Office Organization Tips for Home-Based Travel Agents

Amid the barrage of post-holiday e-mails that flooded my inbox, one remained long after others had been deleted. "When the holidays are over...organize it!" it exclaimed. It was an advertisement for The Container Store, which is to a Type A personality what Starbucks is to a caffeine addict. From shelving to storage, for a box, bin or bottle to hold anything, the store offers organizational nirvana.

Seeing as my home office also serves as a playroom, computer room, CD storage library, music studio and my husband's home office, I couldn't quite bring myself to discard the advertisement. It offered a glimmer of hope in the midst of the turmoil that has become my workspace. Perhaps you're facing a similar dilemma and asking yourself the same questions I have: Where did all of this stuff come from? And what do I do with it?

"Office organization" is really a subjective term. I appreciate the old adage "A place for everything and everything in its place." (Not that I can actually adhere to it for any length of time, but I do appreciate it.) On the contrary, my husband's piles are organized in some arcane way that only he understands. To you, organization may fall somewhere in between. It's still early enough in 2008 to join me in making the following organization resolutions. It may be tempting to invite the kids into your workplace, but experts advise at-home workers to set boundaries

This year, I resolve to...

Create Firmer Boundaries

Working from home is a special challenge. Is it even possible to keep work and home separate when you're trying to figure out how to keep the kids from screeching while you're on the phone with a client?

While it may be difficult to figure out how to keep things separate, Gary Fee, president of Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN), says it is essential for good business. "Have an established location in the house that is off-limits to the rest of the family," he advises. "No one likes to spend $4,000 on a cruise and compete with a barking dog or a crying baby in the background." He also recommends setting up guidelines with your family members to further delineate the work/home boundaries. Searching for things wastes valuable time; set aside time to revise your filing system and eliminate clutter

As a home-based agent, "I live, eat and breathe work," says Michelle Duncan of Odyssey Travel in Centreville, VA. Like many home-based agents, she responds to clients who need her at times other than her scheduled office hours, and she takes advantage of the quiet hours when her three children are in school. "Things get interesting around 4 p.m. The noise level with the kids is a challenge," she admits. With the flexibility that working from home affords her, Duncan is able to take a break at that time of the day to be with her kids, then get back to work—and she says her children implicitly understand that when she's in her office, she's working.

"Home-based agents must be responsive," adds Andrew Wainer, director of sales, Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel (NEST). "Seeing as they transact almost all of their business by phone or e-mail," he says, it's vital for such agents to give themselves a work environment that supports their goal of providing excellent service.

Technology can mitigate some of the organizational challenges, according to Fee. "Tools such as phone muting, forwarding and voicemail are crucial," he maintains.

Sometimes, though, family isn't the problem. "Our friends are the biggest challenge," says Jerry Funkhouser, a home-based agent in Woodbridge, VA, who works with his wife Myra at Cruise Travel Services. "We can't get our friends to understand that we can't go out to lunch every day or have them come over to visit, even though we're at home."

However you choose to draw your boundaries, whether it's with family or friends, resolve to make 2008 the year you draw them clearly.

Make the Most of Space

If the interior decorators on those do-it-yourself TV shows can magically create an office out of a standard-size closet, surely you can do it with whatever amount of space you have.

Experts at TV's DIY Network ( suggest taking a few measurements of your workspace and making a rough sketch of the room's layout, noting the location of electrical outlets and phone jacks. Often, the placement of these small but significant room details dictates the layout of office furniture. If your office layout isn't working for you, make a list of actionable tasks you can complete (or have a handyman do) until those nagging office quirks are a thing of the past.

If you're limited to a tiny workspace, DIY Network recommends thinking vertically with regard to arranging office necessities, shelving and storage space. Consider this suggestion for closets as well. Corner shelving can be an easy fix for anything from installing additional lighting to getting a printer off your desk and out of the way—it's also a great way to make effective use of neglected space.

Get Comfortable

As I write this article, I am sitting cross-legged in an armchair in my home office, with my laptop perched precariously on my knees. This is probably why my chiropractor and I are such good friends. I will be taking my own advice, and one of my first purchases of the new year will be a chair—comfy, ergonomically correct and, I hope, not insanely expensive.

How comfortable are you in your office? Are you constantly reaching over, under or around something to get to items you need and use every day? If so, take some time to re-evaluate your office furniture and determine if perhaps a few additional—or different—pieces will ease the physical or emotional strain or frustration you may be experiencing. Your back will thank you.

Find the Desk

No matter how much traveling you do, when you're home, you need a place to work. If that involves excavation to any degree, you could stand to do a little decluttering.

A friend of mine swears by the FlyLady system ( This is a fun (and free) guide "to help you set up routines, get rid of your clutter and put your home and life in order," according to the web site. In essence, the system encourages you to spend approximately 15 minutes per task working on clearing or cleaning one area so you don't become overwhelmed by the chore and decide to quit.

If clutter is your main culprit, consider taking DIY Network's advice and identify your organizational needs:

  • 1. Paper flow. First figure out where the paper is coming from. Can you streamline or eliminate unwanted junk mail, catalogs or magazine subscriptions? Then organize bills, correspondence, contact information and any other paperwork into "active" (used frequently) and "inactive" (used infrequently) files.

Create a system for containing and categorizing all incoming and outgoing paper. Sally Allen ( says it best: "Remember to keep the paper flowing to its final destination."

Marlys Aballi, of the Connection to Cruise agency in Redlands, CA, admits that paperwork is often overwhelming for her. In addition to faxes, reports, bills, letters and the like, "I receive about 150 e-mails a day, along with voicemails, brochures and other notes," she says. "It is hard to stay organized, but a good filing system helps." Aballi also cleans her desk at the end of each day so she has an orderly workspace to greet her in the morning.

  • 1. Your ability to find things. How quickly can you locate documents in your office? Build or revise your filing system and stop wasting time searching.

Duncan organizes her vendors alphabetically and by type of travel: cruise, land-based and other. Her client files are organized by year and subcategorized by month. At the end of each year, she clears her files and puts last year's paperwork in storage—out of the way, but still accessible should she need to retrieve anything. All pertinent periodicals are also categorized in alphabetical order.

  • 1. Time management system. Choose one method to keep track of your appointments, whether it's a tried-and-true day planner or an electronic gizmo. The easiest way to frustrate yourself and probably your clients is to keep important dates and times recorded in two (or more) different places.

Aballi says that time management is vital to her success as a home-based agent. "You're a jack-of-all-trades when you run your own business," she states, and the days can fly by in a whirlwind of phone calls, bill paying and family details. "You almost have to remind yourself to take a day off," she says with a laugh.

  • 1. Tracking "to-do" items. Is your to-do list in your head each morning, written on a post-it note stuck to your computer or drafted in detail somewhere (perhaps under a pile of papers on your desk)? It may be time for you to consider upgrading to a software package that encompasses all of the tasks and details you keep in many separate places. Software that includes e-mail, contact managers, calendars and other functions can streamline your life and clear your desk at the same time.

Improve Use of the Computer

I can't put it off any longer, and neither should you. Back up files you couldn't bear to lose and get into a habit of doing so regularly. A few other suggestions:

  • 1. Update or upgrade any software that you use on a regular basis, and while you're at it, update your address book—electronic or otherwise.
  • 2. Take time to go through your e-mail in-box, filing or deleting as many messages as you can.
  • 3. Organize and contain your computer wires. Bind them together with a cable cuff or adjustable Velcro straps.
  • 4. Consider replacing your monitor with a flat-screen. You'll be amazed how much space this will create on your desk.
  • 5. Make computer files of your master lists: your daily to-do list, office supplies and any other list you find yourself making on a semi-regular basis.

A new year, a fresh start...and who knows? Maybe even a clean office. Remember that you're not just trying to organize your clutter, no matter how much or how little you may have. You're creating a space where you can be productive, inspired even, and get back to work doing what you love to do.

Read more on: