The Rest of the Room: How to Set Up Your Office

Note: The following is Post 8 in the series “How to Set Up Your Desk.”  This series has been developed further and is now available as an ebook on Amazon

Having discussed how to set up your desk, now it is time to close this series by looking at the rest of the room.

(FYI: Originally this was the third post in the series because I thought it would be helpful to see the whole context of the room in general before discussing the desk in particular. But that seemed to interrupt the flow of the posts. So this post is now at the end to close out the series.)

The Components of An Office/Workspace
There are six components of your broader work area:

  1. The desk, of course
  2. Reference area
  3. Storage area
  4. Project shelf
  5. Meeting area
  6. Brainstorming area
  7. Lounge area (maybe)

In other words, you need to have a place to actually do your work (the desk), a place to keep reference materials, a place to keep extra supplies and equipment, a place to meet with visitors and, perhaps, a place to take a break.

The Desk
This is what we covered in detail in the previous posts, so there is no need to go into more detail here. But the wider context of the whole area presented here should hopefully shed additional light on things that we’ve discussed previously, especially desk placement.

The Reference Area
The reference area is where you keep books, binders, and anything that is large enough to need a shelf. Typically the reference area consists of bookshelves and filing cabinets.

Bookshelves would generally go against the wall. Here’s how I do it at work:

I keep most of my books at home, so I need something a lot more extensive there:

When it comes to files, the drawer unit at your desk will often include a file drawer. I recommend having at least two such drawer units, and maybe a third. If this gives you enough space for your files, then you don’t need to create space for file cabinets elsewhere in the room.

At work, I’m able to do it this way and keep all my files in the drawer units at my desk:

But at home, this doesn’t work because I am able to fit less drawer units under my desk. So I have two four-drawer file cabinets in the corner of the room:

The Storage Area
As I mentioned earlier in this series, you should keep at your desk the supplies that you use, but keep extras away from your desk in a storage area.

How to Use the Storage Area
For example, keep staples in your stapler, but keep the box of staples in the storage area. Keep about 5 pens or so in your desk drawer (and one on your desktop), but keep any pens beyond that in the storage area. Keep some paper clips in your drawer, but any paper clips beyond what fit nicely into your drawer divider should be kept in the storage area.

Where to Put Your Storage Area
The storage area can be an overhead bin or a closet. At work, most offices or cubicles probably do not have a closet, which is good because that would be weird. Many cubicles do have overhead bins, and so that can become the extra supply area for you if you are in a cubicle. My office at work also has an overhead bin, and so that’s where I keep my extra supplies:

The left side of the bin is for extra supplies, and the right side (not pictured here) is kept clear to serve as my project shelf (to be discussed below).

If you don’t have an overhead bin at work, then you can turn a couple of your drawers into storage for extra supplies. Just make sure that these drawers are separate and distinct from the drawers where you keep your “in use” items. Keep a clear distinction between “in use” and “extra.”

At home, my office is in the extra bedroom down in our basement. This room has a closet in it, so that closet became my office supply room.

My office supply storage at home is more extensive than at work because at work there is the general supply room for the whole office where I’ll go to grab stuff that I don’t need to keep my own supply of.

(However, by the way, don’t rely on your office supply room at work for everything. For example, get your own pens and keep them at your desk, so you can have the right kind [link] and will always have them when you need them.)

What to Keep In Your Storage Area
In my supply closet at home, I keep extra supplies, equipment, and books that are more administrative which I don’t want on my main bookshelves. I keep the extra supplies in plastic drawer units like these:

The extra supplies that I keep on hand include extras of the following: paper pads, envelopes, labels, specialty paper, notebooks (I keep one extra moleskine on hand so there is I’m not left without one when my current one gets to the end, as well as some other kinds of notebooks), pens and pencils, printer ink, label tape, staples, tape, glue, fasteners like paper clips and binder clips, CD cases and sleeves, printer paper, and file folders.

Again, all of these are extras. The in-use supplies go at my desk.

For example, there is printer ink and printer paper in my printer. That’s “in use.” But I keep one extra unit of each in the supply closet so that when my printer ink runs out, I don’t need to go to the store right away. I just grab the extra ink from the supply closet, and then put it on my list to replace that next time I’m around Office Depot. This is the principle for all supplies: keep one unit of extra on hand so that you never run out. Replace the supply when you grab the extra unit, not when you run out of the in-use unit.

For office equipment, I keep two large plastic bins, and the extra equipment goes in there. Extra file folders go in a bin like that as well:

Extra equipment also includes extra electronics accessories and extra cables and antennae. I keep these in bins as well:

I have found it very useful to keep extra cables and electronics accessories around. A need will often arise around the house for a certain type of cable, for example. It is often impossible to foresee what I’ll need, so in general I just keep all sorts of extra cables around. Same with electronics accessories, like extra chargers, old iPhone cases, and so forth.

It works fine to put those things into their container units, without subdividing the container any further. Here’s the inside of my container for the cables, for example:

Note that everything in the supply area is contained and everything is labeled. These are two key principles. Keeping things contained makes them easier to manage, and keeping things labeled keeps them easier to find. Don’t waste time looking for anything. Put in the work on the front end to create clear labels for everything.

The third category in my storage area is administrative books that I don’t want on my main bookshelves in this closet. This includes, for example, the “home inspection binder” that they give you after the inspection when you buy your house and other stuff like that.

It also includes software manuals and software. I throw away whatever container the software came in and put it into a CD wallet-thing. These CD cases sit on the bookshelf next to the administrative books.

Also on this shelf are old issues of Fast Company and Harvard Business Review that I can’t bring myself to throw away. (Normally I just tear out any articles that I want to keep and file them, but with FC and HBR I just end up keeping the whole thing, for some reason).

Finally, my wife also has some space in this closet, and then it also contains my project shelf, which is the next subject.

Project Shelf
Some projects have support material that is not electronic and is also too big to fit in a file. Hence, you need to have an area that is designated for holding this type of “pending” support material. That’s what the project shelf is for.

You want it generally out of the way so that it isn’t bugging you, but you also want it generally accessible. At home I have it in my supply closet. At work I keep a section of my overhead bin dedicated for this (you’ll see there are currently a couple of items on it):

You can also keep non-project support material here. For example, my reading pile has really gotten out of hand. So I keep the periodicals that I need to catch up on on this shelf right now (at home — the pile you see above at work is much smaller). I don’t consider “to read” a project — it’s an operational category. But you can keep support material for operational stuff on this shelf just like you do stuff that is directly related to a project.

When it comes time to work on the project or operational area and you need the support material, you just grab it and get to work. When you’re done, you put it back.

This gives you space to keep large “in process” stuff without cluttering up your office or home.

Meeting Area
If you have an office, you generally want to have a place where you can meet with people. Even in a cubicle you want to have it somehow designed to accommodate visitors, even if brief.

There are lots of different ways to create a meeting area. Much depends upon the space you have available. Here’s how I do it at work:

At home, I just have a chair in the corner in the front of the bookshelves:

In a cubicle, the meeting area basically equals the entrance. Which is fine, because there often is no other option. Some cubicles may be designed to accommodate a table off to the side, which would be even better.

Brainstorming Area
Your office/work area is not simply for doing solo work, but also for generating ideas together. So you have a meeting area, and you also need a brainstorming area to go with that.

At root, this consists of a white board:

The whiteboard does two things. First, it says “ideas are important.” Second, it is very useful in the cause of generating ideas and keeping track of them during a meeting.

Lounge Area
This is really just a conceptual category in my mind, rather than anything that I actually use for real. I define lounge area as a place where you can sit if you need to take a mental break or want a more pleasant place to read or something, while still being in your office.

This probably best doubles with the meeting area. That is, the chairs that you use for meeting with people can also be used if you want a change of pace from sitting at your desk. Although usually I don’t find myself doing this, but instead if I want a change of pace I’ll just go grab some water or go somewhere else.

Posts in This Series

  1. How to Set Up Your Desk: An Introduction
  2. How to Set Up Your Desk: Basic Principles
  3. Excursus: Against Desk Hotels
  4. The Four Ways to Configure a Desk
  5. Where to Put Your Desk
  6. What to Put on Your Desktop and How to Use It
  7. What to Put in Your Desk Drawers and How to Use Them
  8. The Rest of the Room: How to Set Up Your Office
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  • Parker McGee

    “The whiteboard does two things. First, it says “ideas are important.” Second, it is very useful in the cause of generating ideas and keeping track of them during a meeting.”

    This is important. Too often I see people with covered up whiteboards, which results in saving the opposite, “This idea is important.” It’s important to keep whiteboards clear to facilitate that idea-making.

  • Darshan

    images are not shown. plz fix.

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  • carsonleith

    Thanks for taking the time to write this series out. Lots of changes are about to happen to my work desk and also my home desk. Here we come, increased productivity! Thanks so much, Matt.

  • carsonleith

    Thanks for taking the time to write this series out. Lots of changes are about to happen to my work desk and also my home desk. Here we come, increased productivity! Thanks so much, Matt.