If you’re freelancing from home on a regular basis a well-lit, well kitted-out office is essential – not just a luxury. Our resident gadget guru Jim Hatley takes a look at some home office must-haves.

Home office heaven: Screens, scanners, DAB and desk-lamps

Last year I have covered a few bits of kit to enable you to maintain productivity on the move, but I want to use the next couple of posts to focus on the home-working freelancer’s needs, and how to set up your home office effectively. It’s really important to have the right tools to do the job with, otherwise you can easily find yourself wasting precious time going out to send faxes, or struggling to get digital media to play in temperamental drives.

When deadlines are approaching, and every unnecessary delay shunts your whole day’s schedule back an hour or more, freelancing stops feeling like a privilege, and more like the grind we all seek to escape. So let’s start by running through the basics you will need to get your office set up correctly.

Two heads are better than one

First of all, take a look at the space you intend to use as your office – is it sufficient for you to set up a computer, spread out papers and fit a cup of tea on it? If you are finding yourself stacking papers and repeatedly shuffling through them in order to fit them all on the desk, then I’m afraid you may need to look at finding a larger work space. As far as technology goes, the same is true; if you are reading from a web page and typing into Word, then you are wasting time and losing your concentration if you are constantly flicking from one application to another. It’s amazing how many people don’t realise how easy it is to set up a second monitor on their machine, or just how much of a benefit it can be to use such a set-up and recent testing has shown a productivity increase of 20 to 30 percent with the addition of a second monitor. Those numbers can translate directly into extra pounds in the bank or earlier clock-offs.

Almost all laptops have a monitor output which can be used to ‘clone’ their desktop on another monitor or, more interestingly, to extend it. The same can be true for desktop machine, as many new graphics cards have twin outputs, or another one can be easily installed. Installing a second graphics card is a nice, simple bit of computing DIY, but make sure you check what type of interface your motherboard has first; many of them have the interface types written on the boards themselves these days, so pop the case off and take a look. If in doubt, ask a techie friend.

So, you’ve got enough space for both your real and virtual papers, so let’s now look at storage. Depending on what type of freelance work you do, you’ll have slightly different storage needs, but it seems to be a fairly consistent fact that a few shelves and a stack of drawers are pretty much essential for everyone. Personally, I have a few feet of tech magazines, writer’s guides, review products and other assorted miscellanea lined up on my shelves and my drawers a filled with the kind of junk that can all too easily start to clutter up the desk space and reduce productivity. Remember; maintaining order and discipline are crucial to a clear and productive mindset, so keep your workspace as tidy as possible. The same rules apply to shelf and drawer space. Categorise everything, and group accordingly. Time spent searching drawers for post-it notes or a stapler breaks the thought process and makes it harder to get back to what you were doing.

 

Some day my prints will come

If you don’t already have a printer/scanner/fax machine, then please, please consider making the investment. I have wasted time when I should have been meeting deadlines and knocking off early for the day simply because I didn’t have a fax machine. My payroll company insisted that I fax them my details across to them so I could get paid in time to take care of the monthly bills, so I found myself walking around town trying to find a fax service when I should have been at my desk, thinking the big thoughts.

Multi-function printers are as cheap as chips these days, and you owe it to yourself to get one. Anyone working in print and design will probably prefer to have a separate printer and scanner, but for general purpose use, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Lexmark X4650 wireless multi-function printer for £100. I’ve made do with outsourcing printing and scanning before, and it is an unbearable waste of time. Now, the X4650 sits on my desk, connected to the network wirelessly, and does everything that I could ask of it and more. The front sports card readers for SD, MS, MMC, xD and CompactFlash, as well as a USB port for memory sticks.

The printer can print from any of these sources as well a photocopy the contents of the scanner, and, being a wireless printer, can be sent print instructions from any computer on the network. This means that if you are having a lazy afternoon working from the lounge on your laptop, you can still send prints with ease. The scanner is also invaluable, as it can scan directly to a number of locations such as memory card, USB stick and any network computer. I also am a big fan of the fact that when requesting the scan, you are able to select which program to scan into. Images can be scanned to your image editor of choice, while text is effortlessly interpreted via the included OCR software and dropped into Word. All in all, a very tasty package that’s easy to set up, looks great, cheap to maintain and will allow you to handle real-world documents and images with ease. Remember, it’s always worth scanning all forms, incoming letters and the like and keeping them somewhere safe on your hard drive, just in case.

Whistle while you work

Do you enjoy listening to music while you work? Some do, and some don’t, but if you work better with soothing sounds around you then it’s got to be one of the biggest bonuses of working from home. I generally start my day in silence while I wake up, check my e-mails and get to work on my morning coffee. After that, I’ll phase in something easy-going, and increase the volume and tempo as deadlines draw near. That’s just what works for me, but the point is that you need to feel at home in your working environment.

Depending on what you want to listen to, shop accordingly. If you enjoy the background patter of Radio 4 then I’d recommend the Sony XDR-S55, a lovely little digital radio for about £40 that can be plugged into an amplifier if you want to bring out the full dynamics of something more upbeat. iPod owners with space restrictions could do worse than spend £150 on a Bose SoundDock. I, being something of an audiophile, cannot live without a full HiFi system and so allow myself space for this very purpose. How you scale your sound system is up to you, but if you do prefer to whistle while you work, then factor one in to your workspace.

Bright ideas

Finally, consider lighting. Lighting is one of the biggest mood-altering forces that there is. Humans are biologically rigged to react differently to certain light levels, so it makes sense to get lighting under control in your office space. Make sure that you have adequate sunlight entering during the day, but that it’s not all bouncing off the monitor(s) in front of you. Sunlight causes the brain to wake up faster, and stay focused for longer, as well as allowing you to interact more easily with your working workspace. If you are more of an evening worker, then try and get a balance between light levels and mood – I love working into the wee hours, but sitting in a room lit by just an overhead light fitting is unbearable. Get a decent desk lamp, and try and throw some colour around – you’ll be amazed at how much more happy you are to be working when you feel comfortable with your environment.

Of course, this is just a guide; your specific needs or restrictions may prohibit any or all of these tips, but these factors have been proven over the years to be crucial in maintaining a productive and happy freelancing lifestyle. I’ll be looking a little deeper into setting up your computer system next week, but in the meantime have a good look at you office and ask whether you may find it easier to work in with a few simple changes.

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