Working from home: for some, it’s The Dream. No commute, no dress code, no question as to whose job it is to clean the coffee maker. No sad breakroom birthday cakes or awkward water-cooler banter. No listening to Earl from accounting tell the same story about his vacation to Cabo in ‘04.
What’s not to love?
But The Dream has a pitfall: conflating your home and your home office to the point where you don’t get much done. A laptop on the couch, friends, is not a home office. There’s a subconscious psychology to home work that you ignore at your peril. You have to purposefully, intentionally design your home workspace for maximum productivity.
Depending on your approach, working from home can be the best, or worst, thing you can do for your business. Use the following tips to ensure that your home office is conducive to success.
Keep ‘em Separated
The first rule of the productive home office is that it has to be its own space.
Your office must be your office, and nothing else. When my business/life partner Nicole and I chose our current house, one of our first priorities was to choose where we’d work, because that room would no longer be eligible for the role of bedroom, or guest room, or workout room.
We’re not saying you have to seal yourself off like a hermit. But your working space, like your working time, has to be dedicated to a single purpose.
Your office must be behind solid walls and (closed) doors. Yes, your kitchen has a dining table. Your living room has a coffee table. But if you try to work in and among the rest of your home — even if no one else is home — your productivity will suffer, guaranteed.
The office is the office, period.
Importantly, keeping your office separate from the rest of your home doesn’t just protect your work time and space from the rest of your life. It protects the rest of your life from your work!
When you take a break (which you should, regularly), or when you’re done for the day, you need to physically “leave.” The psychological benefits of having a physical barrier between work and not-work create a more productive workday and a healthier personal life.
In the end, you’ll find you can accomplish more in 3 hours of focused isolation than you can in 6 to 8 hours of working in the living room. You’ll also find yourself more fully relaxed in your off-time.
Work Stuff Only
Not only must your office be work-only; the contents of your office must be work-only, too.
Only objects with a specific work-related function should be allowed in this room. If it’s not helping you do your job, it goes. That’s not to say everything has to be a direct working tool (plants, for example, can’t type or code, but they’re still good to have), but you can’t allow distractions, even visual ones.
Again, this helps maintain the separation of workspace from non-work space.
If you need a coffee or a snack, you should have to leave your “office” to get it. If it’s time to work out, you should have to go to wherever you keep the exercise equipment. Wanna watch the news? Head to the living room. It’s all part of managing your mindset, so that you subconsciously enter a productive “work mode” the second you cross the office threshold.
A depressing workspace is just as unproductive as a distracting one.
I’ve been pretty adamant in this post about how “functional” your home office has to be, but that doesn’t mean it has to be sterile or sad. After all, entrepreneurs are supposed to enjoy work, right? Natural sunlight and plant life is key to a happy workspace. Our biology simply works that way.
There’s a reason the phrase “windowless room” is shorthand for “saddest possible place.” Our bodies get a lot from the sun (Vitamin D comes to mind), but our mental health is totally dependent on that friendly star, too. Windows with natural light help us avoid the feeling of being “trapped,” both literally and figuratively, by our work.
Similarly, plants provide both physical and emotional benefits. They clean the air in a room, and help fight the feeling of being isolated from the natural world. Like it or not, even the most hardened city-dweller is biologically wired to be soothed by organic life and green spaces.
And by the way, natural sunlight is also the most flattering for filming videos and live conferencing. Bonus.
Keep A Clean Desk
A cluttered desk, piled with papers and office gadgets, is a surefire productivity killer. If you have things you don’t need on your desk, you will get distracted, and you will get slowed down. If you have too many things you do need on your desk, you’re doing too many things at once!
Your desk, like your office, should be a minimalist paradise, a zen statement on the nature of focus. A keyboard, a monitor, a pen and pad; unless you’re using it at the moment, there really shouldn’t be anything else out. If you’re not using it, put it away (more on storage below). This will keep you focused on one task at a time.
As to the whole standing vs. sitting debate, that’s a matter of preference. Volumes of research have concluded that standing is far healthier (“sitting is the new smoking,” in terms of heart disease), but being on your feet all day has its drawbacks, too.
I prefer a compromise: a standing desk with a high drafting stool. This way, I can stand most of the time, but fall back into a seated position when I need to.
Like your office, like your desk, your walls should be (you guessed it) clean and functional. Again, this does not mean plain, sterile, and sad. It just means not distracting.
A neutral, soothing color, with minimal decoration, will have the best effect on your subconscious. Some entrepreneurs use a large wall calendar, which is a good way to plot and reference long-term goals that are harder to envision on a daily or weekly calendar. Others use a whiteboard or chalkboard with tasks or goals for the day or week.
And yes, a little artwork is ok, as long as it’s soothing, non-distracting, and more of a background thing than an object of focus.
For those of us who shoot videos and video-conference, you’ll need at least one wall to use as a background. Naturally, you’ll want it to be clean and neutral (we have simple blank paper on ours), and ideally facing a window to allow natural lighting of your face.
Keeping your space clean requires a strong storage game. Again, the idea is to only pursue one task at a time, and to only have out the tools you need for that task. That’s where multi-functional furniture comes in.
Desk or desk-adjacent drawers are good, as are whatever closets the room features. In our home office, we keep a large ottoman/bench from IKEA that has space inside. There, we keep tech, cables, and various other things we use on a less-than-daily basis. When it’s time to break out things like lights and cameras for filming, we simply take them out and put them on spots we’ve marked on the floor with some gaffer tape.
Don’t fall for all the “cool” storage solutions you see in office stores, things that hold your stuff while still leaving it all visible. Clear or otherwise exposed storage creates a kind of visual chaos that won’t serve your subconscious well. Ideally, someone should be able to look into your office and not even know there’s anything in there but a desk and computer.
This one’s tough.
For some with very busy minds, music — even the fast-paced kind many would find distracting — helps focus. For others, a little light classical keeps the brain stimulated without causing distraction. For others, dead silence is the only option. I find that writing with music playing is almost impossible, but non-creative tasks are more enjoyable with a little background melody.
Research tends to indicate that music (even without lyrics) is a net distraction, statistically lowering productivity. But as with many things, what works for you is all that matters. Run an experiment, and see if you can measure how much you get done with and without music. Proceed accordingly.
When you’re ready to work at home, don’t just plop yourself down at the first flat surface. Design your home office with intent. Keep it clean, keep it comfortable, and keep it minimal. The best part about working from home, from a business perspective, is that you’re in control.
It’s up to you to create the space that gets the most done, freeing yourself up to enjoy the world outside your office as much as possible.