As more people work from home who are either self-employed or have flexible hours and can work remotely, the home office has become an important, practical and prominent residential feature.
According to data from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, regular work-at-home, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 140 percent since 2005, nearly10 times faster than the rest of the workforce or the self-employed. Almost 3.2 percent of the workforce or 4.3 million employees now work from home at least part-time. Most of the growth in self-employment since 2005 is among home-based incorporated businesses (up 43 percent between 2005 and 2016).
In the not too distant past, the home office for many was relegated to a makeshift space in some corner of the kitchen, bedroom or the basement. "Today, many home-based employees and business owners, are opting for a practical and professional setting as a separate room or a space that’s cordoned off and designed with the right equipment – furniture, lighting, added outlets, flooring, noise control, and design elements to create privacy that harmonizes with the overall décor of the rest of the home," says Rebecca Pogonitz principal of GOGO design group in Skokie, Ill.
Almost all residential jobs that designer Sharon McCormick, principal of Sharon McCormick Design in Hartford, Conn, takes on involve designing either one or even two (for a couple) home offices. "In the past five years, there’s been a 25 percent uptick in requests from people of all ages in my business to design home offices," she says. She estimates the cost ranges from around $3,000 for a DYI with lower-end furniture to a sky’s-the-limit office at $75,000-plus.
Here are six tips that address the practical and visual elements you’ll need to design a home office that will work best for you.
1. Achieve a minimalist & uncluttered design
Albert Einstein famously quipped, "a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind." Since this office is in your home, you might want to keep it neat and orderly. Fortunately, with electronics getting smaller in size and high-speed Wi-Fi, you won’t need as much space on your desk for equipment or places to keep piles of papers or books, since everything is now digital. However, most everyone McCormick has worked with still wants a three-foot lateral filing cabinet. "It’s how some people stay organized," she says. Also, many people no longer use desktop computers but are turning instead to portable laptops with multiple screens or working on their iPads. And now with wireless, printers and other electronics can be hidden in a closet or drawer.
2. Select equipment and furniture to make your office practical and comfortable
The desk. Desks for a home office come in all sizes and styles. Size depends on the room and your specific workspace needs. Typical desk height is 30 inches. The keyboard, laptop and mouse should be positioned such that your elbows rest at your sides, and your arms remain at or below a 90-degree angle to avoid strain. You might need in-drawer filing space or special drawers for private papers that can be locked or accessed with a digital code. And with today’s health conscious workers, height-adjustable sit-standing desks have become popular.
Office chair. Like investing in an expensive mattress to get a good night’s sleep, splurge on your chair, as you’ll want maximum comfort for spending long hours sitting at your desk. A good chair should be your ergonomic friend and support your back, bottom, feet and posture. Most of those who are behind a desk a lot, prefer an upholstered chair on casters. But be careful about arm height. The chair must slide under the desk, unless your desk has a slide-out tray or platform for your laptop or keyboard. It’s important also to be able to adjust your chair so your feet rest firmly on something–the floor, or a footrest – especially if you’re short, advises McCormick.
Shelving. Built-ins keep the home office space neat. In small spaces, shelving can transform a blank wall space above the desk into a bookcase or file storage. In a larger space, Pogonitz says her clients are requesting an entire wall of storage and that includes a built-in credenza where the printer goes. She changes up the height of credenzas and larger pieces to keep things in the room visually interesting. McCormick prefers shelving to be flexible and adjustable in case needs change.
Noise control. While soundproofing materials such as acoustic dry wall panels and solid wood doors can be pricey, it’s worth it to help block noise. Some furnishings can absorb sound when placed in the right area of your home office. Cover any ceramic or hardwood floors with area rugs or carpet. Install thick drapes made of heavy fabric to dampen outside sounds. The more fabric and soft material you have in the room, the better. Some less expensive ways to muffle noise include lining shared walls or those that face outside with tall furniture such as bookcases and vertical storage cabinets. If all else fails, don a pair of high-quality headphones.
Lighting. Lighting is critical to work productively and avoid eye strain. First, consider the amount of natural light and then choose a layered lighting approach– a combination of ambient, such as recessed or ceiling-mounted fixtures; sconces; or up lights. You can also supplement lighting in the room with task lights, a desk lamp, or floor lamp next to a chair for working at the computer, writing or reading. Accent lighting such as a small, recessed can, or up light from the floor—can also highlight your office art, or architectural features. McCormick likes to put lighting in cabinets to add a glow in the room. It’s both a design element and eliminates pools of darkness.
Flooring. This needs to be practical and attractive. Often flooring is dictated by what is used in the home’s common areas that will flow right in for a seamless look. Most popular are hardwood floors. They have a classic appeal and are easier to keep clean. Add an area rug for warmth and personality to the room. Wall-to-wall carpeting or carpeting tiles may work, but make sure the office chair sits on a floor protector or chair mat and has casters. Protect your carpet from wear and tear.
Paint colors. Wall color is a personal preference based on the mood you want to evoke. Blue tones or warm gray shades are calming. Red can be jarring and make a person less productive. Pogonitz has a client who converted a bedroom into a home office and painted it turquoise. She found the green-blue soothing and energizing. Paint color is also dictated by the amount of natural light in the room.
Electrical hookups. No matter how many outlets you place in a room, it seems there are never enough, or they’re not conveniently located. To avoid this, sketch a home office floor plan to include furniture placement and map out where to put the outlets. Correct placement means you’ll avoid crawling under a desk. Install electrical outlets slightly above the top of the desk and printer stands for easy access. If your plans include a wall-mounted TV, install an outlet in proximity to it. Outlets can be placed also in bottom drawers in cabinets or desks to charge printers and phones.
3. Make the space comfortable.
Today’s home office is more than just a place to work. It can also be a room to relax, catch up on emails, read, and watch TV. Your desk is for active work, but you probably need a place to think. A great home office has a nice comfy chair or sofa for curling up, maybe a table for books, a glass and an attractive lamp. You might even add a small fridge or coffee maker. If clients visit your home office, plan the layout accordingly for two chairs on the other side of the desk.
4. Include plants in your home office.
You’ve probably noticed that plants and flowers are commonly displayed in offices, hotel lobbies, malls, restaurants and more. The reason extends beyond decoration. Among many factors, plants and flowers are known to create a warm atmosphere and improve air quality. Flower arrangements are also a symbol of sharing and encourage conversations and connections between people. Whether you have guests in your home office or not, bright colors and greenery can be calming and engaging, for you and guests. Plants and flowers can also be energizing. Studies reveal they improve our outlook on life. So "go green" in your home office and brighten up your space – it may improve your productivity.
5. Convert your Shed (or she-shed) into a home office.
Today, some home-based workers are staking claim to backyard sheds that can be customized to be both functional and attractive. This alternative for setting up a home office also provides privacy and having the separate space does not take away from space in your home, which could be dedicated for other purposes like a guest room or hobby room. You can buy a shed with windows and attractive entryway affordably. Prices vary based on size and key features. A DIY shed makeover to add insulation, electric, flooring, etc. will ordinarily run $5,000 or more depending on materials, bells and whistles. If you want a bathroom, that will increase costs significantly.
6. Tax benefits of having a home office.
As a home-based business owner, whether you rent or own your home, you can deduct the home office costs you incur as a business expense. Under the new tax law, there are no changes for those who are self-employed. However, the rules have been altered for W-2 workers. Previously, employees could potentially write off work-related itemized expenses that added up to more than 2 percent of their gross income, and for which an employer didn’t reimburse them. That no longer holds true, explains attorney Jamie Canup, partner at Hirschler Fleischer and chair of the firm’s Tax Practice in Richmond, Va.
Canup provides basic rules of home-office deductions:
- Generally, deductions for a home office—whether a separate room or part of a room – are based on the percentage of your home devoted to business use. You can also deduct a percentage of your utilities, insurance and certain other expenses, as well as depreciation of that office space. This requires calculating the allocable portion of those home-office expenses. In the alternative, there is a safe harbor available based on square footage equal to $5X the number of square feet of the office space, capped at $1,500 per year.
- Your home office must be your principal place of business and used exclusively and regularly for business. If your home office is in your kitchen and you use it as a kitchen, you cannot write it off. Same with office equipment. It must be used for exclusively for business and not for some hobby too. Problems arise when there’s mixed use.
- If your home office is set up in a free-standing structure like a shed that you use exclusively and regularly for your business, you can deduct those expenses against your self-employment income.
When in doubt or for specifics about how deductions are calculated, check with your tax preparer. It’s better to be safe than sorry.