When going remote, one of the most important things to consider is how to set up your office space. Everyone has different tastes. Some like the freedom of moving to different places in the house while others need dead-on consistency. Desks, chairs, shelving, trinkets, whiteboards, wall paint–there are lots of personal decisions to make with a physical environment that is 100% yours.
Last July, I relocated to San Francisco, beginning my journey into remote work. As of today, over 2/3 of our staff work outside of Chicago. For those of you considering remote work, we want to open up a few of our workspaces to you, and share some advice along the way.
My office space
I live in a condo in San Francisco’s Richmond District—a comparatively quieter and sleepier part of The City compared to areas like the Mission or SOMA. One of the main reasons my wife and I chose this place is the view. We have an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands from our living room, bedroom, and my office window. If you can find a place in your home with a great view, I highly recommend taking advantage of it. Like quiet background music, it doesn’t distract, and you can quickly look out at something soothing periodically to give your eyes a break from the screen.
My office is the smallest of our bedrooms, both out of practicality and because I like cozy spaces when I work. Because I spend most of my day coding new features, fixing old bugs, writing, and video chatting, there’s something about the “closed-ness” of a space that helps me focus better. It’s as if I’m containing all the simultaneous thoughts of my work in this little room, rather than letting them float away in a big space. That’s also why I always close my door.
Painting the mood in the room
I have a pretty obnoxious case of eye floaters. You know those transparent specs and cobweb-y globules you might see if you squint your eyes? I have lots of them and don’t have to squint my eyes to see them. Because of this, my walls are painted in a fairly dark earth tone. It helps make them less visible (I chose Sherman Williams’ Ethereal Mood).
I also chose this color because it contrasts the colors of all the other walls throughout my home. And, that’s important. If you have a home office, I recommend painting it noticeably different from the other rooms in your house. A strikingly different wall color helps make me feel like I’m going to a very different place, rather than going to that “room next to the kitchen.” It helps me separate work from home.
Organizing the room
I get obsessive about cleanliness and organization in a room. This is a trait I find common with many people in the programming industry—probably because so much about good coding revolves around the concepts of, well, cleanliness and organization.
In my office, I have a desk, chair, whiteboard, a small cabinet, and a small 3 X 2 unit cube storage shelf. Nothing more.
The desk and chair
My desk is a five-foot wide Portica table from Room&Board with an inch-think slab of cherry wood on top. There are definitely some less expensive alternatives, but I find this desk to be particularly sturdy. Besides, when you live in San Francisco, a sturdy desk you can crawl under on a moment’s notice probably isn’t a bad idea.
I also opted for a rectangular desk instead of a corner desk because it’s a bit more versatile in a space. Back when we were using CRT monitors, the corner part was a great spot for your screen. But, since screens are so skinny these days, the corner part of a desk just feels like wasted space to me.
I considered shelving and drawers for my desk (this Hendrix desk from Crate&Barrel, with a built-in bookshelf opposing the drawers is really neat), but I find that I have so few papers to keep these days that drawers would just invite extra clutter into the room.
I hunted for a good chair for months, finally landing on this Bungee office chair from The Container Store. Compared to some of the really high-end stuff from Herman Miller or Humanscale, it’s pretty affordable and it fits my tastes perfectly. It has great back (and bottom) support, it’s compact, and it’s not one of those big comfy leather La-Z-Boy-esque chairs that make you want to take an afternoon nap while watching golf on TV.
Whatever budget you’ve set for yourself, I recommend devoting most of it to a good desk and chair. A good one of each should last you decades. Everything else is worth it on the cheap.
Stuff I’m happy with on the cheap
As for the other elements of the room? I bought and assembled a fairly inexpensive cube storage shelf from Target. I like the cube storage concept a lot because, with a few well-placed storage cubes, you can hide away all your “office junk.” I have a couple boxes of office junk—a stew of antiquated AC adapters, old mice, plugs, wires, and connector cables that have long since lost their home. I know as soon as I throw one out, I’ll find out the reason I needed it. So, I compromise by stuffing them all into boxes so I don’t ever have to see them. I like knowing they are there. Plus, you never know when compact discs are going to make a comeback. When they do, trust me, I’ll have three skip-resistant CD players at the ready.
I also have a standard 2′ x 3′ dry-erase board from Office Max. To be honest, I bought this anticipating it would be temporary. Ultimately, I wanted to opt for something much bigger. Waylon has a beautiful, gigantic glass marker board in his San Antonio home office. Grant even painted a wall with dry-erase paint in his office in Ft. Myers, Florida. However, the more I kept using my dinky little board, the more it started to fit the way I work. Here’s why.
I tend to scribble lots of ideas down every day—blog post ideas, visualizing some bit of code I haven’t written, and any number of random micro-epiphanies. These scribbles end up going in one of two directions: Either I find a formal place for them or I don’t. Most of my scribbling lands in the latter pile.
Because of this, I now appreciate that my whiteboard is pretty small. There’s only enough room for so many random ideas. When my whiteboard is full and I have a new idea, I’ll pick up my eraser and—more often than not—just erase the whole thing. Occasionally, I’ll take a picture of my whiteboard so I have a backup. But, I almost never review those pictures. I eventually delete them to make room for video of my one-year old niece doing random baby things.
Most of the elements of my office space I got right on the first attempt. The one thing I didn’t get right was floor carpeting. I originally bought a small carpet from Target to put under my chair. It was just small enough where I kept rolling my chair slightly past it. So, like any engineer would, I simply doubled capacity. But, the chair would easily snag between the two carpets and I found myself readjusting the carpeting under my desk several times a day. Finally, I opted for some floor tiles.
These Reverb tiles from FLOR are $8 a square (as of this writing). I bought nine of them and tiled them in two rows of three and a shortened row of two-and-a-half squares so it could slide part way under my desk. They are really simple to install (just lay them down and apply the accompanying stickers underneath), look great, and have a very low “pile” so they can take the wear-and-tear of a rolling chair.
Embracing the constraints of space
Through a few iterations, I started to figure out things about myself that I didn’t realize from working in a communal office for so many years. For me, the prevailing theme is limiting my space: A whiteboard that can only hold so many ideas, storage cubes that can only handle a certain amount of antiquated junk, and a room small enough to keep me focused.
Of course, what works for me might not work for you. The great part of a home space is that it doesn’t have to conform to anybody else’s tastes but your own. We’ll take a look at how some other WAM’ers designed their remote workspaces in the coming weeks.
Ka Wai Cheung is a partner at We Are Mammoth in Chicago, developer of DoneDone, and author of The Developer’s Code. A lifelong Chicagoan, he now lives in San Francisco with his wife and no pets. Follow him personally on Twitter via @developerscode.