For a corporation, the physical office space serves as a location for at least two activities: to work and entertain visitors (especially prospects). For the independent consultant, most clients never see our workplace (we usually meet at their offices or not at all), and we hardly ever entertain visitors. (In almost 18 years of consulting, I have only met 42% of my clients face-to-face — the rest of my business has been conducted solely over the Internet —and I've only had three clients visit my office.) So it's pointless to spend a lot of money making your physical address ostentatious or even presentable — focus instead on making your office a productive space for accomplishing work.
Here is a list of the office features that are important to keeping me productive. I also offer tips on what to keep in mind if you're considering working from home.
A good Internet connection
This is critical. But I've found that a telephone isn't as important. You need to be able to use a telephone while at your computers (a speaker phone to keep your hands free is a good idea), but you don't want it to always be ringing in your face so the telemarketers can break your concentration 82 times a day.
A room with a view
Regardless of whether your office is in your home or not, it needs to be your private cave where you can get into the Zone. That means, for one thing, that you need a window with a view. Not an overly distracting view like Wrigley Field (although that would be awesome in many ways) — calm and fairly predictable would be best: the ocean, the mountains, or the woods are my favorites. Why do you need this? You want to be able to stare outside while you're thinking over a problem that has hit an impasse, rendering further review of the situation on a monitor frustratingly fruitless. If you don't have a view from your office, you're going to have to get up and leave in order to achieve the same result.
More than one monitor
You need plenty of space for all your gear and space on your desk for all your monitors and input devices. Yes, I said monitors — plural. My first 10 years of consulting were conducted with a single monitor connected to one workstation/server, but I shudder to think of all the productivity I lost during those years just from not having a second screen. How often do you need to switch between an editor session, a command prompt, and a requirements specification? If you can keep all three up and visible at once, how much needless window twiddling have you eliminated? Maybe you don't need six monitors (though that is truly awesome), but two monitors are a huge improvement over one. I currently have four monitors wired to three systems, and I use Synergy to direct all four with the same keyboard and mouse. One of those monitors is my laptop, which allows me to travel with an abridged form of my setup.
You also need more than one system, even if some of those machines are virtual. If you try to do all of your work on a single system, it will get completely overgrown with crap in no time. Even though I have separate machines for my private server and two workstations, I still use VMware to create individual virtual machines for testing purposes. Not only does this prevent conflicts between software-in-testing and my production systems, it also insures that my testing is performed in a clean, controlled environment. If you're going to run virtual machines, you need enough horsepower in terms of CPU and memory to avoid bringing the whole thing to a thrashing crawl.
The right lighting makes a huge difference. Windows with a southern exposure can create too much glare — a northern exposure works best, because no matter where the sun is in the sky or how brightly it shines, you only get it indirectly so it's more consistent. Artificial lighting needs fine control. My office has ceiling-mounted track lighting with a dimmer switch, so I can control both the intensity and direction of each light source.
Ergonomics are extremely important. You'll be sitting in that same chair, staring at that same set of monitors, and manipulating those same input devices all day long every working day of the year. All of your chairs should be comfortable and arranged to promote good posture. It's also important to have all of your equipment (monitors, keyboards, and mice) positioned to promote good posture. If the monitor is too low, for instance, then I'm hunched over no matter how ergonomic my chair is.
Storage space for equipment and media
You should have a closet or other enclosed space where you can keep all your spare gear, cables, manuals, media, and books; otherwise, they end up all over the desk and floor. I don't have the neatest office in the world, but I do avoid permanent clutter. Anything that is meant to stay in my office has an assigned place therein.
Some people work better in silence, but I'm more productive with the right music playing. Not too loudly, though. Jazz seems to work best for me — it's not overly intense, and it easily fades into the background. But, occasionally, an entire day of J.S. Bach will help me to make the stunningly complex amazingly comprehensible.
Close proximity to coffee and bathroom
The bathroom and the coffee pot (or beverage generator of your choice) should be readily accessible. If you have to traverse a significant portion of the building for either one, expect to get side-tracked on your way.
Be realistic when setting up your home office
While you certainly don't need to rent a high-priced office space in order to create a "presence" for your clients, you do need to consider whether working out of your home is right for you. (Check out my post, Four issues to consider before becoming a remote IT consultant.) Sure, it's convenient to have a 50-foot commute from the breakfast table to your desk without even needing to stop by the shower on your way, but you must impose some boundaries between home and work. If you allow yourself to be interrupted frequently by non-work-related activities, your productivity will suffer. I've found that I need to be able to at least close a door and enforce the rule that it shall not be opened or knocked upon unless someone is bleeding, or the house is on fire.
It also helps to have some physical distance between your office and the rest of your house. This not only curbs interruptions, but it also blocks noise from your family members. My office is currently at the end of a hall beyond all of the bedrooms and that's just about the minimum amount of space required, as far as I'm concerned. A separate structure would be ideal — like above a garage, for example. In one house we rented, the lower floor was completely separate from the upper floor; you had to go outside to get from one to the other. The landlord planned to rent the floors out separately, but we rented both and I made the lower floor my office. I've often considered renting office space away from home purely for the separation factor, but that's a big expense for what it buys you.
TechRepublic member Glen Ford recently mentioned that "being with the family while working is sometimes helpful." I haven't found it to be so, unless by "helpful" he means "helpful to the family." In my corporate days, I never had to break away from a big project in order to unclog a toilet. But if you want to be able to work close to your family members at times, I suggest setting up a wireless LAN and roaming with a laptop. That's also nice for a change of scenery, like working outside on a pleasant day.
What's in your office?
What other features do you think are important in your office? Do you disagree with anything I've labeled as an important feature? Share your thoughts in the discussion.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.