or concentration like answering e-mails or sending faxes, says Caruthers.
Picking Up the Tab If Boardroom president Julie Silver only knew how valuable Rosenthal was, Caruthers muses. Rosenthal paid for her own PCs (a Packard Bell Platinum and a Gateway desktop on order), a shredder, two phone lines, and a dial-up Internet connection–all costs usually borne by an employer, Caruthers notes. Rosenthal doesn’t log her long-distance calls, either, though she admits they are few. Still, these are costs most employers cover, the consultant stresses.
Some of her South Florida calls incur a toll charge as well–an additional expense Rosenthal could avoid by subscribing to, say, BellSouth’s Area Plus calling plan, Caruthers notes. For a flat monthly fee, subscribers escape local long-distance charges for calls up to 75 miles away.
Although Rosenthal picks up many of the expenses, her home office lacks some basics that could boost productivity, Caruthers says. First, neither the corporate office nor her home office has voice mail or an automated attendant; instead, they rely on answering machines to take incoming calls when no one’s around. If she’s using one line for her Web connection and another for business calls, Rosenthal will miss incoming calls.
She should also opt for local DSL service, says Caruthers, instead of using a slow dial-up. This will help her connect to the Internet faster, and enhance interaction with employees and clients. And she’ll save money in the long run.
7 Steps to Greater Productivity
The consultants all agree: If you want to streamline your office operations and boost productivity, you need to cut the clutter. Below are other tips as well.
Estimate Time Investments Think an hour-long meeting takes only an hour? If it’s a conference cat[, it can easily take an additional 30 minutes for preparation and discussion. If the meeting is off-site, add in commuting time to and from the session. To shorten meetings, create an agenda and stick to it, so the meeting doesn’t dissolve into unrelated conversations.
Eliminate Impulse Buying Do you realty need the latest and greatest tech gadget? Before buying, consider how the technology with make you more effective. If it won’t, then wait. Impulse purchases can Lead to tots of downtime white you team to use new equipment.
Stay Up to Speed Try to stay within one release version of the most current operating system and software. Lagging behind means you may be missing out on new features that could help you stay competitive and boost your bottom line.
Clear a Path Whether ifs an organizational system, buying new software, or making better use of your workspace, simplicity Leads to greater functionality.
Put It in Writing Write down each new creative idea on a 3 by 5-inch card, then pair it with a specific related task. This will help dear your mind and give you focus.
Eliminate Excess Whether it’s e-mail or voice mail paperwork, or ancient office equipment or furniture, if you don’t need it, get rid of it. Purge paperwork as you go. Set aside time monthly to assess what is necessary in your home office.
Realize Your limits Striving for perfection can Lead to Lost time as you attempt to do everything yourself. Realize your strengths and pursue them. Outsource tasks that you don’t do welt or are too time-consuming.
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