DIY: Setting up your home office

When setting up a home office, there are some things you shouldn't overlook. This handy guide will help you avoid the most common pitfalls.

DIY: Setting up your home office
When setting up a home office, there are some things you shouldn't overlook. This handy guide will help you avoid the most common pitfalls.

With broadband reaching ever further and further into our homes, it's becoming more and more tempting to set up a home office, whether it's for pure work purposes or simply to have a distinct space where you can set up the family PC. Setting up a home office isn't as simple as just plunking a PC down in a corner and getting on with it. These simple tips won't do the work for you, but they can help you avoid some of the more common pitfalls.



Ergonomic excellence
A good home office shouldn't hurt you. We show you what you need to consider before you've even put your coffee down.

Powerful advice
A modern home office needs plenty of juice, and networking power to spare.

Distinction matters
Create a professional looking office, and you'll be doing yourself a big favour -- and maybe even earning a tax break to boot.

Style selection
Do you really want your clients entertained over a broken plastic jug of Tang?

Protect yourself
What would you do if all your files suddenly weren't there any more?

Ergonomic excellence

It's all too easy to decide that the deckchair that your Auntie Gladys left you will be good enough to sit and work at, and, indeed that those leftover orange crates will suffice for desk space. It's tempting -- and cheap -- but you'll pay an awful lot more in the long run when a poor ergonomic situation leaves you with cramping wrists, a neck that grinds more than the average skateboarder and eyes that can't see more than a few millimetres in front of your face.

Ergonomic excellence

You don't need to spend an absolute fortune on a chair, but should certainly make sure that the chair that you're using is adjustable, and that it normally sits in a position that allows you to comfortably rest your arms at around a 90 to 110 degree angle, more or less parallel to the floor. If you're setting up a home office that's going to be used by more than one person, it should be essentially mandatory that you have a chair that's able to be adjusted to allow this kind of flexibility, and naturally, you should make sure that the chair is right for you before you begin working.

It's fairly natural for most working desks to collect a fair bit of clutter over time, but in the interests of best working practise, you should make sure that the clutter doesn't get out of hand. Not just because it'd be terrible to have your obituary mention that you were found dead underneath a large pile of yellowing paper, but also because the amount of clear space on your desk will impact on how you work at your keyboard and mouse. The more freedom you have to flex your arms in a sensible fashion, the better you'll work ergonomically, and the reverse is true -- a cluttered desk will encourage you to constrain your arms in less natural positions.

Ergonomic excellence

Your monitor screen should have the brightness turned down as low as feasibly possible in order to reduce eye strain, and your monitor itself -- whether it's a CRT screen, LCD monitor or notebook display -- should sit at or just below your eye level, to reduce neck strain. If you find that means you need to prop up your screen, do so, but make sure you've placed a stable flat item under your screen -- you don't want it to develop a tilt over time, or worse yet fall towards you.

There's a final ergonomic tip we'd like to impart, and at first glance, it might seem rather obvious -- take plenty of breaks. Sure, it sounds good in theory, but most people sit down at a PC to work, and before they know it six hours have passed and their fingers feel like they've had pins inserted into them at random angles. There are solutions that can force you to take a break -- software that will blank out your screen is one option, as would be a simple alarm clock -- as long as you remember to set it. In a home environment especially, you'll not only save yourself all sorts of ergonomic woes by taking regular breaks, but you'll also most likely refresh your creative spirit, enabling you to get more done in less time than if you attempt to power through and get work done in a sloppy fashion.

Ergonomic excellence

Powerful advice

Powerful advice

You may have the most beautiful spot in your home in mind for your home office, but if it doesn't have power -- and preferably some kind of network connection -- then it's probably the worst spot in your home. The average home office setup will need at least five power outlets -- desktop, display, printer and at least two spare points for intermittent object power like digital cameras and mobile phones -- and if you're in any way serious about the whole endeavour, invest in a solid surge protected power board or two. Depending on how critical your work is, you may also want to invest in a small uninterruptible power supply (UPS) so that if you suddenly lose power -- and even in the larger Australian suburban markets you're not guaranteed to be free of blackouts -- you can still safely save your work and shut down your PC system.

Networking your home PC is a pretty big topic -- if you want to go wireless we've got an excellent tutorial on setting up a wireless home network -- but the single biggest factor beyond the wired/wireless choice is the position of your home office relative to the rest of your home, and how that will affect network performance if you choose to do a bit of redecorating. You might think that it's no big deal to just lay a little more cable, but not only does it look unsightly, you'll be cursing yourself when (and not if) your trip over it.

Powerful advice

Distinction matters

There are several advantages to setting up your home office in a distinct space -- ideally in its own room, but certainly at least separated away from the rest of your household possessions. For a start, if you're using your home office to run a small business, there can be quite significant tax implications if your home office is in a distinct area -- you may be able to claim tax relief for the space taken up by your office, and even a percentage of the power and other utility usage of that area. Check with your accountant before doing so -- those with home offices and mortgages may find themselves slugged with capital gains tax when the time comes to sell if you go down that route.

Distinction matters

Whether or not you can gain some traction with the taxman for having a distinct home office, there's a much more fundamental reason why it's a good idea to have a distinct space for your home office. If you plonk your home office equipment right down in the middle of, say, your living room, chances are you'll be awash with distractions in seconds, whether it's the kids hassling you for more pocket money, the sight of the unwashed dishes poking in the corner of your peripheral vision or the all-encompassing temptation to watch a little light TV before starting in at work. By creating an environment away from these distractions, you'll work more efficiently, as well as letting everyone else in the house know that you're in your work environment and are thus less likely to welcome interruptions.

There's a third reason why it's a good idea to create a distinct office, and it applies to those who have children. A distinct office -- and especially a distinct office computer system -- is less likely to be stuffed around with by your kids. For more on how to protect yourself from your nearest and dearest, check out our feature on how to Protect Your Home Office From Your Kids.

Distinction matters

Style selection

Style selection

If you've unwisely chosen not to get ergonomically sound equipment and are instead making do with a deck chair and the aforementioned storage crates, you'll hit a particular wall before very long -- you won't want to have anyone actually meet you at your home office, because you'll look like a cheapskate.

You don't have to go wild and crazy, but an elegant looking office will not only give your home office a more professional look, it'll also make for a more pleasant and constructive work environment for you.

Don't forget the plants, either. That isn't just a style thing -- if you're working away, creating carbon dioxide, there's nothing better than a handy plant nearby to keep your oxygen supply fresh and flowing. Some plants may also help reduce the instances of other hazardous environmental chemicals, and, of course, they're very pretty.

Style selection

Protect yourself

Protect yourself

If you're a teleworker setting up a home office so that you can further blur the line between your office and home life, we'd suggest that you take a nice, long, relaxing holiday. Of course, in today's busy world, that's not always possible. The one single way you can make your firm's IT staff panic is to bring in a laptop or other PC device -- even potentially a portable storage device like a solid-state USB drive or an iPod -- into their secured and patched IT environment. You could run the risk and not tell them, of course -- as long as you like the idea of losing your job when they trace that devastating virus outbreak back to you. The better option -- and one that has the added advantage of keeping your home PC and home network safe -- is to make sure you're properly protected.

Protecting your PC takes many forms -- and to an extent it's an article all in itself -- but at the very least you should ensure that your system is up to date with whatever patches and updates are available to keep yourself secure -- and that applies to all systems, whether you're running Windows, OS X or Linux -- and that they're properly applied. Likewise, if you're running a network-connected system and you don't have some form of virus protection, you're essentially playing Russian roulette with a loaded machine gun and a twitchy trigger finger. Install a reputable package, and don't think it stops there -- update your virus definitions as often as possible. Most packages will let you automate this process, but if you don't feel like handing over that level of control to a software package, then schedule some time at the same time each week to check for updates, update virus definitions and run a fresh virus scan. Take the time while it does this to enjoy a fine glass of wine and luxuriate in your home. After all, too much work and not enough play makes you a dull person, as they say.

Protect yourself

The final topic that you should consider -- and far, far too many people don't -- is timely backup of your precious files. Just in case the mere mention of backup has you snoozing, take a quick look at your hard drive. Now, imagine it exploding in a shower of sparks. Which information, that was on it, could you never replace again? That's your backup set, right there. It's very easy to fall into the habit of only ever backing up once and feeling all self-satisfied, but to do the job properly, and to protect yourself adequately, you should schedule backups of your home office files at least once a week -- more frequently for documents that change at a more rapid pace, of course. Many of the better backup packages will automate this process for you, so it's really just a matter of checking a few tick boxes and inserting storage media at the appropriate time.

Protect yourself

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