In April, Kin software engineer and We Are Mammoth cofounder Ka Wai Cheung opened up his home workspace in San Francisco on the We Are Mammoth blog.
His is the first in a series in which We Are Mammoth team members, most of whom are distributed nationwide, share how they set up their home offices for remote work.
As more and more employers around the country embrace remote work and flexible scheduling, we felt it was important to show exactly how this arrangement looks in practice.
Setting up a home workstation may not be as intuitive for people used to going to an office, and everyone’s ideal workstation setup is different.
“Desks, chairs, shelving, trinkets, whiteboards, wall paint–there are lots of personal decisions to make with a physical environment that is 100% yours,” Ka Wai writes.
Let this guide serve as a companion to that series. If your company allows remote work, or if you have just begun working for yourself from home, here is a checklist of all the details you will want to consider for your home office design.
In an upcoming post, we will then explore remote work from an employer’s perspective.
Take Inventory of Your Infrastructure, Tools and Technology
Chefs use the phrase “mise en place” to describe the prep and organization of ingredients that will go into the day’s menu items, and that’s a useful metaphor for envisioning your workstation’s preparation.
Below are the key tools you will need to be productive at home. We will organize and optimize all of these tools later on.
Basics: A Computer and a Connection
Every remote worker needs at minimum reliably fast internet access and a good computer. This probably sounds obvious, but do not take access to reliable IT for granted, especially for team members who live in small towns and exurbs.
OSTraining founder Steve Burge wrote about a recurring issue for his distributed team in 2013:
“A lot of our staff live in small cities or rural areas in the U.S. All of them have abysmal internet connections that often impact their work.
“To take one example, Rod is our lead video trainer and lives in a small city just outside of Cincinnati. There’s no cable or fiber connection, so he uses DSL. His home internet connection is often a slow as 5 mbps down and 0.3 up.”
Access to fast internet may be unavailable or prohibitively expensive in your part of the country, though that is finally changing.
As a rule of thumb, anticipate that you will need download speeds of at least 20 mbps and upload speeds of at least 5 mbps. If you work with rich media or video, probably double that upload speed.
Also, if you will be working from a personal computer, make sure it’s fit for work. You know your machine and will recognize when it’s underperforming. If spreadsheets take a whole minute to load or web apps continually crash, it is probably time for a new computer.
Once the hardware and tools are sorted, you should determine where exactly you will work.
A few criteria go into this decision:
- Whether the room you choose is big enough for your needs
- Whether it is properly ventilated
- How close it is to busy, disruptive spaces such as the kitchen or perhaps a window overlooking a busy street
- Whether you have enough wall sockets to support your devices without having to run extension cords
- Whether the room will require you to buy a WiFi extender
- Whether a nice view is important to you
Obviously, those criteria assume an abundance of options. Most people don’t have a collection of empty rooms in their homes they can claim as an office. Instead, they have to repurpose rooms that are available.
Organizer Regina Leeds points out that home offices frequently do double duty as a guest room.
“Do you have the space appropriately divided for each activity to be performed here?” she writes on designer Carla Aston’s site. Thus, the repurposed guest room might need some work to accommodate the office. “The most common culprit I find with this combo-type is a large bed that’s rarely used but eating up valuable real estate. Why not consider a futon or Murphy bed?”
Also pay attention to the climate of whichever room you select, Domestic CEO Amanda Thomas writes:
“Don’t locate your office in the frigid attic where numb hands and frozen feet will be a constant issue. Likewise, you don’t want to be hot and sweaty when you’re trying to meet a deadline. If you don’t have an option, choose a way to control the climate with either a space heater or an AC unit.”
Lighting is easy to overlook, but anyone who has spent even a day in an office lit mostly by overhead bulbs knows what ocular exhaustion around 5:00 PM feels like.
Connecticut’s Valley Lighting has a few tips for getting the lighting right in a home office.
This starts with letting in lots of natural light for ambience, but task-specific lighting is also called for.
“When a room is consistently lit, your eye bounces searching to find the brightest spot creating eye strain and headache,” Valley Lighting’s team suggests. “It’s better to create layers of light with different light sources and intensities.
“Try setting pendants at different heights, use a dimmer on overheads or diffuse your lighting by angling it toward the ceiling. Ceiling fixtures should be located so the light falls just in front or to the side of your desk. This is especially helpful if your desk has a high gloss finish that would create a glare if the desk were directly under a ceiling fixture.”
The Room’s Organization and Functionality
Professional office organizer Kacy Paide has an excellent guide to setting up a home office from scratch, and in it she makes an important point about leaving room to spread your work outward from just your computer and desk.
“The offices I’ve enjoyed being in the most have all had designated space for spreading out and creating,” she writes. “This can be anything from an Idea Paint wall, a vintage chalkboard, or an oversize vision board. Create a space for visioning and outlining the goals you hope to accomplish from this office.”
Matt Perman, who writes about productivity and leadership from a theological viewpoint, suggests dividing up a workspace into six or seven task-specific areas:
- The desk
- A reference area
- A storage area
- A shelf for materials about ongoing projects
- An area for meetings
- A brainstorming area
- A lounge area
The last three areas — for meetings, for brainstorming and for lounging — can easily be external spaces. For example, you could lounge and brainstorm in your living room and take any meetings outside of your home.
That leaves the initial four areas for a minimalist office:
- You need a good desk.
- You need a place to store reference materials such as industry publications.
- You need a permanent place to store your tools and materials.
- You need an extra space onto which ongoing work materials can spill over.
Once you have found a place for all of your larger items, organization becomes a matter of finding homes for all of your smaller, everyday items and developing habits to maintain that order.
Apartment Therapy has a great post on organizing your desk drawers, which will be the natural home for all of your smaller tools. The key takeaway here is to establish a hierarchy of drawers so that the most used tools are easiest to access.
“Clutter can easily accumulate, and when everything is important, nothing is …” Apartment Therapy’s editors write. “This is why junk drawers always seem to be the highest drawers in kitchens and offices.”
Notice how organization relies so much on first establishing a mental model for where things go. That’s because being organized is as much a mindset as it is a set of actions.
Jason Fitzpatrick, one of LifeHacker’s absolute best, has a classic post on getting organized at work, and the lessons he shares in that piece apply for remote workers.
“We invented pulleys — and notebooks to capture our thoughts! — specifically so we didn’t have to work so hard,” he writes.
“You might get by with a filing system that consists of piling papers precariously on the corner of your desk and only throwing stuff away when it mounds too high for you to see your monitor, but it’s silly to argue anything but that you’d get by better if things were put away properly. I have never met a creative person who was disorganized that wouldn’t have more time to be creative if their life wasn’t a tornado of chaos and clutter.”
If you work full-time from your office, you are likely to spend as many as 2,000 hours in there each year. It is worthwhile to invest in comfort and ergonomics for this space, both for productivity’s sake and for the sake of your own health.
The Mayo Clinic has some useful and precise information on office ergonomics:
- The clinic’s staff recommend that any desk at which you sit should be at least 19 inches deep, 30 inches wide and about 34 inches high for the average person (adjust that last dimension to accommodate your own height — most important is that your wrists are at a natural angle when typing).
- Your monitor(s) should about an arm’s length directly from you, with the top of the screen slightly below your eye level.
Your chair is an equally important factor in your ergonomics, which The Wirecutter’s Kyle Vanhemert discusses at length in his review of the Steelcase Leap.
UK retailer John Lewis also has a helpful guide to buying an office chair on its site. That guide has one nice insight to keep in mind if you will be chair shopping:
“The longer you’re using the chair, the more adjustable features you’ll need. All the adjustments should be within easy reach and you should be able to operate them, while seated, with minimal effort. Lumbar support is essential if you’re going to use the chair for long periods.”
Of course, this discussion is somewhat moot if you opt for a standing desk. Tech In Asia has one of the best guides for buying a standing desk that we’ve seen. “No matter which desk you choose, one long-term decision you can’t compromise on is ergonomics,” Tech In Asia’s Terence Lee writes.
“Pick a desk that’s not just height adjustable, but also adjustable to your exact body profile. The ability to bring a monitor up to your eye level is something that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be compromised.”
For more information on office ergonomics, check out this series of posts from Australia’s Dohrmann Consulting.
“If you have a home office, I recommend painting it noticeably different from the other rooms in your house,” Ka Wai writes in his post. “A strikingly different wall color helps make me feel like I’m going to a very different place, rather than going to that ‘room next to the kitchen.’ It helps me separate work from home.”
Stacey Leibbrandt, a home and living buyer from Mighty Ape, tells New Zealand’s Stuff something similar. Leibbrandt even ties room color to productivity.
“But usually vibrant contrasting colours will liven up your workspace — great if you require visual inspiration,” she tells reporter Erin Boyle. “Or, for a calm and focused mind, a monochrome palette might be the way to go.”
Don’t get overwhelmed with visual decor, though. The main goal is to make you feel comfortable and able to focus.
If you’re stuck for inspiration, check out a few of these Pinterest boards:
Other senses benefit from stimulation, as well. Tikva Morrow at The Muse recommends aromatherapy as a tried-and-true method for improving a room’s atmosphere.
“Essential oils like lavender and jasmine can actually give you all sorts of great natural boosts,” Morrow writes. “Try a fresh-smelling potted herb or plant, or simply add a scented candle.”
That said, Jennifer Parris at Mashable offers some perspective for those who feel they could get carried away with the whole decorating process.
“Your home office exists so you can make money, not spend it,” she writes. “All sorts of little things can break or stop functioning the way they once did, but spending more money on your home office isn’t always the best approach. If you must buy something, check out second-hand shops and reuse stores before buying new.”
Dealing with Distractions and Remaining Focused
Here is an unfortunate reality: Once you get your office set up just so, following every piece of advice in the 2,000-plus words above, your biggest obstacle still looms.
Simple distractions that you might otherwise never notice can derail any train of thought when you are working from home.
How to Deal With Other People
Friends, family, neighbors and even door-to-door salespeople can find surprising ways to intrude upon your productivity.
“When I first started working from home, I didn’t turn down social plans,” Get Rich Slowly’s Lisa Aberle writes. “You want me to come over for coffee? Sure!”
Aberle says she found relief in simply creating a schedule and forcing herself to stick to it. “While I deviate from the schedule sometimes, both from planned outings and emergencies, I have to find another hole in the schedule to replace my work time.”
A Zirtual assistant named Kelly Schulz writes about the challenges of dealing with strangers on the company’s blog.
“If you do live in an area that receives frequent visits from salespeople or people trying to convince you to vote a certain way, you may find yourself being constantly distracted from your work,” she writes. “The best way to handle this distraction is to either get good at telling people to go away as nicely and as quickly as possible or just get a sign for your door.”
Your Own Home as a Distraction
When you have a moment of lost concentration, even things such as dishes in the sink or dirty laundry can pull you away from your work.
This goes back to Ka Wai’s reasoning for painting his office a different color than any other room in his house. Your office needs to mentally get you away from the rest of your home.
“If you don’t separate your workspace and your home space, you will always feel like you are at work,” Jack Wallen writes at TechRepublic. “That feeling will do a serious number on your psyche. Don’t let it happen.
“Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of a spare room to serve as an office. In that case, do what you can to separate your work area from the rest of the home. This may mean using curtains or a standing screen to block your office from the rest of the house — or working in a basement. If you can’t do that, at least make sure to step away from your work desk at the end of the day and don’t look back.
A Word About Procrastination
Without colleagues and bosses around, you only have yourself to answer to in that moment when you feel the desire to slack off.
It’s easy to procrastinate when your time is unstructured and your train of thought has gone off-track.
“Procrastination is an enemy of everyone with a deadline and working at home means it is liable to be on your top 5 list, too,” entrepreneur Kent Isakson writes at LinkedIn. “Divide your time so you only work when it’s time to work. Don’t stop to do the dishes or vacuum the house — take breaks at scheduled times only.”
If you find yourself susceptible to procrastinating and enjoy a little irony, one of the best resources is Wait But Why’s classic post “How to Beat Procrastination.”
Now, mentally step out of your home workspace and embrace the bigger picture.
Technology has enabled millions of people worldwide to earn a living and get work done from the comforts of home.
Author, speaker and entrepreneur Jurgen Appelo argues this is not a fundamental shift in how we work, though. It’s just a question of shifting which spaces we occupy.
“When you have no specific reasons to get together at an office, and you’re able to work anywhere, then I believe your work does not deserve a special attribute such as ‘remote,’” he writes at LinkedIn.
“You’re just a worker. Instead, in the 21st century, working from anywhere will become the norm. And to the people who are tied to an office, the future generations will say, ‘Oh, you are an office worker? How fascinating! Yes, I think my parents once told me about that concept. Sounds challenging!’”