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How to set up your home office for successful remote work

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on May 6, 2020 6:00:00 AM
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Is your makeshift work-from-home office not cutting it? Or maybe you’ve been a remote worker for awhile, but your space could use a refresh. Whether you are remote by choice or had it thrust upon you, Lisette Sutherland has some ideas to create a space tailored to what you need.

For many years, Lisette’s been gathering the best remote working resources and ideas on her website – Collaboration Superpowers. She’s picked up a lot of tips for how to design for remote work success. Here are 10 things she suggests you think about when setting up your home office.

1. Ask the big questions first

It’s tempting to jump right away to webcam setups or finding the right chair. But before all that, take at least a little time to think about your goals and realities. “You need to understand that first and build around it,” says Lisette.

If you have kids at home doing virtual schooling, your space is going to look different than it would if you lived alone. If you live and die by your mid-day workout, that might require a home office space that functions well for early mornings or late nights.

“What people need for their productivity varies so much,” Lisette says. That’s why figuring out what factors you’re designing around is time well spent, even when it’s in short supply.

Planning an ideal remote workspace

2. Envision your ideal day

It can be hard to assess what you really need – especially when the pace of change is fast. To make it more concrete, Lisette does what Michael Hyatt suggests in the Full Focus Planner – she plans her ideal workday.

“For me, I would want to get up, have a cup of coffee, read the news,” she explains. “Then go straight into my room and read a little bit.” The rest of the day involves work, going for a run, dinner with her husband and possibly something fun for herself. “And by 9:00 p.m. I’m always done – that’s log-off time.”

Knowing what your days will ideally look like lets you set up a space that matches. “What I always say is visualize it,” says Lisette. “Visualize it for yourself so you can see where everything will fall.”

3. Incorporate the natural

When it comes to finding the spot in your home where you’ll do your best work, proximity to a window can’t be ignored. “Most people need natural light,” Lisette says. “People seem to thrive and have better ideas when they have the influence of the outside. It has a calming effect and it’s a refresher.”

Are you stuck with a basement office that doesn’t leave you many options? Try incorporating nature in other ways. “Sue Thomas, who wrote Technobiophilia, says that having a tree landscape as your laptop background has a calming effect. Being out in a forest is much better, but even just having a virtual tree makes a difference.”

4. Plan for movement and comfort

When working from home, it’s easy to let your physical health suffer. When you create a home office, designing for movement and ergonomics is important.

Consider a sit-stand desk or, if that’s not possible, a separate space where you can work standing up for periods of time. “You may not use it a lot,” says Lisette, “but the ability to stand up and work, even for just a few minutes, is good. It’s not about sitting or standing – it’s about changing your position often.

Similarly, Lisette says it’s important to invest in your ergonomic health. “In the past when I worked in an office, we had someone who dealt with ergonomics. Everybody had an assessment done and had their chair adjusted. At home, you have to take responsibility for yourself. Make your space as comfortable as possible.”

5. Be present, virtually

“When you’re not in the office, you need to try to create presence,” says Lisette. “You need to be seen and heard.” She suggests investing in a good headset and an external webcam, especially if you have a lot of meetings. Think about lighting, and make sure to position your camera away from bright light so you don’t look like you work in a cave. “Good lighting helps us see each other better and stay engaged.”

An external monitor can help you stay tuned to your teammates’ presence as well. “If you’re doing a video call, you want to see the people that you’re working with and the material that’s being shared,” Lisette adds. “If you have an external monitor, then you can do both.”

A remote workspace with good lighting

6. Create a start-up and shut-down ritual

When you work in an office, your body receives signals when you’re shifting from home to work or vice versa – getting into your car, buying a coffee or just changing into work shoes. Setting up something equivalent at home can help your productivity and work-life balance.

“Your start-up ritual can include many things,” says Lisette. “It can include activities – like first I read, then I meditate and then I get online. It can include music. It can include smells, like maybe you use an oil or burn an incense or something, and that lets your body know that it’s start-up time.” Then create a similar routine at the end of your work day to let your body know it’s time to wind down.

7. Carve out boundaries

Putting in place boundaries is easier said than done when your laptop is always just a room away. “People tend to overwork rather than slack off,” Lisette has learned. But for most people, boundaries are crucial if you want to avoid burnout.

If possible, create a space that’s just for work. “When we first moved into our house, I wanted to keep my sewing things in my workroom,” says Lisette. “And my husband said, ‘No, no, no.’ Make a crystal-clear boundary.”

Don’t have the luxury of completely separating your space? Lisette has been there, too. “I used to have a one-bedroom apartment – basically the bed was right behind my workspace,” she explains. “So I got a room divider to put between my camera and the bed. Putting up that divider helped make the transition from home life into work life.”

Lisette’s other tip for couples who are working from home together – devise a system so you know when it’s okay to interrupt and when not. “Outside my door it says Available and Not Available with a little sliding thing so my husband knows times when he can’t bother me.”

8. Make space for collaboration

Most people need collaboration time and individual work time to do their jobs effectively. “There’s the thinking mode where you have to be alone and come up with your own ideas, sketch something out or experiment,” says Lisette. “Then you want to get together and brainstorm with people.” Make sure your space is set up to do both.

To stay collaborative, you need a shared digital space to swap ideas and iterate together. Lisette suggests choosing a virtual whiteboard or sticky-note tool, such as Span™ Workspace. “Especially if you’re working with teams across any boundaries or locations, you’re going to need to make things more visual for people. Having a space where you can sketch things out is really important.”

Using Span Workspace for remote work

9. Experiment, experiment, experiment

In all her advice, Lisette is careful to avoid one-size-fits-all recipes for success. “There is no one right way. If there were, I would totally sell the formula. Sadly, it’s not like that.” Instead, she says experimentation is key.

“Some people can work at the kitchen table just fine during the day and they’re totally focused. Other people need their own space. You really need to experiment with where you are the most productive.” Don’t be afraid to change things up regularly to see if there’s a better spot to work or a more useful setup. Ask teammates what’s working for them to see if you want to steal any great ideas.

10. Have patience

Beyond the logistical and productivity tips, one of Lisette’s biggest pieces of advice? Don’t underestimate the effort involved.

“What’s hard about remote work is all the choices,” she says. “When we come to the office, the space is designed for you. People are just there. When we work remote, there are so many options. How do you design your desk? Do you need an extra webcam? How often are you going to do video calls? All the details. It’s not rocket science, but it takes energy to figure it out.”

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, cut yourself some slack and start with the basics. Make a list of what you need. “Then go through the list and find what’s the most important thing or what’s a quick thing to get done. Just take the first step.”

For many more tips and resources from Lisette on working effectively during the age of COVID-19, check out the resource center on her Collaboration Superpowers website.


Topics: Agile Remote Work Working From Home