CAN THERE REALLY BE HARMONY IN A HOME OFFICE OF TWO, THREE, or more? We’d certainly like to think so. Of course, anyone who’s ever tried to work side-by-side with a coworker or spouse in a spare bedroom or converted garage may have his or her doubts.
That’s because the economics of running a home office often demand that you share not only your space, but also your printer, fax, and other essentials. But thanks to networking and hardware-sharing products, it’s easy to make smart use of your equipment–and increase your efficiency.
To help you set up a workspace fit for more than one, we visited three shared home offices from Colorado to California, zeroed in on their problems, and made some process and product suggestions. Although their situations were diverse–from sharing a PC with a spouse to needing to streamline communications to working in a mixed-platform environment–all of our subjects shared a common concern: how to make the most of their office resources.
1. The Situation: One Computer, Two Businesses, Three Kids
Keith and Terri Gray run a tight ship–or rather, two tight ships moored in Austin, Tex. He runs Keith Gray Construction Services, specializing in remodeling and glass etching; she owns Gray’s Internet Consulting an Internet training, design, and maintenance firm. The pair’s problem isn’t so much that both companies are based in the same converted garage–it’s that the Grays share a single computer.
“Keith has his half of the garage and I have mine,” Terri says. But the office doubles as a play area for their three-year-old daughter, and the computer doubles as a research/entertainment center for their teenage daughter–a source of friction for many homeworking families.
The Grays have a classic work environment: a Canon BJC4100 ink-jet printer, a Hewlett-Packard ScanJet 5P scanner, and a Dell Dimension desktop (upgraded from a 486 to a Pentium). But with only 1.2GB of hard-disk space, they’ve pushed their PC to the max. “Now the kids are disappointed because I pulled off the games,” says Terri.
Besides family feuds over the PC, the Grays also tie up their three phone lines–one for each business and one that’s a shared fax/modem line. “When I use the modem,” Terri complains, “either the fax machine or Keith’s business line is down.”
To work around the shortage, “we divide our office time,” Terri explains. “I let Keith have access to the computer in the morning to set up his day.” Then, after Keith heads out to jobs, Terri takes the helm of the family PC.
Besides desperately needing another system, Keith is itching for a laser printer for his decorative glass-etching jobs, which require the use of stencils that can’t be reproduced on the ink-jet printer. At present, he sends scans to an outside company.
So what’s holding the Grays back? Cost. “We need the best for the least amount of money, because our businesses are small and we have kids to feed,” says Terri.
The Solution: A Low-Cost Networked PC
To help the Grays select a new system on a limited budget, we turned to Richard Malloy, managing director of CurtCo Freedom Group Technical Labs, for advice. Fortunately, with system prices plummeting, the Grays will be able to pick up a powerful system for a song. Compaq, for instance, offers its Presario 5030, a 300MHz Pentium II desktop complete with 64MB of RAM and an 8GB hard disk, for a low $1,299 (800-888-5858, www.compaq.com). The “Web storefront vendor iDot.com sells a comparably equipped 400MHz system for $1,599 (888-388-iDOT, www.idot.com). Considering the Grays’s graphics-intensive work, Malloy suggests outfitting either system with a 17-inch monitor such as Optiquest’s Q71 (800-843-6784, www.optiquest.com), available via mail order for as little as $319.
For making copies of Keith’s glass-engraving stencils, a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 6Pse (800-752-0900, www.hewlett-packard.com) is also recommended. If they shop around, they could find it for about $800. Best of all, the 6Pse includes networking features that will be useful in the future when Keith’s business expands.
To speed up Terri’s Web designs, she sorely needs a faster connection to the Internet. The most cost-effective solution is an ISDN line with 128Kbps throughput. Installation through Southwestern Bell costs $78, with monthly service running about $52 if the Grays sign up for two years (plus long distance charges). Is the expense worthwhile? You bet. The additional line will save Terri time; their teenager can research assignments faster; and Keith’s business line will no longer be disabled. For a reasonably priced ISDN modem, Malloy recommends 3Corn’s US Robotics Sportster ISDN 128K internal unit (800-638-3266, www.3com.com), selling for as low as $200.
If they want to take full advantage of their new resources, our tech expert strongly suggests that the Grays network the two PCs. The most inexpensive approach is to connect the systems with a $20 serial cable, then use Windows 95/98′s direct cable connection wizard under the Accessories tab. This will let the couple exchange files and share the new printer without the expense of network adapters. The downside: The connection can be slow, especially when printing. Should the Grays need more speed, they can later install Ethernet networking cards in both PCs for roughly $200.
Another benefit of networking is that it lets the kids and Terri share a single Internet connection in the evenings. With StarTech’s Internet Sharing Software (800-265-1844, www.startechcomp.com; $20 for two PCs), two homeworkers can log on simultaneously using one modem, one phone line, and one Internet account. Although Internet Sharing Software is perfect for when Terri’s work conflicts with her surfing teenager’s, there’s one glitch: Each PC must have its own IP address, which requires networking know-how to set up.
Finally, even when the second computer is installed, the Texas family is likely to continue sharing systems to some extent. In order to prevent kids from accidentally deleting files or changing the PC’s setup, we suggest loading Citadel Technology’s WinShield (214-520-9292, www.citadel.com; $69), which will serve as an automated system administrator.
2. The Situation: Communications Overload
“The first year in the same home office was terrible,” says Barbara Kalkis of the launch of her company, Maestro Public Relations, in 1995. “My husband and I had one desk with one computer, and we’d compete to see who’d get to it first.”
But after converting a spare bedroom in their Belmont, Calif., house to an office built for two, self-described workaholics Barbara and Ken Kalkis (a computer programmer and systems analyst who co-owns Pacific Business Software) have restored harmony in their home. “It’s great now,” says Barbara. “The room looks like an office, functions like one, and we work as we would with complete strangers in an ordinary business setting.”
The fact that the Kalkises service high-tech businesses in Silicon Valley is reflected in the couple’s inventory of equipment, which reads like the contents of a super computer store. They have two home-built Pentium desktops in their office, a third in the dining room, and a 486-based server in the garage that runs their Novell NetWare 3.12 network. For Barbara’s mobile computing needs, a Hitachi VisionBook Pro laptop sits on the coffee table in the living room.
In addition, the couple has a Brother 6550MC multifunction fax machine, an HP LaserJet 4MPlus laser printer, an Epson PhotoStylus color ink-jet printer, a Canon office copier, a DAT tape backup device, a Smart and Friendly CD-RW drive for making CD-ROMs, a paper shredder, and three scanners (a Umax flatbed, a Corex business card scanner, and a Visioneer PaperPort).
While the Kalkises’s equipment has expanded since their startup, so have their communications needs. Barbara maintains a CompuServe e-mail account, because of its international reach and popularity among her clients. Ken has accounts with Pacific Bell for Internet access.
With all this connectivity and equipment, what could we possibly recommend? First, it’s clear the duo’s businesses have invaded the rest of their home and lives, so they need to streamline their operations. More important, they suffer from information overload. Barbara averages “40 to 50 e-mails a day,” and the phone rings 24 hours. “We’re always answering the phone,” Ken confesses, “even on weekends.” Sometimes that means fielding clients’ questions at 5 a.m. to accommodate international time differences. To keep in touch, the Kalkises use two Uniden Extend-a-Phone 900MHz cordless phones around the house and Plantronics headsets at their desks.
Indeed, with `round-the-clock calls and computing devices sprouting in every room, the Belmont business owners need help coordinating their communications without eating up living space.
The Solution: Build a Virtual Office
It doesn’t require an expert to see that the Kalkises should launch their own Web site. And by sharing the same site between their businesses, Ken can do some cyber-marketing for Pacific Software and give his business an online presence, while Barbara can point prospects to her informative site to cut back on phone calls. In fact, she says, clients have already asked where to go to download materials such as industry updates and boilerplate documents. Receptive to our suggestion, Barbara realizes she’ll also reduce the number of e-mail queries.
One easy solution is to hire an Internet service provider to host the Kalkises’s site. By letting the ISP store their pages on its server, manage their database, arrange e-mail accounts, track traffic, and provide 24-hour World Wide Web access, the couple can outsource some of the site maintenance work. MindSpring (800-719-4332, www.mindspring.com), which will help you post a home page within a couple of hours, charges a setup fee of roughly $140 and a monthly service charge of about $20 (depending on the amount of storage space required and traffic volume).
Alternatively, the Kalkises could launch and design their own site with a minimum of fuss using Microsoft’s FrontPage 98 (800-490-9400, www.microsoft.com; $149). Best of all, this easy-to-use package won’t force them to master HTML programming.
Either way, we strongly recommend the couple get their own domain name, providing separate e-mail addresses through one ISP. Using an e-mail filtering package like Qualcomm’s Eudora Pro (800-2-EUDORA, www.qualcomm/eudora.com; $39), Ken and Barbara can share the expense of the site and still have such addresses as PacificSoftware@Kalkis.com and Maestro@Kalkis.com.
To make Ken’s office even more virtual, we suggest he invest in a portable computing device. Although a full-blown laptop is overkill for his needs–and he finds palmtops “slow and annoying”–a handheld computer such as NEC’s MobilePro 750C (800-632-4636, www.nec.com; $799) is a smart option. It weighs less than two pounds, includes a fullcolor screen, and comes with a keyboard that’ll let Ken generate invoices onsite at client jobs. Furthermore, with the MobilePro’s built-in 33.6Kbps modem, he can check e-mail or download files from his Web site before returning to his home office headquarters.
3. The Situation: Mixed-Platform Partners
High in the Rocky Mountains, Alison and Dan Golan built their dream house–and working hideaway. From Montrose, Colo. (an hour outside of Tenuride), they telecommute to work, which allows them the freedom to mountain bike at lunch in the summer and cross-country ski in the winter. Alison’s a public relations consultant; Dan’s a software programmer for HIE, a software integration firm in Atlanta, Ga.
To maintain telecommuting tranquility, the Golans decided to avoid the headaches of a shared office by, well, not sharing. “We knew we’d never be able to do it,” says Alison. The Golans realized that Alison’s constant phone chatter would disturb Dan’s programming concentration. So their offices are located next to each other, on a separate floor from the main living area.
Most of the couple’s equipment is separate, as well. Dan has a Dell Dimension running Windows NT, an IBM RS6000 workstation running AIX 4.1, and a Windows-based 486 clone. All three PCs are hooked up via a simple Ethernet network. Alison computes on a Macintosh Performa 476, which isn’t on the home LAN, and prints out press releases on a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 5MP. But even with separate offices, the two share some equipment, she admits: “Dan uses my fax line, and he’s connected to my printer.”
Given their remote location, the Golans rely heavily on the phone, fax, and e-mail. They have three phone lines in the house, plus a T1 Internet connection for Dan, and each has a separate Internet account. And although Alison’s 28.8Kbps modem works fine for managing e-mail messages, she’s often frustrated by surfing the World Wide Wait.
But the biggest issue for Alison is struggling to work on a Mac in a Windows world. “I’m thinking of changing [to a Windows-based PC], because a lot of my clients are on Windows systems,” she confesses. In addition, she needs to better manage her vital PR contacts. “I have numbers everywhere.”
The Solution: Make the Switch to Microsoft
Despite their foresight in creating separate work environments, the Golans are not maximizing their network and office space.
For starters, Dan’s already running Windows NT on one system, so if he upgrades the server software (about $129), he can easily add Alison’s Performa to the network. Another possibility is Miramar Systems’s PC MacLAN for Windows NT (800-862-2526, www.miramarsystems.com), a $219 program that lets Windows users see and swap files with Mac users. However, setting up Alison’s system so it can share all their peripherals can be tricky, warns Malloy. His advice to the Golans: Abandon the Apple and pick up the most powerful Windows 98 PC you can afford, staving off obsolescence for as long as possible.
By buying a Windows PC, Alison’s system can be easily added to the network, which will, in turn, let the Golans share more equipment than they do now. Even better, Alison could jump on the Internet for quick research via the T1 line, even while her husband’s online. Artisoft offers a program called i. Share (800-846-9726, www.artisoft.com; $129) that allows several people working on different PCs to share a single Internet account, phone line, and modem (just make sure you get multiple e-mail addresses through your ISP). The software runs on Microsoft or Novell networks.
If Alison resists Malloy’s suggestion to submit to Windows, she still needs a decent personal information manager for her Mac. Our pick: Now Contact & Up-to-Date 3.6.5 (800-2EUDORA, www.qualcomm.com). For only $100, it’ll be an organizational and time-management godsend. And on a network, it’ll allow her to coordinate who’s responsible for picking up the kids, what hours the nanny will be there, and when the couple can take off for an afternoon of mountain biking. Should she decide to buy a Windows PC, Malloy says, Alison’s best contact management bet is GoldMine.
Because Dan’s paper needs aren’t as crucial as Alison’s, he doesn’t have his own printer. However, that means the couple rely on a single machine that could break down and leave them high and dry in the Rockies. And although walking over to connect to Alison’s fax line sounds like a minor nuisance, it’s an unnecessary interruption. Both issues can be resolved by buying Dan a multifunction color fax/printer/scanner, such as Hewlett-Packard’s OfficeJet 600 ($500), and adding another phone line to his office. Doing so will increase security and prevent distractions.
And, after all, that’s why most people head home to get work done in the first place.