The Three C’s of a Good Home Office
Creating a workspace that doesn’t drive you mad
In early 2020, in the midst of… everything, over half of the working population started working from home — at least on a temporary basis — including me.
I remember the day it happened in mid-March. My partner and I were having dinner at a bar-grill and there was a muted TV on the wall with scrolling news text instead of the usual sports game.
It mentioned that scary new disease I didn’t know much about, and recommended people “lock down” as soon as possible. I made a mental note to take more work-from-home days, just to be safe.
The next day, the higher-ups at my company sent out an email telling everyone to grab the supplies they might need from the office and prepare to work from home “for a few weeks, maybe as much as a month”. We didn’t realize how serious it would become, and I never did go back to that office.
As sudden as it was, the transition was natural for me. Joyous, even. I had so much more time without the commute, and I didn’t notice any difference in the work itself. We were already facilitating meetings over video chat, and I can develop software from anywhere that has an internet connection and power.
What I didn’t anticipate was the effect of living and working in the same space, my home office, for much longer than I ever had before.
Now, let’s be real. I’m a huge nerd.
I was spending almost all of my free time at my computer even before lockdown. However, I still had to leave the house to work, get groceries, and do what little socializing I did in the meat-space. There were breaks in my computer time, necessitated by everyday life.
Working from home and quarantining, there was almost no interruption from the computer screens and — much more devastating — from the office walls, which were a dark, ochre yellow.
A few months into quarantine, I was abruptly laid off, along with everyone else in the office. I have written about this before, so I won’t get into it too much, but what it meant was that I was soon looking for another job.
I landed a position at a company that was fully remote, and had been for several years. They had been WFH before it was cool (or medically necessary).
This meant that not only was I spending nearly all of my waking time in my home office, but I would continue to do so for… ever. There would be no “back to normal” for me.
During this time, I learned three things that are critical to get right in my home office. For the sake of alliteration, I’ve affectionately named them “Color”, “Clutter”, and “Category”.
I alluded to this earlier, but the walls in my office are perhaps the ugliest color I’ve ever seen. My partner and I bought this house a few years ago, and almost all the rooms in the house have baffling color schemes.
One room was a blinding, saturated turquoise with glitter haphazardly glued to the walls. From the photos in the listing, I know it was a Frozen-themed child’s bedroom. That one kind of makes sense, but it’s not the only room with an appalling color palette.
The kitchen is painted a very dark brown, one of the bathrooms is a textured orange, and the master bedroom that we repurposed as a home office was a dark, deep yellow color.
I hate yellow. I find it grating. I know many other people see it as a happy color that improves their mood, but it feels almost aggressive to me. The entire downstairs living area is yellow, too, though it is slightly paler.
I hate the color, and I’ve hated it since we moved in, but since we both spend most of our time in this room and have heavy desks and computer equipment stored in here, we never got around to painting. Flash forward to lockdown, spending even more critical earning time in here, we haven’t come up with a plan to vacate the room long enough to let the paint fumes air out.
I tried to just deal with it, I really did, but it seemed to permeate my very psyche. Spending all of my waking hours staring at a color I hated was like trying to work in the same room as a frequently-used litter box. It was uncomfortable and distracting and utterly relentless.
So, I got creative. Paint was a no go, but that didn’t mean the walls had to stay yellow. After a few bad ideas, I eventually landed on removable wallpaper (also known as “peel and stick” wallpaper). It’s designed to be easy to apply and also remove (so when we do finally have a chance to paint, the process will be simple).
I got a nice neutral grey with a cute pattern and applied the wallpaper in a single day. There was a slight adhesive smell, but it faded quickly once the wallpaper was up.
The benefit of wallpaper is that I only needed one “coat” to cover the dark yellow and it immediately improved my mood. I was buoyant for days after, remarking aloud how nice the space looked, smiling when I went to my desk.
I know this is a very specific example, and the incidence of dark yellow walls in home offices is probably fairly low, but it shows how the color and light in our workspace can really affect us. I named this section “Color” mostly because the alliteration was catchy, but it could have just as easily been called “Light”, which makes up color and changes how we perceive it.
Do you have enough light? Do you have too much light? Maybe you have the opposite problem as I did, and your walls need more color in order to feel less like a prison cell?
I’ve worked in several offices where, for about 20 minutes a day, the sun came in the window at just the right angle to render my monitor completely covered by glare. Working at home, you can rearrange the furniture, the blinds, and paint the walls to suit your needs.
The visual impression of our workspace can have a dramatic impact on how we feel when we’re working, so this is something you should consider when designing your workspace.
The second thing I learned about my home working environment was that the cleanliness of the space often determined how easily I was distracted (I could have called this section “cleanliness” and kept the alliteration, but I thought clutter was more succinct).
From the beginning, I rotated my work computer so that it was facing a wall, which was a good idea. I can’t see much other than my computer screen when there’s only a wall in front of me. However, there was still space on my desk for clutter and I got a good glimpse of the rest of the room whenever I looked away or got up for a stretch.
I’m generally a tidy person, but I’m not perfect. And, as I mentioned previously, I share this office with my partner, so he’s responsible for some of the cleaning. Keeping good cleaning habits is the best way to keep your space clutter-free (and therefore distraction-free), but what if you can’t do that?
Let’s introduce another C: curtains.
For me, the curtains were literal. I installed a curtain to divide the office so that I could shut myself away from the rest of the house when I needed to focus or attend a meeting.
If you have an actual door, or an office that is just your own, that works just as well. But for anyone who doesn’t, may I suggest a curtain or curtain-like substitute? I know of at least one coworker who got a portable divider wall to separate her working space from the rest of her home.
Your “curtain” could be more metaphorical: you could have a dedicated space for things to go when they can’t be tidied right away. This can get dangerous, like a junk table that keeps accumulating more crap, but sometimes you need a quick fix so you can get back to the grind.
Keep clutter, distracting objects, and anything you might be tempted to stop working in order to clean out of your workspace. Hide it if you have to.
This section ties into the previous section in a lot of ways, in terms of separating your work space, but here we have different type of problem than clutter.
By category, I mean the category of activity that you have dedicated your environment to. Is it a work environment, or a play environment? Our brains are highly suggestible, and the context that surrounds us can change the way we think.
Think of it like good sleep hygiene. If you regularly do work in your bed (or, ahem, strenuous play), it can become harder to fall asleep at night. Your brain remembers working in this environment, and now it’s getting mixed signals.
If you spend your rest time in your workspace, your mind will have a hard time switching out of work mode. If your computer is still on, you might even get direct visual cues that there are things at work that you should be paying attention to, like a slack notification or an urgent-looking email.
In fact, many people who are new to working from home have a hard time stopping at the end of each day. There’s no distinct separation between work time and not-work time, so you just keep going. You think, “I’m on a roll here, so I might as well get this one last task done”. Suddenly, it’s seven at night and you are getting hangry.
That’s why this section is dedicated to the category of your space.
I know that space is limited for a lot of us, but even a slight separation can really help. For me, I started working from home with my personal computer and my work computer on the same desk. It was an L-shaped desk, so there was a little bit of distance between the two, but I could usually still see all of my work lying in wait at the periphery of my vision.
After one-too-many 9 P.M. Slack conversations, I decided to make a change. It wasn’t anything crazy, I just moved a second desk in behind my personal desk so that I could no longer easily reach my work space from my personal space.
It had a bonus effect of also making it difficult to reach my personal computer from my work desk, so I was less likely to get distracted by any personal projects.
I also made sure to close the laptop so it couldn’t light up and catch my attention when I was least expecting it.
Put your work away at the end of the day, and make sure it stays away by creating physical separation or visual cues that it’s time to rest.
The Three C’s
In an ideal world, we would all have separate, climate-controlled offices in which to do our work, with tasteful decoration and perfect silence whenever we need it.
Alas, this is the real world, and in the Portland metro where I live, you’re lucky if you can find a studio apartment for less than $1200 a month.
So, we make do with what we can.
- First, get your color right. Arrange your space so that it’s pleasant to look at and has enough light (but not too much).
- Next, clear your clutter, or hide it if you’re desperate. Free your eyes, and consequently your mind, from distractions.
- Finally, category. Separate your work space from the rest of your home, even if it’s slight, like tucking your desk into a corner or pulling a room divider in front of it when you’re finished working.
Working from home can and should be a pleasant experience. The Three C’s, or at least these three C’s, can get you most of the way there.