A Professional’s Home Office: 6 Keys to the Castle

My dad was the first remote worker I knew.

It began for him when I was just a kid. He started bringing home a portable computer that he could use to do work while he was a manager at Boise Cascade. This portable computer weighed more than today’s desktops do, and he carried it like a briefcase. The display was smaller than on a typical phablet, and only showed 80×25 characters. All in green.

It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

title-castleadventureHe installed Castle Adventure, and I played as often as I could. You’re trapped in a castle, and you need to find the keys that will let you out. It was my first introduction to computer games, and it was awesome.

A few years later, he started his own business, and built a home office where half of our deck had been, put nice bookshelves in, got a great desk, and a door to shut out the kids. I was only ten or twelve years old. From then until now he’s been working from home whenever he wasn’t traveling to teach courses.

So, no surprise, after a few years as a software developer at both large and small companies, I made the switch to remote work. As with most things, I’m still trying to catch up with my dad.

As a kid, I remember it being a really special experience to be invited into Dad’s office, where it felt so professional. I took myself more seriously there. And I felt like Dad took me more seriously too.

An environment for a professional

A professional home office is where a professional works.

Not an amateur.

A professional musician has the best instrument, but also plays in an excellent concert hall. The amateur plays on a street corner, or for friends at home.

As such, a professional who works at home must make his/her office a place where real work can be done. This is done by controlling the environment both outside and inside your office. It starts by recognizing that, when working from home, you are also your own office manager.

Let’s go over 6 keys that will get you out of a crappy home office and into your castle: a professional’s home office.

1. Outside

Control what is outside your office to be more productive inside your office

The first thing to look at is what is outside the office. Why does the outside matter?

What is just outside your office will affect your work life significantly. The outside is what you see through the windows. It’s where you go for a break from work. It’s where any noise may come from that will distract you. The outside is also where you keep the rest of your life, or at least try to. When there is no clear outside, it’s hard to keep your personal life from invading work, and vice versa.

A professional must separate his work from his personal life. Sure, it’s fun to share pictures of your cute kid, your new cat, or even your latest backyard project with your coworkers. But when it’s time to get work done, you want an “outside” for a crying baby, or a barking dog, or a messy room.

A bend in the hallway, or in other words, my home office
No outside, no inside. Pitiful.

My first little “bend in the hallway” didn’t even have an outside, unless you counted the kids bedrooms and bathroom that opened into the hallway. My more recent home offices were bedrooms, and so outside of them was the hallway and other living spaces in the house. Outside of my current office is a the backyard on two sides, and garage on a third.

Maybe your home is a small apartment. This can make it tough to have an “outside” to your office, especially if it has to just fit into a corner of your bedroom, or the kitchen nook. If you’re living alone, that may be workable, but even then your own mind will know that your workspace is not separated from your life, and that will make both work and life harder.

Some are driven to coworking spaces or even coffee shops. Why? Despite the noise, the commute, and the cost, the separation is still of greater benefit.

2. Boundaries

The boundary keeps work inside, life outside, and helps you transition between them

You need boundaries to keep the outside outside. Before you worked from home you had a natural boundary between your work life and your personal life: miles and miles of commute, and a completely separate building dedicated to work.

Give it up!
One way to have a boundary. (c) epSos.de

You need to keep a boundary there, or the your work and personal life will invade each other, making you less productive at both.

The hardest part of remote work is having your whole home as a constant source of distraction. A boundary reduces or even eliminates that distraction while you’re working.

In the early days of remote work, or telecommuting, or working from home, some held up the lack of a boundary between your office and your home as a good thing.

“Work from home, and you can take care of the kids while raking in the dough!”

“Telecommute to be able to multitask!”

“Mix and match your work and your personal life!”

While those ideals can be true in some senses, the fact is that to be a professional, you need a separate work space, free from interruptions, where your mind and your body can get into “work mode”. And that separation must be enforced with a boundary.

Without a boundary at home, you’ve just recreated the core problems of open offices in your own remote work office. And you took a remote work job in large part to escape the open office work style. By now everyone should know that cubicles are a death knell for productivity.

Nevertheless, it is all too easy to bring your job home and completely forget this principle, setting up a work area in the bedroom you share with your spouse, or taking a corner of the basement or family room.

Obviously the boundary will be different for a home office than one you drive to. The boundary in my first home workspace was just a long hallway. I asked my wife to keep our two toddlers at the other end of the house while I worked. Fortunately, I only used it at most once a month. It was not the ideal boundary.

Currently, my boundary is a fully walled off office that is part of my garage. The wall between me and the house is insulated, which greatly helps with the noise from the kids. The walls to the outside are too. The door to the garage can be locked, when I need to enforce the boundary.

Dmitry Dragilev called out the importance of separation between your work space and your home space in a great article on remote work productivity. In the section on separate spaces, he points out the value of a mini-commute that helps you transition to and from work.

Because I have to walk through my garage I get a little mental segue as I go both to work and come home from work. That transition is really helpful in keeping work and personal life separate, mentally. When I have to work after the kids go down, just going out to my office puts me back in work mode, even though I don’t normally work evenings.

Window ViewIn addition to keeping the outside outside, a boundary can also let some in.

On one wall I have a window, which lets me look into our backyard and see the grass grow, the leaves fall, the snow pile up, and the rare Idaho rainstorm.

It’s wonderful to be able to enjoy a window office without having to worry about seniority.

3. Inside

The inside of your office should put your mind in work mode

The inside of your professional office needs to be all about getting work done, and getting it done well. Just like you want to keep outside stuff outside, you want to keep work stuff inside. Entering your work environment should immediately trigger work related thoughts because of the things you see, the smells you smell, the textures you feel, the sounds you hear (or don’t hear); even the temperature of the air can contribute to the mood.

All of those elements that tell you that you’re in a work environment also signal to your family or living partners the same thing. When they interrupt they will know they are entering a place of work, and will be more respectful of what you are doing. Remember how I felt entering my dad’s office?

In addition, some things should stay inside your office and not leave. Since I don’t have ops responsibilities, Slack largely stays inside the office. Sure, the team can get me if I’m away, but I just don’t respond unless I’m in the office or it’s urgent. My work computers stay in the office. My newest machine is a pretty sweet laptop, which is great for when I’m traveling. But when I’m not, it stays in the office. I don’t bring work into the house.

The inside of your home office is what your coworkers will see when you are on video calls. And you should be on video calls. And you should be sharing the video from your side. When others can see your face it increases trust, easing communication.

Desk Setup

A professional isn’t ashamed of their work environment or their personal appearance because it is up to par. Sure, you can be relaxed while you work, I’m not saying you wear a suit and tie to your home office.

But remote work is also not an excuse for hiding, being lazy, or avoiding others.

The best remote workers are those who can master the social conventions of remote communication, and video calls are one of the most important types of communication you will engage in.

I’ve made vast improvements to the inside of my office over time, but I also recognize that I’ve got some room to improve. The remaining principles of a professional home office all apply to the inside of it.

4. Space

Space gives your body room to move, and your mind room to think

Inside your office, you need space. My second home office was ridiculously tight, to the point that it affected my productivity. The room was a storage room, filled to the brim with boxes of stuff. I had a small desk, a big (at the time) 17″ CRT monitor, and the door would hit my chair when it opened if I wasn’t careful. Plus, no windows. It really was horrible, looking back on it now.

That said, for most remote workers, they start by just taking over a room, or half a room, in their own home or apartment. This is usually more than enough space, even if half of the room is being used for something else. Of course, if it really is being used for something else, it may be worth revisiting the concepts of boundaries, inside and outside. Maybe you can split the room in half with a permanent or temporary wall?

For the last year or so, my office has been our overflow storage area. And honestly, it was a mess. Half of the area was floor to ceiling boxes, buckets, and random junk. The other half was my work area. The work area half was not cramped, but to get through it I had to squeeze between the boxes in the other half.

A couple months ago, I took just ten minutes a day to declutter, throw stuff out, and reorganize. Within a few weeks, the space in the room really opened up. I now have a big open area where I plan to put a home gym. Thanks to the cleanup my office, while not overly spacious, feels plenty big enough.

I can stand up and pace if I need to think something through.

I can move around while on a call, to keep the creative juices flowing.

In a pinch, I can let my daughter sit on the couch and play games on the iPad.

Harking back to boundaries for a second, let’s talk about windows. A window can really open up the space in a room, even if the actual square footage remains unchanged.

A big part of having space in your office is mental. How much space do you feel you have? Do you feel cramped? A window on one wall (or on two) can remove that cramped feeling completely, and as long as the boundary to the outside still blocks out distractions, this will be a huge improvement over not having a window.

If possible, make it face in a direction where you won’t get direct sunlight. It’s also best if it is to the side. Right in front of you or behind you makes it harder to see your computer screen, makes video calls ugly, and can create more distractions.

5. Working Comfort

Working comfort is baby bear’s porridge: not too hot, not too cold

One thing I love about my office is walking into it in the middle of winter. I walk through the garage, which is freezing cold. When I do, I’m usually wearing my wool socks and slippers. I open my office door and step into a cool room.

It’s not warm, because I don’t need it to be. But it’s also not cold. It’s the perfect temperature for what I’m wearing – a long sleeved shirt or sweater, jeans, and of course the wool socks and slippers.

Because we live in Boise at the very edge of a time zone, it’s often dark when I start work in the winter. So I flip on the lights, sit down in my chair, and start cranking out the code. As I do, I’ll occasionally glance out the window and enjoy watching the sun rise behind the trees of our backyard. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to watch snowfall pile up, but just slowly enough that I don’t need to go shovel the driveway.

The king of my castle

For some reason, in the winter, I’m comfortable in a way that’s sometimes hard to achieve during the other seasons. During the summer, my office always feels a little too cold, because I’m right under the AC vent, and I also happen to enjoy the dry heat in Boise. Fall and spring are nice, but tend to be louder, with kids outside. Plus when I look outside I’m reminded of all the yard work I need to get to. But in the winter, there is something wonderful about hitting the perfect temperature, sitting in a comfortable chair, and being able to completely focus on work.

Having a comfortable office is a pretty basic thing. But it can be hard to do when you commute to an office, where you might be in an uncomfortable chair, with a desk the wrong height, and fighting with your coworkers over the thermostat. Now that you’re at home, make the effort to get to a “working comfort” level.

Working comfort means you’re comfortable enough to not be distracted, but not so comfortable that you’re distracted from work. So get the temperature warm enough to not be freezing, but not so warm that you’re tempted to fall asleep. Make the office clean, but not so antiseptic that you won’t use a whiteboard because it’ll mess up the “look” of your office. Everyone has a different ideal level of decoration. If a busy set of walls helps fire up your creativity, great, decorate away. If it just distracts you from work, then tone it down.

Your office should not be a place you avoid because it’s uncomfortable. Of course, you also don’t want it to be so much nicer than the rest of your home that you hide out there just to enjoy it.

6. Simplify

Make work easier by making everything else easy

Simplify, automate, minimalize.

Whatever you call it, the key here is to eliminate stuff that keeps you from getting work done.

If you’re working from home, you’ve already eliminated a huge time suck: your commute. My brother Mason recently did that, and it made a measurable difference.

Congratulations! But don’t rest on your laurels by stopping there. There is more you can do. Find ways to automate manual tasks that make it harder to get work done.

Consider having a cleaning service come in, so you don’t have to worry about cleaning your office.

Get a motion detecting light switch, so you don’t even have to think about turning the lights on or off.

If you have a separate entrance for your office, you might consider adding one of those fancy new wireless locks, so you don’t have to remember to lock it when you’re done for the day. Oh, and let me know which one you use, and if it’s any good.

Eating and drinking are common interruptions of a workday. Though they have to be done, if you regularly spend time or mental energy figuring out whether to get a drink, or what to eat, it will sap your focus on productivity.

That’s why offices often offer free drinks, sometimes even free meals. More important than whether its free is whether the choice requires mental energy. It’s way easier to take a lunch break if you already know what you’re going to have because you prepared your lunches at the start of the week or before work that day. Staying hydrated is less disruptive if you’ve got plenty to drink in your office, and it’s the right temperature.

Develop a routine for the stuff you can’t eliminate, automate, or outsource. A routine simplifies your workday by reducing the number of choices you have to make, and freeing up your mind to solve the real problems your job throws at you.

Now what?

So, given these principles, what is left for me to do? Plenty. Though I’ve made a lot of progress, writing these thoughts down has given me all kinds of ideas for improvement. I want to get some nice light fixtures, add blinds to my window, get a better lock for the door, finish cleaning out the storage from my office, actually get the squat rack I keep promising myself I’ll install, brainstorm ways to increase comfort in the summer, put up some decorations on the walls, reorganize my desk area to better use the space, and get into a better habit of keeping the office clean, mostly by sweeping the floor regularly.

That’s my list. What’s yours?

homeworkSomewhat coincidentally, while writing this article, my 14 year old son had an assignment in his study skills class to take a picture of his workspace at home. The class then looked over everyone’s pictures and discussed how to make it better for getting homework done. As you can see, his workspace is a mess. That’s because he spends more time and effort building castles in Minecraft than he does cleaning up his desk.

And so we come full circle. Here I am, working from home, while my son plays video games with castles. He’s just a kid, not a professional. But I’m a professional. This series on remote work has covered a few different things; one was the story of how I built a professional home office.

How is your home office? Send me a picture on twitter, I’d love to see what others have done to create an awesome work environment at home. And I’ll share every picture I get.