The Perfect Office

Plan it right, from furniture to phones to lighting.

  • THE ADVENT OF the PC changed the basic rules governing office design. Suddenly there was a need to install a PC on a desk so that it was both convenient and comfortable to use.
  • EVEN MUNDANE THINGS, such as lighting that causes screen glare, had to be addressed.
  • THE BEST DESKS EXHIBIT two basic ergonomic features: They are L- or U-shaped and have an adjustable keyboard drawer slightly below the desk top. Such designs give the user convenient access. The goal is to reach things without twisting, stretching or moving too much.
  • TODAYS MINIMUM STANDARD computer setup is a 400-megahertz Pentium III with 128 megabytes of RAM; a 5-gigabyte hard drive and CD-ROM and Zip drives; a 17-inch monitor screen; Internet access; a network (even in a small office); an automated and reliable backup system: a CD-ROM recorder; and an uninterrupted power supply.
  • DONT SKIMP ON TELEPHONE equipment. Install enough extra lines so customers and clients are not put off by busy signals; consider cordless phones so you can move about the office as you talk and even headsets for hands-free conversation.
  • THINK TWICE BEFORE buying one of those multifunctional machines that print, fax, copy and scan documents. They may save you money, but you may lose out on convenience.
STANLEY ZAROWIN is a senior editor on the JofA. Mr. Zarowin is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

ntil the early 1980s, designing an executive office was a piece of cake: All you needed was a large desk, a plush high-back chair on casters, a couple of visitors chairs and maybe a credenza, a bookcase and a conference table. No need to provide space for a typewriterafter all, typing was done by a secretary or the typing pool, situated outside the executives office.

In the mid-1980s, when the first hefty microcomputer was trucked in, it was relegated to a space near the storeroom where the nonprofessionals toiled. But by the late 1980s, micros had miniaturized into desktop PCs, and secretaries were upgraded to executive assistants and they no longer typed executives letters. In fact, not only did executives have to make room for PCs on their desks, but they actually had to learn how to use them. The joke making the rounds at the timeout of executives earshot, of coursewas

Question: How do you know when the managing partner is finally using his new computer?

Answer: When the screen is dabbed with WiteOut.

And once the PC became a tool required of all CPAseven those in the executive ranksoffice design had to change. Their desks had to accommodate the ubiquitous computer. Even lighting became a problem: Blinds or drapes had to be added to the prized corner office because sunlight streaming in from two sides washed out the computer screen.

Some organizations, such as the one profiled on this page, had difficulty recognizing the impact of the move to computers.

Form Over Function

In the early 1990s, a large East Coast organization planned to move its staff to a new office complex and retained an architect to design the interior space. Since it was a forward-thinking organization, everyonewith few exceptionswas given a desktop computer. For the clerical staff, the architect designed typical cubicles with L- or U-shaped desks and height-adjustable pullout drawers for computer keyboardsthus, those workers could position their work conveniently next to their computer monitors, and their telephones were within easy reach.

But the architect designed a more executive feel for middle and upper management: A large wooden desk faced the entrance to each private office, with a two-level credenza behind the desk against the rear wall. The credenzas upper portion contained storage cabinets; the lower section comprised two stacks of pullout file draws. The top of the stacked file drawer cabinets was, in effect, a long, narrow desk in the middle of which a computer and monitor rested; a pullout drawer for the keyboard was installed in the kneehole space between the stacked drawers under the desk top. When the keyboard wasnt in use, the drawer could be closed.

The design, nearly everyone agreed, was elegant and certainly evoked an executive atmosphere. However, a handful of middle managers grumbled that the offices elegance exceeded its functionality. They complained that because an increasing portion of their work was computer-oriented, and because the computer was directly behind their desks, they had to spin 180 degrees to gain access to it. Worse, the telephone was designed to fit on the main deskjust beyond reach when they worked on the computer.

In time, even those who initially applauded the design recognized its drawbacks. For example, if they forgot to close the keyboard drawer and spun around quickly to use the computer, either a knee or the arm of the chair collided with the drawer. After several such collisions, some of the drawers weakened and collapsed onto users laps.

That turned out to be fortuitous: Since the drawer was too small to accommodate both the keyboard and a tray for papers, many executives never bothered to have it repaired. Instead, one by one they moved their keyboards and monitors to their main desks.

Although the new arrangement had its advantages (they were finally within easy reach of their phones and they didnt have to spin 180 degrees for computer access after slamming their knees into the open drawer), it had drawbacks too: The monitor and keyboard consumed nearly a third of a desks area, an inelegant tangle of wires protruded from the back of the computer right in visitors faces and the keyboard was a few inches higher than an optimum ergonomic heightincreasing users risk of wrist fatigue. But the advantage of being able to work conveniently on the computer offset the risks.


Visitors to offices of CPAs and other executives who spend considerable time at computers report that few have replaced their conventional desks with ergonomic designs. Yet lower-level employeesthose who typically do the menial office worktend to have simple but well-designed ergonomic furniture. The reason for the inconsistency is not clear; it may be related to cost and style: Its been only recently that stylish and pricey ergonomic furniture has became popular. Before that, ergonomic desks tended to be made of gray metal, and how many executives are willing to trade in an elegant teak desk for the sake of typing comfort?

Two variables complicate ergonomic design goals: People come in different shapes and sizes and they perform multiple functions. To accommodate these differences, good ergonomic furniture is designed to be easily adjustablefitting the needs of people of various sizes and flexible enough to serve multiple activities.

The best ergonomic desks exhibit two features: Theyre L- or U-shaped, and mount an adjustable keyboard drawer below the desk top, looking something like the designs below. Since the goal is to be able to reach everything on the desk easilywithout twisting, stretching or moving too muchsuch designs give the user convenient access to paperwork, the computer and the telephone.

As you can see in the illustration below, its possible to combine a computer workstation with a more conventional, rectangular desk. But as you can also see, such a desk lacks the easy-reach convenience of an L- or U-shaped desk. While such desks are very efficient and utilitarian, some ergonomic-conscious accountants believe they dont adequately project an executive image. For them, the conventional desk is more in keeping with that image so they tend to seek out such desks with built-in keyboard drawers. On some older desks its often possible to add hardware for keyboard drawers.


Since computers have become the centerpiece of every office, and since hardware prices are now at record lows, it stands to reason the perfect office should have the best hardware. Its wise to upgrade computers at least every other year, if not sooner. Dont consider such frequent upgrading a luxuryits actually very cost-effective. Faster, trouble-free machines get work done sooner and with less frustration.

The minimum standard computer setup today should have the following:

  • Computers. All machines should have at least a 400-megahertz (MHz) Pentium III chip (by next year the minimum speed will be about 600 MHz), with 128 megabytes (Mb) of RAM and a 5-gigabyte (Gb) hard drive (more is even better) plus CD-ROM and Zip drives.
  • Internet. Nearly everyone in the office should have Internet access.
  • Network. Even in an office with as few as two people, the computers should be connectednot only for communication between the computers but also so they can share a single Internet access provider.
  • Backup. Every office should have an automated and reliable backup system for all the data. The data should be stored in at least two places: one on-site and one off-site. The off-site location could be accessed via the Internet.
  • Monitors. Computer screens should be at least 17 inches. For some operations, when a large screen is vital, upgrade to 21 inches. If desk space is a problem, consider the more expensive flat-screen models. They provide an image as sharp as the conventional monitors with large footprints.
  • A CD-ROM recorder. In addition to a CD-ROM drive, the office should be equipped with a CD recorder. With such a device, you can custom-record a CD for permanent data storage, for sharing huge presentations or for storing your computers complete setup. Should your computer ever crash, inserting your computer-setup CD into the failed machine will have it up and running with the original setup software within a few minutes.
  • Uninterrupted power supply (UPS). Someday, just as youre finishing a complex spreadsheet, an electrical blackout will occur. Without a UPS system your computer will crash and youre likely to lose not only that file but all the data on the hard disk. With a UPS, which is essentially a big standby battery, you will have enough time to save what youre working on and turn off your computer properly. Prices start as low as $100. Its a must.
This modified U-shaped desk provides more open space yet everything is within easy reach. With a U-shaped desk, it's possible to reach everything without twisting, stretching or moving too much.

The Top 10 Guidelines for the Perfect Office

1 Make sure monitors are glare-free. When the computer is turned off, the screen should not reflect light. If you cant achieve that goal, add a glare screen, which clips on the face of the monitor.

2 Adjust office lighting so it produces little or no glare and is evenly distributed throughout the office. Florescent lights, while more efficient and cooler than incandescent bulbs, emit limited color frequenciesand thats not good for your eyes. Check your office supplier for broad spectrum bulbs, which make reading easier.

If you still cant eliminate the glare, no matter how you arrange the lighting and the furniture, go to, the Web site of a unique product from Eclipse Computer Light. What makes the Eclipse compelling is its indirect lightingfrom a bulb to a mirror and then onto your workspace. The result: No glare no matter how you position the lamp. The product costs about $60.

3 Dont place the keyboard atop a desk. It should be mounted at least two-and-a-half inches lower than the desk surface on a roll-away keyboard drawer. If you want to keep your old desk, you may be able to install a pull-out keyboard. Check an office supply store or do a search on the Internet under ergonomic office furniture.

4 Use ergonomically designed keyboards that fit the users natural arm position. Several good designs are on the market. To find one that suits your needs, visit a computer supply retailer or search the Internet using computer keyboards as your key words.

5 Dont skimp on chairs. No matter what vendors say, no one chair is perfect for everyone. While its true some ergonomic chairs are highly adjustable and good for many people, a chair is not a product you can buy without test sittings. A great chair should be on wheels that roll easily in any direction. It should have a high back or neck rest. Some also have retractable arms (so you can move them out of the way at times); thats a feature only some people like. Also, the chairs height and backrest tilt angle should be adjustable. While some people insist that leather, rather than cloth, is more comfortable to sit on for long periods, thats strictly a personal issue.

6 Be sure to place a chair mat under the desk chair so it rolls easily unless you have an unusually hard-surface rug.

7 To keep noise down, situate large computers, copiers and other devices that hum, beep and make disagreeable noises in other rooms. If noise remains a problem, place the machines in noise-proof enclosures. Sound-absorbent floor-covering and ceiling tiles help, too. And if noise still bothers you, consider equipment that generates soft, comforting background noise, such as running water, to mask the offensive sounds. Again, check the Internet for nearby vendors of sound-masking equipment. Prices run about $1 per square foot of ceiling space.

8 If possible, position your desk so you can focus periodically on faraway objects. Its good for your eyes and lets you work longer and more comfortably.

9 Get a telephone with a good speaker system that allows you to speak and hear clearly, hands free. While there are many such products on the market, not all have high-quality sound, so you must test them.

10 Provide fresh, clean air at a comfortable temperature.


For an Internet link, as in life, access is everything; and the faster you want to be able to access, the more it costs. Internet access comes in five varieties. And also as in life, the five come with advantages and disadvantages. Here they are, from the least expensive to the most expensive:

Modem with conventional phone line. The fastest individual modems are 56 kilobytes per second (Kbps) devices that sell for between $100 and $150. But their typical upload-download speed ranges between a laggard 33.6 and 50 Kbpswhich is why the World Wide Web is still jokingly called the worldwide wait. Monthly fees for Internet access are about $20. If an Internet connection and Web surfing are important to your business, dont even consider a regular phone line modemits too slow.

ISDN. The Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN, as it is better known) became popular a few years ago because it was the first relatively fast alternative to the modem and conventional phone connection; its as much as four times faster. Setup costs range from $50 to $300, depending on your location. One advantage of ISDN is that, when its operated in the dual-channel mode, you can share phone and Internet connections simultaneously. The downside of dual channels is that operating speed drops sharply. ISDN installation is limited to those within about three-and-a-half miles of a telephone central office.

ADSL. The Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) is ISDNs first cousin. Its blazingly fast, with maximum upload speeds of 1.7 million pbs (Mbps) and top download speeds of 8 Mbps. In addition, its always on so theres no need to dial up the connection. The setup costs run between $100 and $500 plus the cost of a special modem. Monthly costs vary widelybetween $40 and $800depending on location and use. Like an ISDN installation, you must be within about three-and-a-half miles of a telephone central office.

Cable. This is probably the best service. While not always the fastest service, its more than respectable. Upload speed can be as fast as 4 Mbps, but in locations with a slow remote server and poor Net connection it can drop to 33.6 Kpbs. Downloads are as fast as 4 Mpbs but can be as slow as 400 Kpbs. Speeds often depend on the number of other connections on the cable line. Setup costs go as high as $200 but monthly service is a bargain at $50 or less. Like ISDN service, its always onso theres no dial-up wait. The downside is youre stuck with the cable companys Internet providertheres no choice.

DirecPC Satellite. If cable is not available and you cant access ISDN or ADSL, the only alternative is this direct satellite connection from Hughes. Speed is not great: upload is a poky 33.6 Kbps via an analog modem and download is about 250 Kbps. Setup is expensivebetween $300 and $800 because you have to install an outside satellite antenna dish (which must have a clear line-of-sight view to the south) and a modem.

Some people consider this Aeron chair, available from Herman Miller of Zeeland, Mich., the best one for the office

Bring Order to Chaos

Take a look at the back of your computer systemif you dare. Youll see a tangle of cables and wires, and its unlikely youll be able to identify where they came from or where they go.

Well, we cant help you there, but here are several simple options for at least making same order out of that chaos:

  • Tie the cables and wires with garbage bag ties or Velcro straps. That way, you can easily unwrap them when you upgrade or need to disassemble the system for repairs.
  • Run the wires and cables through PVC pipe insulation, which can be bought at any hardware store.
  • Run everything through data switches, which can be bought at any computer store. Use one data switch for each port.


Dont skimp on telephone equipment. The money you save with an economy system is more than offset by the frustration you experience with poor service.

First of all, install enough extra lines so that customers and clients are not put off by busy signals.

Consider cordless phones. The relatively new 900-MHz cordless models not only produce less static and interference but also work well even at extended distances from the home base; that means youre not deskbound when youre on the phone. Because they use very sophisticated frequency-switching technology, eavesdropping is nearly impossible.

The Ergon chair, also from Herman Miller, is a slimmed-down version of the Aeron chair.

For slightly more money, you can have a higher frequency (2.4 gigahertz) phone, with more clarity and even longer range. For a small office, consider the 2420 Gigaset from Siemens ( ). It combines a corded two-line phone with a cordless phone that has a range of several hundred yards.

If youre a heavy long-distance user, its worth your while to shop around for your long-distance provider; competition has accelerated to the price-war stage. But even if you get a good price, dont sign a long-term contract with a provider. Prices should get even softer, so check out the competition every six months or so.

If youre on the phone a lot, your office is noisy or youd like both hands free while youre talking, consider adding a headset. The new designs are light and comfortable; some are cordless, so you can walk around the office while talking.

Take an Ergonomic Break

If you spend many hours at your desk and at a computer, try these exercises at least every few hours:

  • Alternate closing your eyes tightly and opening them wide at least 10 times.
  • Alternate spreading your fingers and making a fist; hold each position for about 10 seconds.
  • With fingers spread, place your hands together with fingertips under your chin. Then slowly lower your hands and your fingers will peel apart. Reverse the process and repeat several times.
  • Turn your head as far as it will go and hold it for 10 seconds. Repeat in the opposite direction.
  • Tilt your head to the left and hold the position for 10 seconds. Repeat in the opposite direction.
  • Rotate shoulders (like a shrug) first in one direction and then in the other.
  • Place hands on hips, feet about a shoulder width apart. Slowly push hips forward and lean shoulders slightly back. Maintain that stretch for 10 seconds.


A well-equipped office should have, in addition to a computer, a way to print, copy, fax and scan documents. You can buy separate machines to do each function at a total cost of about $1,000 to $1,500, depending on how many bells and whistles you want. Or you can buy one machine, generically called a multifunction peripheral (MFP) that performs all those functions for between $400 and $700all packaged in a machine no bigger than a toaster oven.

Before you make a decision based entirely on cost, consider the following:

  • If any part of the machine breaks downthe scanner, saythe entire machine probably will be out of commission, paralyzing your office. So ask yourself whether the risk is worth the savings of a few hundred dollars.
  • Unlike todays computers, many MFPs cant multitaskthat is, they can do only one job at a time. If youre printing, it cant fax or copy; if a fax is coming in, the machine cant do anything else until the fax is complete. There are some MFPs that can multitask: the $500 Brother MFC-7150c is one with that ability.
  • Most MFPs use ink-jet printers, which are relatively slow and dont print as sharply as laser printers. The Brother model is an ink-jet. The few laser printer MFPs tend to be more expensive. The Hewlett-Packard Laser Jet 3100, at $700, is one of the better ones.

In planning your office, recognize that achieving perfection is illusive at best: Its like trying to carry frogs in a wheelbarrow: Every time you think youve finally achieved it, a new technology or a new product will come along to suggest a better idea. Therefore, resist the temptation to stay on the leading edge: It can become a compulsion that requires a huge investment in time and financial resources, leaving you little time to practice your profession and earn a living.


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