Be patient, creative, when building a home office on a budget, experts say

TORONTO — When Amar Atwal discovered his wife would be teaching kindergarten remotely this fall while his daughter entered Grade 1 from home, he trawled through every furniture and office supply website he could find in search of a desk.

Atwal, a school board worker in Toronto-adjacent Peel Region, quickly noticed that not only was there was a shortage of desks, but prices for remaining stock had jumped dramatically. So when he saw that one of the last three desks HomeSense had was scratched, he bought one anyway.

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"We got lucky. It retails for $160, but we got it for $80," said Atwal.

"We couldn't find my daughter a desk, so we got one of those little Ikea tables and she's doing her online course right now on that."

With schools around the country expecting some remote learning in the months ahead and employers encouraging staff to remain at home beyond the end of the year, many Canadians have decided to upgrade their workspace from the couch or kitchen table to a more appropriate setup. And like Atwal, some are finding it's more expensive than they'd like.

Ali Budd, the owner of a Toronto-based interior design company, recommends people on a budget consider repurposing what they have.

"Don't be scared to use a dining table as a desk. Think outside the box," she said, noting most dining tables are the same height as a desk.

"Even if you have a folding table and you position it in a certain spot every day, and then fold it back up, use that."

When COVID-19 started spreading and Budd and her staff had to start working from home, she remembered her father's old desk was sitting at her cottage.

She hauled it home and plunked it in a basement storage room she and her kids interchangeably work from.

If there's nothing at home you can repurpose, she suggests asking your employer if they'll lend you their equipment or furniture.

Several workplaces have let staff go home with computers, desks, office chairs and more as long as they return them when work from home ends.

Budd pushed her staff to pick up their computers and chairs from their workspace and discourages them from using their couch as a desk.

"At the end of the day, you can work on a $20 table and it doesn't matter, but your chair is the most important thing because that's where you're sitting for a big chunk of the day," she said.

Seung Hwan (Mark) Lee, an associate professor of retail management at Ryerson University, recommends people also ask workplaces if they are willing to cover some home office expenses.

Some employers, including Shopify Inc., Wattpad and Royal Bank of Canada, have announced that they are giving staff stipends.

If your workplace isn't in a position to do so, Lee and Atwal suggest looking out for deals at second-hand stores or on online platforms selling used items like Kijiji, Bunz or Facebook Marketplace.

"My cousin's wife is also teaching online and his daughter's learning online, so he was checking Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace apparently every hour for a desk," said Atwal.

"This past weekend, he actually got lucky and he picked up two desks from somebody....He was really patient and was looking for a month or so, but couldn't find anything."

If items aren't in good enough shape when purchased, experts say sometimes a coat of paint or some elbow grease is all it takes to freshen them up and is far cheaper than buying something new.

For electronics, there is also value in looking at refurbished items, said Lee.

"For our kid, we purchased a cheaper, refurbished laptop and we're not concerned about orange juice being spilled on there," he said.

If you can't find what you need for work around the house, used or at your office and you have to resort to buying new, Lee recommended shopping around.

He uses RedFlagDeals and other shopping forums to find discounts and sales.

Waiting for key times of year helps too, he said.

"A lot of technology related stuff will go on sale at Black Friday or on Cyber Monday," he said.

"If you can wait, I would wait until then."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2020.

Companies in this story: (TSX:SHOP, TSX:RBC)

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