How a home office should function

Reader Amanda recently contacted us with the following question:

Could you write on the idea of how a home office should function?

It seems like an innocuous question at first. Obviously a home office should be used for, um, home office, uh, stuff …

But, it turns out, it’s not such a simple question. Identifying all of the reasons why a person might have a home office and then all of the possibilities for how that home office should function are quite extensive tasks. The specific requirements a single, graduate student, working on his dissertation might have are far different than those of an active family with four children where both parents work outside the home.

It is possible, however, to write about over-arching ideals that should be present in a home office. Here are the big picture goals I believe all home offices can strive to achieve:

  1. Welcoming. Strive to create the most comfortable, productive, inspiring, and organized environment that you can for your work space. You want this area to make boring tasks like filing home owners association documents as pleasant as possible. If your stress level rises when you walk past this space, you’re not going to use it.
  2. Flexible. The demands that you put on this space can change from year-to-year, or even day-to-day. You want your space to be able to adapt to your needs. This means that you need to have room on a shelf and in a drawer to grow — at all times. If your space is completely full, then it becomes a museum or library instead of a functional office. You want your files to be able to accept new entries and your desk to be ready to handle your next big idea.
  3. Consistent. The more consistent your office systems are, the more likely you will be to maintain them. Save files on your computer and in your filing cabinet using names and categorizations that makes retrieval quick and possible. Keep the learning curve low and let it reflect the way you think and work. Additionally, be consistent about putting objects away when you’re finished using them so that you will be able to find them the next time you need them.

Regardless of what type of work you need to do in your office, having a welcoming, flexible, and consistent environment will make it a functional space. The better your office can work for you, the better work you can accomplish in your home office.

How does your office measure up to these standards? Let us know in the comments.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

14 Comments for “How a home office should function”

  1. posted by S on

    I really need to post my workspace in Flickr! I live with an OCD person, so I had to go from very messy to very organized in order to make our place a happy place. I couldn’t stand the clutter, so I wanted to be closer to his level. We decided to make a room a home office, but we agreed we would have seperate desks and filing cabinets to be able to be happy in our own areas, but it needed to stay organized on BOTH sides.

    He uses his desk alot. He just graduated from college and used it every day for his homework, he also worked from home at one point, and now he’s taking more certifications and still using his area a great deal for studying. I, however, rarely use it as we both have laptops so I sit in the living room. But I do have a filing cabinet that holds everything I need nice and organized. It’s two drawers, the top drawer holds all my most recent paperwork and important things, and the bottom holds older paperwork like pay stubs, taxes and magazine clippings of articles I really liked. I cycle through the bottom drawer every once in a while and shred alot. However, it houses things I won’t need anymore except for tax purposes or to recall an article, so I don’t mind letting it sit for a while until I have the “urge to purge.” The top drawer holds all my mortgage, insurance, tax, recent paystub information. If anything is recent or very important, it’s in there and labeled exactly what it is. I need to get a little box or something for my stapler and staple puller, but other than a pen holder and a lamp the desk is clear at all times. Oh, and I have an expandable folder with separaters that sits on top of my file cabinet that holds gift cards, receipts, insurance card duplicates, stickers I like, business cards, and anything else small.

    I painted the room a very dark brown with a tint of red and we have very low lighting in there to make it more relaxing. I also have my side of the room covered in pink, blue and tan, and his is black and tan. I thrive in colorful environments, and he enjoys more subdued colors. The whole house is a mix of neutrals and bright colors to bring both of our tastes together :).

  2. posted by Fazal Majid on

    The way to go with that bulging file cabinet is to scan then shred anything that you are not statutorily required to keep, e.g. old bank statements and invoices.

  3. posted by jeramy on

    this is good encouragement….my home office leans more towards chaotic and useless. good tips.

  4. posted by Cubicle Hacker on

    This is great ! I should have read this before I took on the “plain approach”. I was tough to suddenly trow all my papers to the garbage, get rid of printers, donate books (find them online) and wait until someone ask for something.
    I struggle at the beginning but eventually I bumped out and now I have very low interruption and clutter. Therefore, I’m very focus.

  5. posted by Julie on

    We were fortunate to plan our space when designing our house, opting to leave a closet out of a third bedroom, but what we did could be adaptable to existing space. Our den functions as an office, too. Note that “den” comes first. 🙂 When we’re at an office all day, we don’t want to see one at home, too! It’s meant to be a casual, comfortable, inviting space.

    The room holds a love seat, a table and chair and table lamp, an old steamer trunk, an artificial tree and a floor lamp, a small tv monitor in a corner, plus a bank of cabinets with a cabinet-to-ceiling bookcase at one end.

    There’s a huge window on one wall and a pair of French doors on another. One wall is painted a rich grape color, the interior and French doors are medium-toned wood, and the other three walls are exposed gray bricks. The floor is polished red concrete. It’s warm and cozy room that invites you to kick your shoes off and plop onto the sofa, keeping company with whoever is doing desk work at the table.

    One call has a wall-to-wall bank of bottom cabinets, with one half of it holding a cabinet-to-ceiling bookcase. Double doors all the way across the cabinet hide two drawers in most of the cupboards; one cupboard has just one drawer. The top drawer is several inches deep and the bottom drawer is tall enough for file folders. The cupboard with one drawer has a flat drawer. This drawer holds a printer/fax combination, plus all the accompanying extras like paper, disks… Another cupboard holds files, pens, stapler etc.

    The other cupboards hold photos, cameras, games, magazines… The trunk hides our collection of maps and atlases, and the bookcase holds casual books, references, journals, and family photos. The only things on the table (which is our desk) are a laptop, a lamp, a mug of pens, and a photo.

    The table is at an angle facing the love seat, with the printer drawer right behind it. On the rare times we print, we just open the cupboard, slide the drawer forward, pull the cord around to the laptop, and wha-la.

    The room looks and feels like a den. The office is hidden. This suits the OCD person in the family very well, and the sloppier one of us can function just fine.

  6. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    These are great tips, and, sadly, I’m only doing one of them now. Mostly, I need to start actually using my home office. For example, right now I’m using my laptop in the kitchen, instead of the perfectly good desktop I have in the office. I’d probably be more productive if I set aside work time and relax time (without the ‘puter!).

  7. posted by Michael G on

    Since GTD there is a tremendous difference in my office, but I still have a ways to go. I did manage to purge all of my files which is a lot as a former educator, a parent educator and a therapist. From past client files to reference files on everything from OCD to bedwetting. I actually did as David Allen insists on and got the label maker and redid all the files. It is definitely more inviting to go look for things now. The reduction in clutter is also a big improvement. One project I have been chipping away at that still has a long way to go is going through all my books and making some trips to Powells (biggest bookstore in the English speaking world, right her in little old Portland) to see some back that are no long essential. I could lose a lot of office poundage by continuing on that project.

  8. posted by Pete on

    I read a post about how taking a day to clean up your life is a good thing. I think that goes for the office as well. Try to add a day per month (or more if necessary) where you re-straighten out and organize your most precious work place in the house. This will not only increase productivity, it also won’t make you all stressed when things do start to get messy!

  9. posted by Leslie on

    I think these tips are great, and my home office would certainly benefit from their application.

    However, I can’t let this one thing go by without comment – libraries and museums need room to grow, too. While it is part of a library’s function to archive important historical documents for future generations, it is also their job to provide access to up-to-date information, and their collections are constantly growing and changing.

  10. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Leslie — Museums and libraries for the public good, yes. I meant more like a home museum … nobody needs a home museum.

  11. posted by Mer on

    I spend at least one day a week at my desk in our home office, since I do all the bill paying and record-keeping. The only way to keep a home office functioning is to tend to it regularly the way you’d weed a garden. I suck at gardening, but I’m really good at keeping the paper tiger under control.

    It didn’t happen overnight, in fact when I quit my job I spent a couple of weeks sorting through boxes of financial documents and shredding. I eventually pared it all down to a two-drawer file cabinet and a bin containing 6 years of tax files per Julie Morganstern’s recommendations (Organizing from the Inside Out).

    I keep bills for the current year in a monthly accordion file and receipts for our debit card in a check file. I keep the previous year’s receipts and bills, then I go through and shred everything except credit card bills, receipts for major purchases, and anything we might have used for tax purposes.

    When our file cabinet gets tight, that’s a sign that I need to go through and thin it out. There’s almost always something in there that can be tossed/shredded.

    Currently our office takes about one half of a spare bedroom, but I’m trying to make it as compact as possible so that I can move it easily if we finally decide to convert that room to a full bedroom.

    My guiding principle in keeping the office organized is, if something happened to me, could my Hub find what he needed to keep the household going without a blip?

  12. posted by Jennifer Nicolas on

    Home office furniture should complement other rooms in your house instead of screaming “soulless cubicle.” If your home has traditional décor, warm wood and soft, comfy chairs or a loveseat are ideal if you have the space.

  13. posted by Philip on

    One aspect is important to me: it must be secluded. I must be able to close a door and be apart from my family. Otherwise, I could not concentrate on my work.

  14. posted by Susan on

    “I need to get a little box or something for my stapler and staple puller,”

    I recommend using a stapelless stapler for things that will eventually get shredded. Saves on staples and staple-pulling! 🙂

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