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Setting up an office at home.

Setting up an Office at Home

When the earthquake hit northern California last fall, several office-based communicators suddenly found themselves working as home-based communicators. Some were obviously prepared for the task, ready to imitate most of their normal work routine under abnormal conditions. Others were less fortunate.

It doesn't always take a natural catastrophe to prompt communicators to set up home offices. Sometimes, the tremors come from other sources - corporate downsizing, for instance. Rather than being merely locked out of the office for a few days, the victims of downsizing may be looking at months of working outside their old office environment. Again, some are prepared for this possibility, while others are not.

Still others choose to take themselves out of the corporate work place and set up practice as communication consultants. The variations on locations run the gamut from spare bedrooms to leased office space. But again, some people are well prepared to handle the transition, and others find themselves fumbling as they realize the familiar office surroundings just aren't there anymore.

What do you need to set up an office at home? Here are a few suggestions that might help you establish your own checklist for setting up a home office.

ANSWERING MACHINE - Make sure you buy one that can be controlled from a remote location, so that you can call your own phone and collect messages while you are out of your office. It should also be on a separate telephone number from your regular home listing, so that it doesn't get cluttered with calls from the neighbor's kids.

COPIER - The office copier is one machine from the old office that most communicators will tell you they miss most. Good personal copiers for low volume work can be found in the US $600 to $1,000 range - expensive, if you are only setting up an "emergency" home office.

If the copies are mostly for personal use or business emergencies, you might want to check with second-hand office equipment stores for an old dual spectrum copier. It's easy to find these for less than $50. (I got mine at a local Salvation Army store for $8!) These copiers require a special two-sheet copying paper - where the "dual spectrum" name comes from - that is still sold at most office supply stores. Warning: the copies will fade rapidly if left in sunlight. But for a temporary, inexpensive copier, they will still do the job.

FACSIMILE MACHINE - Once considered a luxury, fax machines have achieved international popularity as the prices have plummeted in the last five years.

An inexpensive single-sheet model is being sold in electronics stores now for US $300. More conventional office-model faxes that have extra features (automatic redial, sheet feeders, improved error-checking, automatic paper trimmers, time-delayed transmission, etc.) still run in the $900 to $1,500-and-up range. As a bonus, most faxes will double as copiers, at least for turning out quick, one-sheet copies in a pinch.

If you know nothing about fax machines, the critical thing to watch for is "Group III compatibility." Group III is the current world standard for faxes; some discounters are still pedding older model Group II faxes that are slower and have poorer resolution. A Group IV fax standard is in development, but it is very new and very expensive; don't expect it to make your Group III machine obsolete for at least two or three more years.

Don't assume that, just because you aren't sending many faxes now, that condition will continue when you're working out of a home office. As soon as other people know you have a fax hooked up, you'll start receiving faxes from them.

Candy Gilpin, a 10-year IABC veteran who decided to set up her own communication consulting business in Columbus, Ohio, last year, says she got a fax machine for Christmas. "Before that, I was making runs down to my neighborhood print shop. But that gets expensive, since you have to pay to receive a fax, as well as to send it. And sometimes, I found that it might be a half day or longer before they would call me to let me know that a fax had come in for me."

For an extra $150, Candy bought a Fax Manager - an electronic box that automatically detects fax calls and redirects them from the answering machine to the fax. "It has saved me from having to install a decicated telephone line for the fax," she says.

If you are just setting up the office as an emergency back up for your regular office and not as a permanent work base, a fax may not be a necessity - yet.

PERSONAL COMPUTER - We could take an entire issue to discuss this one, particularly the IBM vs. Macintosh vs. Everybody Else argument. Computers are major considerations for most communicators.

To summarize the case quickly, you can get into a new, inexpensive, IBM-compatible computer with a hard disk for about $900. And that's about where the prices start for older, used Macs; the newer ones are two or three times that much and more.

* Price. How much can you afford? If the machine you need costs more than you can pay, consider a loan. It doesn't take much free-lance work to pay off a three-year computer loan.

* Function. If your idea is to set up a home-based desktop publishing center, don't assume you can do it for $1,000. To turn out corporate-quality work, the bottom line today is no less than $3,000 for MS Dos compatible equipment (and that for a very frugal system!). Mac systems cost more. On the other hand, if you plan to do mostly word processing and some database or spreadsheet work, the $1,000 figure for computer and printer may, in fact, be enough to get you started.

* Portability. Do you need a machine that can travel with you? If you do, there are models of both Macs and IBMs that can do the job. These tend to be more expensive than their desktop counterparts, but the newer portable models are rivaling the desk version for features and power.

* Client compatibility. If you are thinking of starting your own business and most of your prospective clients use Macs, you ought to consider a Mac. On the other hand, if most of the clients have IBMs on their desks, you might want to go that direction. A compromise: There are add-on circuit boards and software programs for both brands that will allow them to read and write disks from the others.

Unless you are doing highly specialized work, you don't need to buy the most expensive "leading edge" type of computer technology. In fact, the "trailing edge" of technology is more than adequate for most of us to do the work we need to do.

If you are buying the computer for business reasons (as opposed to a hobby), don't waste any more time waiting for the prices to drop. And while you are waiting for the next $50 discount, there's work you should be doing that isn't getting done.

If you don't know anything about computers yet, check your local library or computer stores for the names of any user groups that meet in your area. These computer clubs are a terrific way for novices to gain a lot of knowledge in a short time and make contact with people who can answer the questions you haven't thought to ask yet.

MODEM - No matter what kind of computer you decide to buy, make sure you get a modem and some communication software with it. This is extremely important if you plan to use your office at home as a temporary work base. (See "Computer Sense" by Sheri Rosen, Page 38.)

Modem prices, like computer prices, have dropped in the last two years. You can buy a good 1200 baud modem for less than $80 if you shop mail order; 2400 baud modems that are twice as fast sell for $150 and less. Either an internal model (that goes into your computer) or an external model (that sits next to it) will do the job. My personal preference is for external models since you don't have to disassemble the machine if the modem stops working.

A buzzword to watch for is "Hayes-compatible," which is desirable if you're hooking your modem to an IBM or IBM clone. If you're using a Mac, however, Hayes compatibility doesn't seem to be an issue.

A modem will allow you to send files to your associates at the office (if they are still at work and you aren't) or to your vendors (such as typesetters, many of whom will take copy from clients over modem lines).

A modem also opens new freelance job opportunities. You can use the modem to conduct research for clients through on-line database services such as Dialog and Dow Jones News Retrieval. There is a steep learning curve to acquire this knowledge, so it's best to start learning it long before you have to use it.

A modem will also let you hook up to the CompuServe on-line information service, where you can sign onto the Public Relations & Marketing Forum, a gathering place for about 3,500 business communicators from around the world. If you're thinking about hanging out a consultant's shingle, the PR Forum is a great place to look for expert advice and opinions about how to run your business. For those who miss the camaraderie of a "real" office, the PR Forum also provides a nice replacement of on-line "office" friends.

David R. Ott, Jr., information manager with Lincoln Intermediate in New Oxford, Pa., finds communicating electronically on the PR Forum a way of staying in touch with other communication professionals. "New Oxford is a really tiny place. It's a 60-mile drive, one way, from here to the nearest IABC chapter meetings in Lancaster. So I try to go on-line with CompuServe about twice a month - more often than that, if there's something specific I'm looking for." Ott says he hopes to eventually start his own company. "And the advice I get in the `On Your Own' section of the PR Forum is really valuable information to me."

You can even use CompuServe as a fax machine to send (but not receive) faxes from home. It works just like electronic mail, except the message is sent to a fax machine. (And the person you are sending the message to does not have to belong to CompuServe!)

John F. Suddath, ABC, an information representative with the Texas Forest Service in College Station, Texas, uses a variety of on-line services - Dialcom, from British Telecommunications, for news wire stories; Telemail for internal electronic messages; CompuServe for its PR Forum, Macintosh forums, and the Writers & Editors Forum; and America On-line (formerly Apple Link) for its Macintosh software files. "I use the modem at work for business purposes and I have a modem on my Mac at home for personal use," he says.

OFFICE SUPPLIES - Remember, at home you can't just call the supply department and ask them to send up two dozen envelopes! Start shopping around now for a wholesale-to-the-public type of office supply center.

The neighborhood stationery store isn't good enough (example: Computer disks at my nearest stationers sell for $18 to $20 a box, though I can get disks of equal quality for $10 a box at a wholesale store two miles away).

The list of "Oh, Yeah, I Guess I Don't Have One Of Those..." items is absolutely amazing. Staple removers, desk calendars, three-hole punches, postal scales and push pins - things you simply took for granted in a corporate office.

LEGAL AND BUSINESS ADVICE - If you think your home office might someday become your permanent office, you ought to start talking now with a lawyer, an accountant and an insurance agent.

Don't think that just because your bedroom is your office that your legal and financial responsibilities as a business will be any less complicated than they are now. In fact, they will be greater. (Remember, the boss at your present office usually doesn't expect the communication department to pull the figures together for the Internal Revenue Service. But you will have to at home!)

Having a second office set up away from your real office makes a great deal of sense for many communicators. Someday that second office may become your real office. And it may be sooner than you expect.

M. William Lutholtz, ABC, is past-president of IABC/Indianapolis. He has continued to do regular free-lance work for more than 14 years, in addition to his corporate work as an editor and speech writer.
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Lutholtz, M. William
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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