I’m an expert at home offices. I say this because over the years I’ve pretty much had a cornucopia of different versions of them. I started with the classic starter home office of a computer on a dining room table and i’ve scaled my home offices to the point where I have literally built one from a pile of wood to something that can best be described as a tiny office building complete with a bathroom and HVAC. I designed my current home office into our relatively new home and I’ve designed a second one into the same home for my wife. I share this because home offices have been a topic more and more with people who I interface with. When I got started in my career this wasn’t the case. I had my first home office because after college I happened to fall into one of the careers (remote field sales) that called for it.
Home offices and working from home is no longer an oddity for the sales guy or a luxury for the executive. As network and communication technologies advance in lockstep with the growing portability of computing devices, working with a lot of information in remote locations is perfectly doable for a huge percentage of industries. Professionals tend to spend a great deal of their time communicating digitally and working with lots of information and so therefore they are the greatest beneficiaries of this trend. Hence telecommuting and the resulting need for home offices have become a standard of the modern working economy.
First a point on remote working in general. There really are two schools of thought on telecommuting. For the organizations that tend towards micromanagement or traditional structure they are considered a tool to only be used when necessary, for example keeping an employee on board who may have a long-term personal challenge that limits their ability to come into the office every day. More and more though, organizations are embracing the home office as a working environment that should be fostered and promoted. It tends to be a win-win for both the organization and the individual. For the organization it limits exposure to the sometimes very high cost of providing an office workspace and provides a benefit to the natural environment as well as to the quality of life of the employee. In my experience it also fosters higher levels of productivity because of the lack of distractions at home vs. the office. Unfortunately part of the productivity gain can be attributed to the blurring of the lines between work time and non-work time. For the employee, the ability to work from a home office tends to be a more quality of life enhancer. If you need to get the laundry done or pick-up a sick kid from school, it’s not really negatively impactful to the job to move the clothing from the washer to the dryer or get junior during a quick break. Since your boss doesn’t always have to know what you do in your few minutes of downtime here and there, life can become just a tad bit easier. There really is much to be explored when it comes to the wholistic subject of telecommuting for the professional, but for this article I thought I’d zero in on the one area I feel like I can share some well learned lessons which is why i’m going to focus on home offices.
The modern day reality is that home offices are a thing that most professionals have either dealt with or will deal with throughout their career. Like every other skill in the professionals toolbox managing a home office needs to be learned. That management starts with design. A cardboard table in the corner of a bedroom may technically work but it’s not a good long-term solution. I know, as I said I worked this way for a few years, thankfully before I had kids. I don’t see how it’s possible when you have children. So what are the goals in home office design? To have a place to work that engages you, that is personal, comfortable, and yet is highly productive. Some of my lessons and best practices are listed here.
I think one lesson i’ve learned that I haven’t quite nailed in any of my existing designs is this concept of an office being a part of the home versus having some separation from it. I always think of the Bill Bruford Earthworks album “A part and yet apart” when I think of this because that phrase quantifies exactly what I’m shooting for. When my office was a physically separate building from the home getting in between the office into the house was a bit of a pain especially when it came to inclement weather not to mention the day a big black snake decided to sun himself right between the office and the house. Natural barriers aside, the separate building also required separate HVAC and plumbing systems making the investment and the management of the office building much greater. On the inverse side when I turned the bonus room into a man cave / office it was too easy for people, especially little people, to just walk in on me when I was having a call or recording something for the podcast. Even if they physical stayed out the noises they made would come through my purposefully heavily insulated walls. I’ve seen some home designs where the bonus room has to be accessed via a stairwell in the garage. I think that little bit of effort to go out of the house into the garage and then back up the stairs into the office space would be enough of a separation to keep the sounds and interactions of the house proper far enough away to make the home office seem completely apart from the primary home yet there are still the benefits of walking down the stairs and being in the home. One of those benefits is that the odds of one of nature’s neighbors sliterning up unexpectedly and hanging out at the bottom of the stairs are slim, at least if you keep the garage door closed.
It should have easy access to it’s own bathroom. Whether you’re a health nut and drinking eight glasses of water a day or you’re sucking down caffeinated drinks to keep your energy level up using the restroom with regularity is something that most people do. If you’re forced to go to the house proper then you’re opening yourself up to potential unplanned distractions. A little bonus to having an office bathroom is that if the other bathrooms in the house are occupied, even during your non-office hours, you have the benefit of a private little escape with your favorite reading material ready for you.
It needs to have excellent broadband. You would think that this would go without saying, but it is amazing how much work you can get done even with constrained speeds. The problem with poor internet is that it slows you down and mitigates much of the benefits of the lack of distractions afforded by a home office. This is one of those Catch-22’s that I discussed when I talked about the benefits of rural life. It’s hard to telecommute or be efficient if your constantly waiting for websites and documents to load.
Assuming you have good enough internet for it, an offshoot of having good broadband means you must be prepared for teleconferencing. I’ve seen some salespeople have a curtain behind them as they do live webinars, but I believe that your office should look like a regular working office. That means everything behind you that potential professional colleagues could see should be on message. Being on message means that you should be displaying company knickknacks inclusive of branding and event giveaways. There should be office equipment and furniture that looks very professional, at the level of or better than, the corporate office. A good rule of thumb is to handle your office like you handle your professional dress. Have an office that on camera looks like the kind of office and executive in your company would work in. Remember a picture is worth a thousand words. You can also use a little office conference table to have lunch if you don’t want to go to the kitchen downstairs.
On that note i’ve designed home offices with kitchenettes and without. Although I like having a sink in my office to fill my tea kettle, I find the microwave doesn’t get used as much as I thought and a refrigerator can be overkill. The fridge does help with additional household cold storage, so having a fridge / freezer in your home office is a bit of a toss up in terms of recommendation. It’s a net positive overall but i’ve found that as long as I have a source of water, and maybe a microwave I don’t really need anything else. If your are designing your home office, make sure to put in proper electrical and water hookups for putting in a kitchenette later if you don’t’ choose to do it immediately but obviously this recommendation is good only if your budget can support it.
On this note it’s a good best practice to keep it and manage it as a professional office like other people are there. Part of this is because having an environment that is kept up like the main office will keep you in a professional and productive state of mind. Part of it is because a professional colleague or customer may visit. Yes it’s rare, but I found it does happen from time to time if you are being effective at what you do. As I alluded to earlier, having an executive style little conference table for two or three people is not a bad idea. As an added bonus If jr. is not feeling well and has to stay at home it’s a good place for them to sit and watch videos or do homework while you keep an eye on them while you work
It’s best if you have good office equipment that is permanent, IE if you telecommute the only thing you want to bring in is your laptop and have keyboards and mice and big monitors and all that stuff at both offices. One thing that’s always bugged me is how companies generally assign only a single IP phone to an employee if they want the employee on the company phone system. I personally believe that it’s worth paying for your own second IP phone or fighting to get a second phone permanently placed at your home office so you don’t have to haul that one back and forth if you have regular days at the corporate office. This just makes sense.
Ultimately a home office should be exactly like a work office. Yes, the negative is like so many other things in our modern professional life the risk and investment is now set squarely on the individual. I’ve seen people bristle at shouldering this, but for me the benefits far outweigh the cons. I like being able to control my environment so much that i’m very happy to pay for it. If I want to have a Sports Illustrated Beach Beauty Callander on the wall, not in view of the teleconferencing camera of course, then Ms. Female empowerment can’t complain. Ditto if I want to have a ton of pop culture anime and comic book figures adorning the shelves of my office. Then Mr hyper professional can’t complain that my office looks too childlike and unprofessional. If I want a 32” computer monitor at work so I can pretend my eyes aren’t aging with the rest of me, then I don’t have to accept the tiny standard monitor thats distributed to the individual contributors. It’s the same with the type of chair I choose to sit in. Ditto for the music, lighting, and any other environmental element that I may enjoy and others may not.
My great grandpa used to say that you should never worry about cost and always get the best shoes and best mattress you can afford because you spend ½ your life on your feet and ½ your life on your back. I would say that the modern equivalent is you should get the best home office you can afford because you’ll spend over ½ your life in it, and if your going to be stuck at work, it might as well be the most enjoyable place you can possibly make it!
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