You Don’t Have the Space
Having the proper space is especially important when working from home. A dedicated workspace that has all the equipment you need to complete your work is essential. There is nothing more frustrating, especially for someone who has been used to the more traditional in-office environment, than to find you can’t complete a simple task because you are lacking a tool as basic as a stapler.
But it goes beyond this. As we will look at in Chapter 4, “Working from Home,” the space that you work in can directly affect your productivity. Short-term, interim spaces are fine when you just need to rattle off a few emails. That type of work can be done from pretty much anywhere. Heck, I do that sitting on the couch in front of the TV from a laptop. However, can you imagine if your couch were your only workspace? Or perhaps the dining room table, the kitchen counter, or your bed?
This type of thing happened to an Out of Office worker who moved to a smaller place:
- Working from home did work for a while as long as I had a specific place at home dedicated to work—i.e., created an office. But after I moved, I thought I could do with a smaller place by combining and creating multiuse spaces. It didn’t work. I found that working in the office—i.e., having a dedicated space and place—makes me more productive. There are less distractions.
Again, the emphasis is mine. Although the idea of a multiuse space seems great—and of course less square footage usually means less rent—obviously an opportunity cost is associated with a smaller space. A multiuse space must constantly be reconfigured to suit the activity at the time. Therefore, if your office space is also your dining area, then when you are done working you have to change it back, and when you are finished dining it has to be returned to the work space before you can recommence work. Otherwise, you just become undisciplined and try and work in your dining space or eat in your work space and find, as this person did, that the distractions are just too great.
How productive would you be if these places were your full-time work space? I’d hazard a guess and say not very. We are all more productive when we are comfortable; the right height desk, the right height chair, and so on, all make a difference. Beyond the physical aspect is the familiarity aspect of a regular work space. Knowing that a particular room is your office and that, when needed, you can shut the door, thereby controlling the space, is incredibly important to most people. In fact, the lack of privacy and inability to shut out distractions is one argument against the cubicle farms that are so pervasive in today’s offices.
Knowing where everything is and having it at hand increases our productivity and decreases workplace stress.
So thinking about your workplace and how you will set it up is an important step to take before committing to the Out of Office work style. Is your spare bedroom really going to work as an office? Is the noise from the furnace in the basement going to distract you if you set up down there? Can you afford to make the environmental changes to the property to provide an office space that is both usable and comfortable?
Although these are challenges, working from home at least gives you options regarding the space you use and how you use it. Working Out of Office in public spaces provides much less choice about the space and how it is used. You can rearrange tables and chairs in a coffee shop, but not in a way that inconveniences other patrons, and spreading across a couple of tables with your computer, paperwork, and other items is definitely not going to make you popular.
Other places become even more restrictive. On an airplane, for example, does your computer fit on the drop-down tray? What happens when the person in front of you pushes their seat back and suddenly that small amount of space is reduced even further? Space is an important aspect of our working environment, to the point that most states legislate the amount of space an individual should have as a working environment in commercial properties.
With the best intentions you have of working anywhere, the challenges of doing so can seem insurmountable. One of the major issues of working in a space that you don’t own is the lack of control. It can be the smallest of details that provides hurdles. For example, you finally find that spot at the gate in the airport that has a power outlet that isn’t being used. You get yourself comfortable, get your laptop plugged in, and start working; you even manage to connect to the free Wi-Fi. Perfect, you are being productive with your wait time. Then you realize that you need a biological break—which means you have to tear down your temporary workspace, pack it up, and head to the restroom, knowing that the chances that the outlet you found will still be vacant are slim at best. The power vultures are already circling, watching you shift in your seat.
I know I am not the only one this has happened to. I’ve even taken advantage of this happening to other travelers, watching their look of longing and regret as they unplug their devices and pack them up, knowing that I am going to swoop in and set up my own shop as soon as they vacate.
So bad can the power vultures be that I’ve even found them unplugging me and plugging in their own device; this happened most recently at a conference where I was trying to work during a session. I suddenly noticed the power warning light on my laptop illuminate. I knew I had plugged into an outlet just behind me. I turned around to find that someone had unplugged my cord and plugged in their phone. They looked completely unabashed at me when I asked them to re-plug my cord; they simply shrugged and did it.
The need to control our workspace and the need to remain connected to our alternate world of email, social media, company intranet, and so on, often outweighs our need to be social to those around us. Space is what we want, but we will take whatever we can get and make the most of it if we have to.
This approach is hardly ideal, but it is the reality of many who work Out of Office. The front seats of cars, tables on trains, tray tables on planes, and the corner of the bar in a coffee shop—these places serve well for short-term stop gaps, but they lack the space and the familiarity to be permanent arrangements. Enter the hot desk arrangements offered by co-working and by-the-hour executive offices.
Offering the temporary nature of other, more public spaces, these facilities also offer a more private office environment with room to spread. Of course, this convenience comes at a cost not associated with more public, free spaces. But as always, you get what you pay for. The opportunity cost is clear to the Out of Office worker: Lower cost equals less space, and higher cost increases the amount of private space.
Co-working spaces also offer the benefit of having a community/traditional in-office environment, even if the others present aren’t exactly co-workers. We’ll talk more about the advantages and disadvantages of these spaces in Chapter 5, “Working on the Road.”
The space you choose is going to depend on the length of time you are going to need it, the amount of money you want to spend to acquire it, and ultimately how much privacy you need to get your work done. I can’t imagine not having my own space at home to call an office; I’ve always had that even when I worked primarily from a traditional office—a place that I could equally be productive from at home was essential even then. It is more so now that I work full time from home.
Although I am fine working on the road, I find that I am never quite as productive as when I am in my own office. There are many reasons for this, and as highlighted in this chapter, distractions, comfort, and the lack of control of the environment are just a few of them. Sometimes the reasons are practical: The place where I am working lacks Wi-Fi or sufficient power outlets. Sometimes the reasons are more about my focus and whether or not I can discipline myself to work in a strange place.
The familiarity of the place, the ability to walk away from the desk and leave everything as is without packing up and taking it with me, and the knowledge that no matter how obscure the cable, office supply, or device, I have everything within reach just seems to make me more comfortable and therefore more productive.
Whatever space you decide on, it is essential that you ensure you have adequate, comfortable space available to you before you commit to the Out of Office work style. Trying to shoe-horn yourself into an inadequate space after the fact is only going to lead to frustration and an unproductive working environment, which will only increase stress.
One last element to think about when choosing a space is new technology. This means that we are often now connecting back to traditional offices, co-workers, and clients via video. So although you might be comfortable with that collection of teddy bears in your office from your teenage years, or working around a stack of packing boxes that contain who knows what, do you really want them as a backdrop to your video meetings?
Your space, even in your own home, may well be shared (at least in a virtual way) with others. Making it professional and (if only to the extent of the field of view of your camera) tidy, organized, and presentable is another essential forced upon us by modern technology. Yes, you may well be wearing sweatpants under the desk, but more formal work attire on top is going to be needed for an on-camera appearance.
In the same way, your work space shouldn’t be distracting to clients, colleagues, and others with whom you are connecting visually. That isn’t to say it should be devoid of all personality; just be aware of what is around you, or at least in camera shot. It is not always just the permanent fixtures in your office that can disrupt or distract those who are viewing you.
One of my cats has an uncanny way of knowing when I am doing a video call and will seize that moment to jump into my lap. He has greeted more than one video caller with a close-up of his nose as he inspects the camera—or worse, when he turns tail and decides that they aren’t particularly interesting to him.
We’ll talk more about the way others in your house can invade your space later in the book. For now, though, when picking a space, especially a permanent one in your home, think through all the needs of the members of your household and how that space impacts them before you start moving the furniture around.