NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It's 2011. Do you still need a fax machine in your office at home or in the back of your store?One of the first instincts for small-business owners should be to maximize efficiency and productivity in their office. Reducing clutter on desktops and having the proper filing and organizational tools are imperative. "Clutter impacts their productivity," says John Michael, vice president and general manager of Business Interiors by Staples ( SPLS), the chain's business furniture and interior design division. "The ability to stay organized is important." Although small businesses probably won't even want to do away with all of their equipment needs, they can minimize their need for buying a couple of ways: Leasing office equipment and other supplies can reduce initial outgoing cash, bring maintenance and support, provide appealing financing terms and offer tax advantages, according to the Business Owner's Toolkit, a subsidiary of publishing and information services company Wolters Kluwer. (Small-business owners who lease generally pay more over the life of the asset than if they were just to buy outright, the site notes, and generally must commit to an entire lease term.) Going virtual via companies such as Regus and Intelligent Office minimizes the need for equipment. Regus says a low-cost, home-based business owners can "create a big-business image by getting a professional telephone number and address," since virtual office services often include a welcoming receptionist to route calls to an appropriate number (whether it be your home or cellphone) and act as a message-handling service. Taking the virtual route can alleviate business owners -- especially startups -- from the hassle of long-term contracts and hefty overhead expenses. Still, not all small businesses lend themselves to a virtual environment or for leasing. For those that don't, here are five essentials to today's small-business office setting:
Today's all-in-one machines are cheap (anywhere from $200 to $400), take up little space in the office and even allow someone to conduct business while out on the road -- some receive emailed documents and print them, for instance. Having an all-in-one machine will be less expensive and can be more reliable than having one device for each function, says home-office expert and SCORE consultant Lisa Kanarek, whose website Working Naked offers tips to home-office workers. Whereas in the past small-business owners may have had to buy separate paper and ink cartridges for each type of machine, now "it's all the same," she says. "It saves money and it saves space." And if something does happen three, four or five years down the road, buying a new machine won't break the bank, Kanarek says.
The Apple ( AAPL) iPad -- frankly, tablets and smartphones in general -- are especially useful for small businesses while engaging with customers. "If you're in a customer-facing engagement, having something that you can engage and share information and interact with" is increasingly important -- better than sitting behind a laptop screen, says Ed Ludwigson, vice president and general manager of Staples Technology Solutions. Other things to consider: Wi-Fi spots on store premises and a way for employees and customers to do Skype and video calling. "I think that access is important," Ludwigson says. "It's really going to change how people interact with each other," along with the ability to "transmit in fairly near time, especially if you have a visual business." The devices will save business owners time, money and headaches. Ludwigson used the example of a plumber who, using a Web-connected smartphone, can take a snapshot of a broken item and be able to send it on the spot to a parts supplier -- minimizing travel time and increasing the speed at which the job can get done.
Once a smartphone or tablet is in use, business owners should have access to mobile bookkeeping and invoicing software. One example is Intuit's ( INTU) QuickBooks mobile offerings. The QuickBooks app accesses data from the desktop to help small-business owners' on-the-go needs. Users have the ability to create estimates, manage invoices and view customer data, among other things, the company says. Small businesses can also take mobile payments through Intuit's GoPayment application to process credit card information through a smartphone or tablet. And owners can pay employees using an Intuit mobile app linked to its payroll software. >>>Small Businesses Assess Mobile Payments "Not only is the fax machine passe, but so is the office," Intuit spokeswoman Sharna Brockett says. "Your office can be anywhere you want it to be -- your kitchen table, a cafe or even your car. All you need is a tablet or smartphone and some apps and online services to run your business." The QuickBooks Mobile app is available for Google ( GOOG) Android and Apple iPhones.
A little ergonomic fine tuning can go a long way toward improving productivity and employee satisfaction. "We sit for so many hours -- your back and your neck will let you know you're in the wrong chair," Kanarek says. "When I see people using one from the kitchen set or their dining room, I know that in a few weeks they will be miserable." According to a February survey by Staples Advantage, the business-to-business division of Staples, more than one in three workers said more ergonomically positioned officer furniture and equipment would make them more pleasant to work with, and nearly half said it would make them more productive. And according to a July survey on telecommuting, Staples says the top item on respondent's wish list for a home office is a more comfortable chair. Approximately 44% gave their current chairs a grade of "C" or lower. Some qualities to look for in a good ergonomic chair are upper and lower back support, adjustable armrests and seats that support even weight distribution. Other, more ancillary ergonomic products include "adjustable-split" keyboards to promote proper finger positioning, mouse pads with cushions for maximum wrist support and monitors with stands that tilt and swivel.
Customer information privacy is extremely important these days, and businesses should be taking precautions to guard confidential or even just sensitive customer or client information. A solid-sized shredder to dispose of unwanted paper can help with that. Mailing lists, digitally scanned contacts and anything regarding health care are all suspect to privacy laws. -- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York. To follow Laurie Kulikowski on Twitter, go to: http://twitter.com/#!/LKulikowski To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.