Having worked from home for over six years, people come to me often asking for advice on the topic. With more people working at home than ever, despite Yahoo’s protestations, these questions have become more frequent in the last year.
People usually start by asking for basic advice, and I give it to them straight:
Create an office and use it only for work.
Objections come quick and heavily after I levy this advice. Some protest the cost — they cannot afford another computer — but given PC prices these days that falls mostly on deaf ears. If you can’t justify investing $400 or $500 on your home business, how can you expect to succeed? Yet most people understand that, so it is not the most common objection.
What people most commonly say is that they don’t have a spare room in which to house an office. There might seem to be no way around this problem, but there absolutely is. You have to change your concept of what you consider a room, and you’ll have to make some cosmetic changes to a larger room in your house, but you can quite easily create a home office literally anywhere in your home.
This is my home office. It sits in the corner of the main room in my one-bedroom apartment. When I lived alone, I used to work at a desk in my bedroom. Since my bedroom now sleeps two, that has become impossible. Chances are if you are married or living with a significant other, working in your bedroom is equally impossible for you.
What can my home office teach people who need to construct one, but who don’t have a dedicated room to do so? I’ve broken it down into three fundamental features.
# 1. Close off the area
When I first moved in with my fiancé, my desk faced the corner. I got this from Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. Problem was, there was nothing that could close me in. My office space is fixed and limited, as I imagine yours might be. Slapping the desk in the corner seemed like the simplest solution to a simple problem. Yet one problem persisted during this time: it never felt like I was “going to work.”
While my brain understands that work is something we do, and not somewhere we go, years of conditioning have made it tough to do work if I’m not at work. When I redesigned my office area, I kept in mind the idea that the area needed to feel like an office. That meant putting walls on at least two sides of me, rather than just one. It also meant creating something of an entrance, a place I’d have to step through — thereby signifying that I was going to work.
Perhaps you possess the necessary discipline and don’t have to convince yourself that you’re at work before you can start doing work. I know a few people who can work like that, but in my experience they’re the exceptions. Creating an office atmosphere is the first key to a productive home office. Close off your area, and it will seem as though you’re going to work at the office. It’s not quite as good as a dedicated room, but some of us don’t have that luxury.
# 2. Give yourself working space
When I assembled my office, I got lucky. My fiancé had a drafting table that she didn’t need, so I had a desk with plenty of surface area ready to go. When you need room for two monitors, an external hard drive, an external speaker, a keyboard, a notepad, and a physical inbox (can’t stress those enough), you certainly need plenty of surface area. In the picture above you can see my old desk, which just was not large enough for the job. It has been re-purposed, and helps close off my office. But for the task at hand it is not suitable.
While a drafting table works for me, I actually don’t recommend anyone go buy one for their home office. Unless you absolutely need an adjustable height, it’s an unnecessary expense. (And since the table is incredibly difficult to adjust while you have computer monitors sitting on it, you probably won’t use this feature much anyway.) What I recommend is that you go get some lumber from the Home Depot and follow some plans for building a desk. It’s not only cheaper, but it will allow you to create a desk perfectly tailored to your needs.
You don’t have to follow this advice. You can work with whatever desk you have, even if it has little to no working space on it. But I have a feeling that after a few months of working this way, you’ll understand the value of having an adequate working surface.
# 3. Use modular storage
You might have the skills to build a desk, but chances are you don’t have the skills, or the patience, to build drawers into it. Yet, as I learned very early on, a desk without drawers leads to unmanageable clutter. At that point a large, comfortable working surface turns int a mound of papers, gadgets, cords, and other detritus that is better stored out of eyesight. The trash bin might be a useful place to start, but you won’t throw out everything.
I recommend three types of modular storage to help you keep your non-office office organized.
- Storage drawers. You can buy multi-sized plastic stackable drawers on the cheap at any big box retailer. They’re great, because they fit right under your desk. You can stack small ones on top of large, giving yourself virtual drawers for your custom desk.
- Physical inbox. You might not see it in the picture above, but I keep a wire inbox on my desk at all times. We work in an increasingly digital world, but every at-home worker will have an ample amount of physical items to process. Having a single physical inbox helps keep everything in order.
- Filing crate. We all need a place to file away documents that we don’t need to access regularly. A simple filing crate, along with hanging file folders, will suffice for nearly everyone.
At some point in the future perhaps people will separate the idea of going to work from the idea of doing work. But the great majority of people who work from home previously worked in an office. They were also raised with the idea that work is a place that you go in addition to something you do. As long as that mindset persists, at-home workers need to adapt. By creating a dedicated office that is set off, that contains ample surface working area, and that utilizes modular storage, will be a more productive environment than a desk in the corner of the room.
We don’t all have spare rooms to house an office, but we can still make an office out of any space in the home – even a one-bedroom apartment.
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