With the rise of internet connectivity, it is increasingly feasible to work from anywhere, and simply rely on technology to accomplish key tasks and facilitate important communication. Which for many, is appealing simply to escape the distractions of the busy office environment. Not to mention the opportunity to reduce what for many is a 15-mile driving commute down to a 15-foot walk down the hall!
The caveat, however, is that the traditional office environment provides a lot of structure that is actually very important to maintain personal productivity. As a result, shifting to a home office environment may increase available time – by eliminating the commute and the work colleague distractions – but may not necessarily improve productivity, given the introduction of all the distractions of home and family!
Consequently, to maintain personal productivity in a home office environment, it’s necessary to establish some “office” structure of your own. Including having an office space that is physically separate – at a minimum, with four walls and a door that you can close – to establish (both to family and in your own head) when you’re really “at work” and should not be interrupted with the distractions of home. Similarly, even though you’re at home and can work “anytime”, it’s more effective in practice to have set Office Hours when you intend to be in your office and working… both to set expectations (for yourself and family), and so that you can draw the line of when to stop working (or else, for workaholics in particular, a home office can become all-consuming!).
In addition, it’s important to recognize that while working from home can eliminate the distractions of work colleagues, most people will ultimately crave at least some human interaction with others. Which means those who choose to work from a home office need a plan to deal with the loss of human interaction. From using technology for video conferencing to conduct team (and client) meetings, to using chat tools to maintain inter-office conversation and social interaction, engaging in social media (as a true social engagement channel), and even joining a local association or networking group to have opportunities outside the house, it’s vital to have a plan to maintain your social connections, as one of the most common reasons that people stop working from home is the feeling of social isolation.
And for those who are happy working from home, and intend to do so for a long time to come – be certain to (re-)invest into making your home office into a real space of your own for work, from buying quality office furniture and a comfortable work chair, a good keyboard and mouse, well-sized screens, and even creating multiple workspaces in your home office (to the extent that space allows)… as even though the office may be in your home, you should still treat it like a real office, especially since you may spend a lot of cumulative hours of time there in the years to come!
Working From A Home Office Means Physically Creating “Office Space”
The first key to being able to work from a home office is to establish a physical space that is your “home office”. The space should have walls, and more importantly, a door.
The significance of having a physically discreet “office space” (with a door) for your home office is that it helps to establish a formal barrier between your personal space and your workspace – not just with respect to the physical setup, but the mental barriers that have to be drawn between work and personal space in order to successfully be able to work from home.
In my case, the home office space is nothing more than our last bedroom, which I took over to make into my office. (Depending on your home setup, this could be a study, a den, a bedroom, a loft, or a basement!) Nonetheless, despite the fact that a bedroom is normally part of our personal family space – and is literally right across the hallway from my daughters’ room) – this is now understood by my family to be “Daddy’s Office” (as I have 3 young children!), and when I’m in that bedroom and the door is closed (which it always is when I’m inside, in order to honor the discreet working space), the family has to pretend I’m not home at all. I’m at work.
Establishing Family Rules And Office Hours For Your Home Office Space
Part of the effectiveness of having a discrete physical space for your home office is that it helps to get you into the right mental mode. When you’re in your office, you’re working. When you’re not, you’re not.
However, the physical dividing line of the home office space is also an important line to draw with family, as well.
My agreement with my family is that when I’m “in my office”, I’m at work. While I may still be physically in the house, as far as my family is concerned, I might as well be at an office that is up the street or across town. I’m “not home”. Which means I’m “not here” to help with chores, screaming kids, or household tasks – just as I wouldn’t be able to at the time if I was out at work in another office location. Respecting this work/personal boundary with family is challenging, but is crucial to ensure that you can productively work in your home office workspace with the distractions that normally crop up at home.
In fact, if my wife wants to touch base with me during the working day, she will send me a text message (either via cell phone, or via our family Slack channel). That may seem strange, especially at the times when we’re both in the house together, but again – the whole point is that I’m not “in the house”… I’m at work when I’m in the home office and the door is closed!
Notably, though, an important aspect of honoring the home office workspace is that it should only be workspace, and not also a personal/play space. In other words, be cautious not to make your home office into your personal recreational space (e.g., by also making it into your den, or reading room, or TV room, or “man cave”)… because during your personal time, you should still be accessible to (or often sharing the time with!) your family, unlike when you’re in your workspace. As I’ve learned from experience, using workspace as personal space blurs the work/personal line with family in problematic ways. (Because now they don’t know when you’re “home” on personal time, where it’s OK to interrupt, versus when you’re “home” for office time, where it’s not appropriate to interrupt.)
Similarly, it’s important to consider setting “Office Hours” for yourself. As for those who live to work (and don’t simply work to live) and actually enjoy their work, it can be hard to walk away from work when the home office is literally right there in your home. While “Office Hours” can be communicated to family simply by setting a rule that when you’re in your office, you’re in your office (and not “home”), from a personal perspective, setting a schedule for yourself – of when you will begin work, and when you intend to stop working – may be helpful to set personal boundaries. In my own case, I aim to start work – by being in my physical home office space – between 8:30AM and 9:00AM, and I work until around 6PM and then spend dinner time with family, occasionally coming back to my office to work for another hour or two after 9PM once the kids go to sleep.
Taking Work Breaks And Finding Social Interaction
Even the hardest of workers in a traditional office workspace don’t typically just stay in their offices and work straight through the working day. In part, this is because meetings may arise, and/or work colleagues may occasionally interrupt (for good or not-so-good reasons). And sometimes, it’s just because we crave a brief mental break, an opportunity for some fresh air, and a little social interaction. Thus why the office water cooler often becomes the gathering place (and gossip hub) that it does.
However, one of the big challenges of working from home is that there are no colleagues there with you. There may be no one at all to provide that social interaction. And while the interruptions of work colleagues can sometimes be disruptive, it turns out one of the primary reasons why many people give up on working from home is the feeling of isolation and lack of social interaction.
Accordingly, successfully working from home (at least, for a sustained period of time) requires having a plan on how to create those social connections and “spontaneous” interactions with colleagues that help to fuel personal team connectedness and even creativity.
Personally, my starting point for social interaction is through social media, and is one of the reasons why I have become so engaged on various platforms, particularly Twitter. When I need to take a 5-minute mental break, that’s an opportunity for me to check-in on Twitter (my desktop Twitter app of choice is TweetDeck), look at some of the latest buzz, and respond to questions and comments sent to me. (Notably, I generally limit myself to only a 5-minute break on social media, to keep from getting “sucked in”!)
My next output for social engagement is with my family. With a stay-at-home spouse, and young children who are not yet in school full time, taking a “break” from work for a few minutes involves leaving my office, going to the main living area of the house, and spending a little time with my family. Here, again, I must set a mental line of how long of a break I intend to take – to avoid getting sucked into a personal activity and not getting back to work – but personally, the time to get a little mid-day time with the kids helps to keep me balanced in what are otherwise still fairly long work days for me.
Another way to round out social interaction with others – particularly, with professional colleagues – is to be engaged with a (local) association, such as a local FPA chapter or NAPFA study group. Going to regular association meetings, and/or even getting involved as a local (or national committee) volunteer, provides a much-needed social output to engage with peers, especially for those who work from home (or otherwise feel isolated in small offices). It’s no coincidence that the bulk of active membership in the advisor association groups are from smaller independent firms. And this is why I was involved from the early days of my career in both local FPA chapter leadership (as a former chapter president), and got involved in several national committees and conferences. Of course in today’s world, I’m also traveling to conferences on a nearly weekly basis for speaking engagements, which also provides a comfortable balance of social interaction with professional colleagues when I otherwise work from home.
For those who work from a home office, but are not solo practitioners – i.e., they have a virtual team, or work from a home office as part of a firm that also has a(nother) physical office location – using technology tools to support team interaction can also help. This can include doing “formal” team meetings with video conferencing tools, as well as using platforms like Google Hangouts or Slack video (or even Sococo) to support more impromptu video meetings. Online (team) chatting apps like Salesforce Chatter or Slack can also help support social interaction. For instance, with some of my virtual teams, we have dedicated Slack channels for just “daily work chat” (to support intra-team chatter) and even a “random funnies” channel (for when you want to share something fun and entertaining with colleagues, just because!).
Notably, when working from home, it’s also important to have opportunities to simply step out for a breath of fresh air. Personally, I’ll do a “walk-and-talk” and take conference calls on a headset and walk around outside if the call doesn’t specifically require begin in front of a computer, just to get fresh air. And occasionally will go to work at a local coffeehouse instead of the home office, just for a change of pace and an opportunity to get out of the house and home office for a little while.
On the other hand, one of the key challenges of working from home – especially with small children at home – is that anytime you’re not in your home office space, family may try to engage you, and children will want to play. Which means, ironically, it can be very challenging if you actually just need to step out of your office briefly – for instance, because you really just want to get a drink of water, and not because you’re looking for water cooler conversation. As a result, I keep a compact mini-refrigerator in my home office, stocked with water, so that I don’t actually need to step out of the office if I really just want to refill my drink!
Invest In Creating A Comfortable Work Space
In the world of traditional offices, we often have to take what we get when it comes to our office space (unless, perhaps, you’re the boss or owner, and then have at least a little more control). The good news, though, is that “office space is office space”, and most tends to be configured similarly anyway (with ‘standard’ office furniture).
The good news about a home office space is that you have total control over how to design the space. The bad news, however, is that often the space was not already an office space, and as a result, it’s easy to just work in the space as it exists, rather than making it into your optimal workspace. Given how much time you’re likely to spend in your home office space, though – especially since, even if your job or business or firm affiliation changes, this may still be your office space for the long run – it’s worth making the investment. In addition, creating a “real” office space – designed as such – also helps to put you into the right mental focus that this is really your workspace, and not just your working-from-a-bedroom (or den, or basement) space.
Which means your home office space should have a real desk. And a high-quality desk chair for all the time you’re going to sit in it. Alternatively, if you prefer, invest in a good standing desk setup for your home office (personally, I use the VariDesk Pro Plus 48, which I bought to place on top of the existing desk I had that I didn’t want to get rid of).
Similarly, invest in a good wireless keyboard and mouse (mine is the HP Wireless Elite 2), and a good large monitor or dual-monitor setup (I work using a pair of these huge 32” LED monitors). (You can either attach them to a standalone desktop computer, or to your laptop via a laptop docking station so you have a larger workspace than a small laptop screen and keyboard.)
If you’re going to be doing a lot of video meetings, buy a quality webcam as well (mine is the LogiTech C920). Also, bear in mind that if you’re doing a lot of video meetings, you should have an appropriate and professional-looking background behind you (or at least, back up against a neutral-colored wall). And be certain to upgrade your home internet connection to a reasonable speed capable of supporting high-speed streaming video (generally at least 10Mbps of download and upload speeds to be reasonably assumed of smooth video feeds).
It’s also important to recognize that a traditional office space often has multiple different work environments. You may work in your office. You may sit at an office table with a colleague. You may work together in the lunchroom or wherever you go out for lunch. You may meet in a conference room. Yet in your home office, there’s just your office and your desk. As a result, give consideration to how you might vary your home office working spaces as well. In practice, real-world space constraints are often limiting. But even in my home-office-bedroom space, I have both a (standing) desk setup, and on the other side of the room is a comfortable recliner chair where I can work on my laptop. And sometimes I’ll grab my laptop and go to a local coffeehouse as well, just for a change of pace.
Setting Office Hours And Conducting Client Meetings
One important caveat to remember when considering a home office space is that there’s difference between a home office space where you work, and a home office space where you conduct client meetings. In other words, just because you have a home office for you, doesn’t mean you (necessarily) have to make it a meeting space with/for clients as well.
In practice, some advisors are happy to meet with clients at their home office – especially if their physical home office setup is conducive to having a separate space with its own entrance. But for others, their home configuration and office setup may not “work” very well as a client-facing workspace. And some advisors may be concerned that a home office space doesn’t communicate the kind of professional credibility they wish to convey.
In my own personal case, my home office is simply where I personally do my individual work, but we also have several dedicated office spaces for the advisory firm itself (and the rest of the team that works in the business). As a result, any client meetings I cannot do virtually via a video conference call and webcam, or at the client’s office (or a restaurant where appropriate), can simply be done in the conference rooms at one of our firm’s office locations.
For those who work solely from a home office, in lieu of having any other kind of office space at all, it may be appealing to buy meeting room space at “part-time” office and co-working spaces like Regus or WeWork. As simply buying access to conference/meeting rooms “as needed” for client meetings can be much cheaper than actually leasing a full-time office space, for those who otherwise want to (or financially need to) work from home.
Ultimately, the key to maintaining productivity when working from a home office is structure. From the physical structure – of having a discrete space, with a door, to be able to close out external noises and distractions – to the mental separation of either being “at work” (in the home office space) or not (by leaving your home office for the rest of the house). That structure helps both in your personal productivity of being clear with yourself about when you’re really working (or not), and also to establish boundaries with family (especially children) about what is work time and what is personal time.
Yet it’s also important to recognize that certain aspects of a traditional office workspace – from convenient locations to meet with clients or team members, to the social interaction when you have co-workers – may be absent from a home office work location, and requires establishing your own deliberate structure to bring back, in some combination of software and technology (video conferencing and chat tools) to forcing yourself out of your home office and into other environments (e.g., alternative workspaces, or networking meetings with local association events).
Once you establish the structure, though, it’s remarkable how productive you can be from a home office location. Especially for those who enjoy the time savings of switching from what might be a 15-mile commute down to a 15-foot walk down the hallway!
So what do you think? Do you work from a home office? What have you found was helpful to establish the structure to maintain your home office productivity? Any problems that you’re still struggling to work through? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!