How to Set Up a Great Home Office

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Talk Is Cheap: Your Choice of Phone Services

My home telephone, with its ancient audiotape message recorder, had served me well for personal calls (maybe not that well), but it certainly wouldn't do for an office. Fortunately, there are many inexpensive landline and cellular phone service options to choose from.

You can subscribe to voice mail, caller ID, call forwarding, and call waiting from the local phone company, but why pay extra for them--up to $25 per month--when they're included as part of basic cell-phone service plans? That's what I concluded after comparing rate plans between landline and cellular phone companies.

Scaling back on my landline service was easy: I ordered the lowest rate for service and added call forwarding so that I could send callers to my cell phone seamlessly. That reduced my monthly landline bill from over $30 to about $12. For a comparison of cellular phone service plans, see "Mobile Computing: Wireless Phone Options."

I also recommend that the phone hardware you select come with a speakerphone capability--or at least a headset port--so you can work hands-free when you need to.

Now that Voice-over-IP technology lets people make voice calls over the Internet effectively, we have another low price option to consider. Starting at about $20 per month, VoIP services offer unlimited calls in North America via your regular phone handset (Some services include fax options, which you can use with your existing fax machine.) Right now, the drawbacks of Internet phone services include the inability to place local 911 emergency calls and the possibility of slow or no connections if trouble arises anywhere on the provider's network. For tips on how to make the switch to an Internet phone service, check out "Surviving VoIP." And to learn more about VoIP money matters, see "The Hidden Costs of Cheap Phone Service."

Well Seated: The Most Important Office Purchase You Will Make

After just one hour of working while sitting on a rickety kitchen chair, I got a stiff back. And after using the same chair for an entire day--even with the cushion I wedged into it to support my back--I was in pain. So the advice of office designers and ergonomists is right on target: Buy the best office chair you can afford, and make sure that it provides solid and adjustable back support. Look for a chair that will be comfortable to sit in for hours at a time, whether you're shuffling papers at your desk or staring at your computer screen. A used office chair can save you major bucks, but inspect it carefully for wear and damage before buying. For a thorough rundown on chair adjustability options, check out Ankrum Associates' Office-Ergo.com Web site.

Making Connections: Networking Your Office

A cable jungle has always lurked under my desk, but the advent of wireless devices and networking makes conquering cable clutter much easier. As I created my small office from scratch, I made a determined effort to lose as many wires as possible. By adopting wireless networking via Wi-Fi (802.11g) or Bluetooth products, I found that I could move my notebook from room to room in my house, access the Web, and print--all without dragging cables around

Until recently, wired home networks were considered more reliable and secure than their wireless counterparts. But the latest wireless network routers, which incorporate firewalls and other security measures you need to guard against Web intruders, run at higher speeds than their predecessors did and offer reliable Internet access. Furthermore, I can easily expand my network to include other computers and devices by configuring them with my wireless network ID codes. For help with your purchase decisions, see "How to Buy Home Networking Products."

Security Inside and Out: For the PC, for the Office

Home offices generally are not covered in home owners' or renters' insurance policies for liability, fire, and theft. For protection, you need either a separate policy or a rider to your current one. If all you want to insure is your PC, check Safeware, an insurance company that specializes in PC coverage.

Of course, burglars who break into PCs--via viruses, worms, spyware, and other furtive methods--are harder to detect than burglars who break into homes. So make sure that you add security software to your system. Much of it is available as freeware or low-cost shareware, and you can find some excellent programs of this type at PCWorld.com's Downloads library.

For a full review of PC security essentials, read "It's Time to Update Your Internet Security Arsenal" and "Spyware Stoppers."

Help on the Web

For additional resources online, check out Steve Bass's Tips and Tweaks, Hassle-Free PC, and Home Office columns; the Home Business Institute; SOHO online; Small Business Canada (note: advice is not limited to Canada); and SoHo It Goes.

Office, Sweet Office

My office may be in my home, but I do my best to ensure that my home is not in my office. Maintaining professional integrity and business backbone demands a clear division between work and everything else. So even if your home office is just a cubbyhole in a corner of your bedroom, it's important to preserve that invisible wall up--and to let family and friends know they shouldn't intrude.

When I'm in my office, I am the boss--and even my cat knows not to enter. Of course, I still have one dilemma that I didn't have when I worked in the downtown office building: the kitchen refrigerator. It's just so conveniently close. To resist temptation, I probably need something more durable than my invisible wall, don't I?

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