Be Your Own Office Manager

Mark Suster took up the challenges that come with scaling a small, scrappy startup office culture into a decent-place-to-work culture here. In my last post I reflected on my first, “scrappy” remote office and the challenges it presented. Just like a seed stage startup, for me the scrappiness was charming, exciting, fun. The novelty of working from home, the freedom of not having a commute, and even the challenges of working in a significantly worse environment were all new and interesting. That newness made it possible to put up with the pain and still do some really great work.

But over the years, as I increased the amount of remote work that I do until now, where it’s my full time job, I had to scale up my office, just like those scrappy startups have to when they start to encounter a bit of success. Suster pointed out that for a startup making the transition, one of the most important investments they can make is to hire a great office manager / admin person. Just that phrase reminds me of two very impressive admin’s I’ve known.

At Microsoft, Amy was the admin for the Outlook team and she was awesome! For any question you had, she would find an answer. In a big company, political environment, she knew just who to talk to to get things done, but she also always had time to just shoot the breeze. For me, the team was never the same after she left to work at a smaller branch office.

During my time at Fog Creek, if Joel was the head of the company, Liz was the heart. She was just like Amy in so many ways, but at a small company she handled logistics more than politics, and made sure everything ran perfectly. She impressed me from our first conversations in the hiring process, she helped convince my wife that New York would be a great adventure for our family (and it was), and she’s still teaching me great stuff on her new blog: check out Cupcakes in Paradise.

Since leaving Fog Creek, I haven’t had an awesome office manager for one simple reason. I am my own office manager. Remote work is the future of work, and I’m sure that in time, as an industry, we’ll build up a really nice infrastructure around remote work that will handle most home “office management”. But the fact is that it’s still a ways out there. For now, every remote worker is their own office manager.

Doing that job well is not easy. What is easy is waking up to work on Monday and realizing your home office hasn’t been cleaned in a couple weeks. A thin layer of dust covers any surface area not in regular use. I don’t have someone refilling the candy jar or keeping the free drinks stocked. I’m not getting the standard issue laptop, desk, chair, speakers, keyboard, etc. I have to pick all that stuff out, which might be a bad idea for an OCD perfectionist. And don’t even think about the extra stuff, like fresh flowers in the restroom each week, catered lunches, funky artwork on the office walls, etc.

A corner of my office that needs "management"
A corner of my office that needs “management”

If I were a good office manager, I would do all the stuff that Suster recommends at the end of his post. I would have a comfortable chair, clean bathrooms, and a stocked kitchen. I would put up pictures, and make things comfortable. I spend 8+ hours a day in my home office, and sometimes I feel like it loses out to the rest of my home in terms of maintenance and upkeep. It’s time to change that.

How do you manage your home office? What do you miss about having an office manager?

A Bend in the Hallway

The first home office I remember having, and actually using occasionally as an office, was a bend in the hallway of our home when I worked at Microsoft. Yep, that’s right, just a bend in the hallway. I would work from home on rare occasions when I needed to stay home for some reason (e.g. contractors coming). I had a dinky little desk, a horrible chair that couldn’t roll on the carpeted floor very well, and a small monitor. This bend in the hallway had three doorways within reaching distance, opening into two kids bedrooms and their common bathroom.

A bend in the hallway, or in other words, my home office
A bend in the hallway, or in other words, my home office

Despite all of the negatives of such a ridiculous home office, I have a distinct memory of one very productive day when I worked from home. I can’t even remember why I couldn’t go into work that day. But we were close to shipping Office 2007, and I had a ton of bugs on my plate. I sat down at the desk, my wife helped keep our two boys under the age of five at the other end of the house, and I cranked through more bug fixes than I had in the previous week. It really opened my eyes to the possibilities that remote work opens up.

That little home office eventually moved into half of an undersized room, and I still only used it occasionally, maybe once a month, for my day job. But I had a door that I could shut. Whew!

Over the next few years, my home office was part of our homeschooling room, a commandeered child’s bedroom, a corner of the master bedroom (that didn’t work out very well), and back to a bedroom sandwiched between kids rooms. I went from working only rarely at home to having a fully remote job, first at TrackAbout, and now at Articulate.

Through the process I’ve learned a lot about what works in a home office, what doesn’t work, and what is up to personal preference. So, now it’s time to build my own. We’ve got an extra bay in our garage and last week a contractor came in to give us an estimate for the work it will take to turn it into a real home office.

My awesome future office
My awesome future office

I’ll be documenting the process here, along with other tips for doing successful remote work.

What was your worst home office? What is your ideal home office? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.