The thing about the American dream is that it is unique to each person. For some, it means rising to the top of a large, well-known corporation. For others, it means creating their own large corporation and having their name atop a tall building downtown. For others, it means being an independent financial advisor with a small staff and a nice building in the suburbs. For still others, the dream means being an independent advisor who has the ability to work out of the home.

As the spirit of entrepreneurship has shown, none of these dreams is right or wrong. They all can work, and they all have. For those with the last dream – working at home, eliminating the commute and realizing the freedom of total independence – it is within reach. And it isn’t just small-time advisors who are doing it. One marketing organization executive says he knows of an advisor who has annuity sales of $9 million and works out of his home.

“It’s all a matter of what you want to do and how you want to do it,” says Bo Johnson, chief marketing officer, Financial Independence Group, Cornelius, N.C. “You can do it and be successful.”

To help advisors define and design their home-office space, we talked to a home-workspace expert about design elements and what makes a home office work, and also an advisor who has successfully transitioned from a traditional office building to his home.

Made the change
A decade ago, Bob Adams believed successful advisors had to have a traditional office space outside their homes.

“I was adamant about having an office,” recalls Adams, CFP, CPA, president of Winter Park, Fla.’s A Safe Harbor (www.asafeharbor.com). “I wasn’t sure I had the discipline to do a home office.”
A series of events – his assistant’s death, a move to a smaller space, encouragement from his wife – led to Adams’ decision to base his office out of his home. He knew immediately that if he was going to have a home office, he was going to have a home office – not working off his kitchen table and calling it the office. He dedicated two of three bedrooms on one side of his house as office space, and he set out to decorate them as well as he could.

“You need that, because it leads to confidence,” Adams says of his nicely decorated space. “I was insecure early on and I used to apologize for working out of my home. Not anymore.”

Adams goes to the trouble of a nice-looking space even though two-thirds of his appointments are in prospects’ homes. The other one-third are in his home office, but before he was comfortable with that arrangement, he rented shared office space to conduct appointments, something else Johnson advocates.

A multi-line phone, printer, copier, scanner, fax, computer, laptop, shredder, surge protectors and top-notch software are several things Adams needs to run his business effectively. But he also has an assistant to answer phones and handle scheduling and make sure Adams is where he needs to be.

Adams has found a few other items to be invaluable to his home office. He sends out an e-newsletter, which, he says, “makes you look big when you aren’t.” He believes in a good filing system for paper documents and says every advisor needs a backup system for electronic files. He uses an offsite backup system in case something goes wrong in his office. Even though technology is supposed to make our lives easier, we all know that, on occasion, things can go haywire. To combat that, Adams has an agreement with a computer support person – something too many people overlook. And he builds relationships with people at stores like Office Depot, Kinko’s and Office Max. Finally, he utilizes his shipping discounts, which are available to advisors through their FMOs or broker/dealers.

How to get there
Neal Zimmerman is the owner of Neal Zimmerman and Associates (www.atworkathome.com) in West Hartford, Conn. He has designed dozens of home-office spaces and written a book titled “Home Workspace Idea Book.”

Since every workspace is unique – as is the person utilizing it – Zimmerman offers general principles for creating the best home office in the space available.

He believes everyone should keep three essentials in mind, with the acronym BOPS:

  • Balance. Home and work environments must not get in each other’s way, even if one is integrated into the other. Creating separation is critical, but not necessarily one that requires physical boundaries.
  • Organization. This is required even if the office is separated from living spaces, but it is especially important if the office can be viewed from living areas.
  • Personal Spirit. Don’t think of a home office as a place to suffer through work, Zimmerman encourages. The office space should fit each individual’s interests. Display items that reflect passions, hobbies and family. “Create an environment you feel good about,” he says.

To achieve the ultimate level of BOPS and create a professional and personal home office, Zimmerman lists five steps:

  1. Determine your needs. Think about storage space and equipment needs. Will there be visitors? Employees?
  2. Select a location. “This is going to vary based on your needs and the availability of space,” Zimmerman says. “Balance them. A recipe for disaster is if you have a family and are maxed out for space.” A home office isn’t going to work for everyone. Even with the proper discipline, an unworkable space can sink the project.
  3. Develop a plan. Whether etched out on graph paper or by an expert designer, an advisor should be sure everything will fit into the allotted space before committing to working at home.
  4. Create a healthy environment. Zimmerman says everyone should get ergonomic equipment and create good lighting. Poor posture, inadequate lighting and a cheap chair are going to hurt one’s vision and require continual chiropractic care. Since we spend one-third of our lives in bed and at least another one-third working, Zimmerman and others recommend spending on comfortable, ergonomic office equipment.
  5. Design the space for who you are. “Make the space a reflection of whatever it is you are working for to begin with,” Zimmerman says. “Make it a pleasant place.”
  6. The methods for setting up one’s home office will be as varied as the visions of the American dream. Some advisors will opt for the version that costs a few thousand dollars, while others will enlist the help of designers and architects and spend $50,000. Each is correct for the right person, and each will provide the space advisors need to realize their dream of a home office and successful career. The information here should be enough to get anyone thinking about a home office on the road to further independence, and it may push those with a home office need to redefine their space and make it shine. Either way, it’s a call to get past the excuses and give serious consideration to working from home – if that’s the dream.