For obvious reasons, mainly because equipment in the technology world changes more often than some people change underwear, we'll not go into the technical specifications for the computer equipment you'll need in your office. For the most up-to-date information about computer processing speeds and RAM recommendations, ask any 14-year-old, or go to ZDNet or PC World.
In addition to computer equipment, you'll also need a good telephone. Caller ID helps by allowing you to screen out telemarketers or other calls you can't take at the moment. A second telephone line for your business phone, fax, and Internet access is also a plus.
There are work-arounds if you don't want to shell out the extra money for the additional phone line. For example, if you have a cell phone, which is recommended, you can use that number as your business line. Or, if you have dial-up Internet access that uses your home phone line, you can have calls forwarded to your cell phone when you're online. There is usually only a dollar per month charge from the phone company to forward calls when the line is busy. You just have to make sure you turn off call-waiting when you go online by adding ,*70 before the number you dial. The limitations here are, of course, the signal strength you get on your cell phone. If you work from your basement there may be problems getting a good enough signal to actually carry on a conversation. If your cell phone service offers voice mail, you at least have the chance of getting a message left even if you can't actually talk with the person at the time.
There are also services that answer calls while you are online and play the message immediately from your computer. If you want to return the call you can disconnect and do so. Callwave and Pagoo are two of the most popular services. They charge about $5 per month for the service.
A surge protector is necessary, not just to give you additional outlets for your computer and its peripherals, but to protect your equipment.
You may also need a personal digital assistant (aka PDA, Palm Pilot, Handspring, etc.). These are quite handy if you travel and need access to contact information, e-mail, or the web.
What About Software?
On the software side of things, there are several options for you to consider. If you're a sole proprietor and have no employees you need to communicate and coordinate with then fulfilling your software requirements is not so difficult. Here are some categories of software you may need along with links to some of the most popular packages:
- an e-mail program -- You can use an e-mail program that your ISP provides, but programs such as Microsoft Outlook Express or Eudora will give you good e-mail functions and you won't have to change programs if you change ISPs.
- a word processor -- Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, and Lotus Word Pro
spreadsheet and database programs -- Microsoft Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, Intuit QuickBase
- presentation software -- Microsoft PowerPoint, or Astound.
- virus protection software -- McAfee, or Norton AntiVirus
- a utility program for computer maintenance -- Symantec Norton Utilities, McAfee, or TechTool Pro
- Portable Document Format (PDF) reader software - Adobe Acrobat Reader -- This software is very helpful for reviewing formatted documents such as brochure layouts from outside designers or co-workers.
- graphics and/or image editing tool -- CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Freehand, Deneba Canvas (Image editing software may also accompany your scanner.)
- Internet browsers -- Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer
Many business applications come packaged in "suites" that provide all of the above product categories and then some. Some of the more popular packages include:
- Microsoft Office, as well as the less expensive Microsoft Works
Many programs also have less expensive "light" or "limited" versions that may work for smaller businesses. They are also usually available for both Windows and Macintosh computer platforms.
If you are working with others, and have the need to coordinate scheduling, access central files, maintain a contact manager, meet in chat rooms, etc. then you have more of a challenge. There are programs available, such as Lotus Notes or Novell Groupwise, that provide these types of features as a software solution. These solutions may require quite a good bit of computer knowledge and an IT person to manage the system.
As an alternative, there are also online management services that provide these types of services on the Internet for access with your browser. These are fairly simple to use. They offer many features to promote coordination of information between members of a team, client interactions, or simply communication and file-sharing with co-workers. They typically charge a small monthly fee per user, or a larger flat rate for unlimited users. Some include free limited versions, however. Below are some of these services available on the net:
- Virtual Office: Afteroffice
- Visto: Web-based scheduling, file storage, and management tools
- OfficeClip: Clip your team together
Your software needs will vary greatly depending on the type of work you are doing. Check with similar businesses or your industry association to find out what programs are preferred by your peers. For additional software reviews and information visit CNet or ZDNet.
Don't forget about shareware too. There are a lot of great programs that may perform all of the tasks you need without the high price tag. Check out Tucows or ZDNet for shareware and freeware reviews and downloads.
Where Will You Put All the Hardware?
You'll need a desk with plenty of workspace. It should have space for a computer, as well as room to spread out paperwork if necessary. A corner "L" shaped desk works well for this. Make sure the desk has a large keyboard tray that can accommodate your mouse pad and mouse, as well. Many computer desks don't have large enough trays. Don't forget about space for your printer, scanner, fax and other equipment.
Shelves, cabinets, and file cabinets are also necessities that help tremendously by utilizing vertical space and keeping things organized. You may also be able to use the tops of these shelves and file cabinets for your printer, scanner, fax machine, etc.
Also, don't forget to invest in a comfortable chair that offers good back support. It should have as many adjustable parts as possible to help it fit your body. Arms on the chair will also make it more comfortable, particularly if you will be doing some work other than that on a computer. For more information on setting up your home office visit About.com's Home Office Furniture page.
Connecting with the Outside World
The Cyber World
All of this hardware and software won't do you any good if you don't have a connection to the Internet. Your best bet is a broadband connection if you can get access. The term broadband just means a high bandwidth technology like DSL, or cable that allows you to send and receive files, sound, and video over a single connection.
If you can get cable television in your home then most likely you can also get a cable modem and Internet access. DSL uses your standard telephone line, but requires that you be located relatively close to the provider's central office (in some cases 3-4 miles). Check with local providers to see if DSL is available in your area. Many providers offer online tools that simply require you to enter your phone number to determine if service is available at your home.
If you live in an area without cable or DSL access, you still have the option of Internet access via satellite. These systems offer fast connections, but require satellite dishes and receivers as well as special modems. Click here for more information about satellite Internet access.
If you get an "always on" broadband connection then you also need to put in a firewall. Read our article about How Firewalls Work to get the skinny on protecting your files from hackers.
Regardless of the type of connection you get to the Internet, you will need an ISP (Internet Service Provider). In addition to access to the Internet, your ISP will give you an e-mail address, and possibly 5-10 Mb of free space for a website. You can also get additional e-mail addresses from sites like HotMail or Yahoo or Excite. These are free and the advantage of having one is that it doesn't have to change if you change your ISP. You can keep the same e-mail address and have the mail from that address forwarded to any other e-mail account you wish. It simply eliminates the process of sending out notices to all of your contacts that your e-mail address has changed. If you have an e-mail address from your company that you use for business, it is often a good idea to get a separate e-mail address for your personal e-mail.
If you need to connect multiple computers in your home, read our article about How to Network Your Home.
The Real World
What about your business address? If you're running a business from your home, you probably don't want your home address used as the business address. Depending on the type of business it is, it may just not give the impression you need. In this case, you have two options. You can rent a post office box, or you can use a CMRA (Commercial Mail Receiving Agency) mailbox service that gives you a corporate-sounding address and a suite number.
Each option has the drawback of requiring you to go somewhere else to get your mail (although there may be services that will deliver your mail to you). Post office boxes have the additional drawback of not allowing you to receive packages because couriers won't deliver to a P.O. box. If you use a service that gives your business a suite number (actually, just another name for a box number), you can receive packages. You also have 24-hour access and can request notification when a package has arrived.
NOTE: Current postal regulations for CMRAs require that a three-line address include the letters "PMB" before the number. If you use a four-line address, you may use the "#" sign before the number. For example:
N. Main Blvd., Suite 14
City, ST 12345-2345
N. Main Blvd., Suite 14 PMB 456
City, ST 12345-2345
What about client meetings?
Meetings with clients can't always take place in cyberspace, or at the client's location. When you are faced with this situation, rather than having the client come to your home (assuming they are in the same city), look into executive suites or hotels that offer space that can be leased for short periods of time. If you own your own business and this is a common occurrence, you may want to consider leasing an Executive Suite that provides you with a receptionist, voice mail, e-mail, and other services, along with time-limited access to private offices, a reception area, and a meeting room. If you don't need this type of arrangement on a regular basis, you can also rent spaces on an hourly basis at a fairly reasonable rate.
For example, using Offices2Share.com, a meeting room at The Blake Building in Washington, DC with a seating capacity of five, reserved for three hours would be $75. A room for 15 for the same amount of time would be $120. These types of services can often be reserved online and maps, written directions, contact information, photos and information about additional room needs is also provided.
Of course, there are also always the other standard meeting place options that include hotel lobbies, restaurants, golf courses, etc.
Communications today are drastically different than they were even 15 years ago. E-mail has become a way of life and the only communication method you may have with some people. If you think about how you communicated in business in 1985 as opposed to how you communicate in business now, there's no comparison. You probably used your office phone, and... well, there wasn't a heck of a lot more back then... maybe a telex machine. Shortly after that, however, fax machines began to enter the market, then car phones and e-mail hit the scene. Things changed very quickly after that. As technology advanced, the expectations of the amount of work produced also advanced. Now, we produce a lot more work a lot faster and expectations of higher productivity continue to climb because technology is enabling us to do it faster.
With technology advancing so rapidly and workloads increasing along with it, the desire to work from home and alleviate some of the stress that comes along with commuting, juggling family life, etc. has also become very strong. In that respect, the same technology that took away our freedom is also allowing us more freedom than we've ever experienced ... well, except for back before technology forced us to work so hard!
So, what does that have to do with communications and how we can communicate in a virtual business environment? A large part of work in any business, whether you're a sole proprietor or work for a corporation, is tied into communications of one type or another. If you can communicate effectively you can work more effectively. Take advantage of the technology available for communications and use your new found freedom to take back some of your life. Here's how:
- With a simple cell phone you can go to your child's softball game without fear of missing an important call.
- By using wireless web technology via cell phone or a Personal Digital Assistant, you can go the grocery store while you're waiting on that e-mailed file that needs your approval before it can be submitted.
- With a virtual assistant or readily available office services, you can work from your basement but have a professional address, and a receptionist answering your calls.
- With video conferencing you can communicate face-to-face with clients or co-workers across the country without ever leaving your city.
- With teleconferencing combined with Internet presentation software, you can communicate with several people in real time while you're all viewing the same presentation from locations around the world. Sonexis offers these tools.
- Using web hosted office tools you can perform scheduling, send files, communicate via chat rooms or instant messaging with co-workers, or clients.
- In custom chat rooms or with instant messaging, you can have a discussion with several people from different locations and in situations where you can't necessarily talk.
- Via web conferencing you can hold live interactive seminars, meetings, or other get togethers.
So, as you can see, communications in any office environment, whether virtual or not, are now quite simple and possible from almost anywhere. Don't forget, you also have the old standard, wired, corded, telephone you can use.Work at Home Business Opportunity in Canada
Lee Ann Obringer is a staff writer for HowStuffWorks. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism/advertising with an outside concentration in marketing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to joining the HowStuffWorks team, Lee Ann worked for 13 years in corporate marketing, advertising, and communications. In addition to writing for HowStuffWorks, she works as a freelance marketing communications consultant and designer.
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