16 April 2008

Working at Home, The Zone, and Importance of Equipment

Recently, there was a good writeup at Hivelogic on Offices and the Creativity Zone. This is partially also in response to the Jason Calcanas' post on how to save money, 37 Signals response, and so on. I'm getting around to my thoughts/response, as someone who has been working at home for about 60% of the last 10 years.

I'd like to comment on/respond to a few things, in particular:

  • chairs and desks

  • pair programming

  • "The Creativity Zone", as well as working in coffee shops

  • what I think is important for a home office - and in working at home

  • passion for your work, and the relation of that and hours put in at startups

Chairs and Desks

First, chairs and desks. As most folks will say, do NOT skimp on a chair. Go straight to a Herman Miller Aeron, or a Human Scale chair, do not pass go. I'll wait. I've had my posterior in an Aeron since I started at Adobe (thank you Adobe!) in 1996. When I moved, and was no longer working in the office, I used their program that allowed employees to buy these chairs at a discount, and picked one up for $500. I'd have gladly paid full price. Additionally, make sure you get the proper size, it makes a huge difference!

Following on that, I completely disagree on getting cheap desks, or doing the door/board on top of a file cabinet approach mentioned in Calcanas' post. I don't think you need to spend a lot on a desk, afterall, you just need a good surface. However, the key here is getting a desk that is the proper height. If you do the file cabinets thing, or buy your average stock desk they are almost always too tall. Take it from me, I'm 6'2" tall, and these desks are still too tall if you properly set your chair height (thighs level, feet flat on ground, forearms level or close to it, etc.). So, I suggest finding adjustable height desks, or if you are building your own, to make sure you figure out the proper height. I've been using Anthro's AnthroBench desks, which are not cheap, but are kick ass. However, the height adjustment is non-trivial, so you mostly have to get it right the first time. I've seen some since, that consumers can buy, that have more of an infinite height adjustment (which is what we had with the desks at Adobe, but I was unable to buy those).

Pair Programming

I'll cut to the chase: I'm not into it. I know folks who are and swear by it (e.g. Pivotal Labs does it the most and best I've ever seen). But, it's not for me. It doesn't fit with the way I think and work. I like a personalized environment, I like things quiet, and I like a bit more free flow. I also don't feel that it is a guarantee of better code quality.

Some of the complications to me are all the personalization developers like to do, whether that be fonts, keyboards, screen arrangements, colors, coding styles, and so on. Some of that can be worked around, but I'm simply not a fan, and don't believe it's the big advantage various others believe it is. But, in the same note, if it works for you, you prefer it, and you find someone/people to pair with that works well, then more power to you.

Also, I have a long history of doing remote work, working with other remote folks, and so on, and that is either impossible, or mostly defeats pair programming (Pivotal may disagree, but I do know they've had some hardships in this area as well). Differing time zones are not friendly to pair programming.

All this also ties into the next topic...

The Creativity Zone

I think Hivelogic nails it with this:
Unfortunately, most people can’t simply step into The Zone. In the very same way you’d want to find the right time and place to read a book, creative types need to setup the specific conditions they need to enter The Zone. For some people, this might mean listening to a certain kind of music. It might be fueled by caffeine and a dark room late at night. Some people work best in the silence of the early morning. It all depends on the person.

As you can guess from my pair programming comments above, I agree about having the right environment, and that you can't just force the work to flow. I've worked with a lot of different folks. Some people like to listen to music, some don't. Those that do range from listening to classical on low volumn to high volumn metal. Some work at night best, others can do the 9-5 thing, etc. This to me is similar to the situation of working in a cafe.

I think working in cafes is not good. I'm ok with popping in for an espresso, having a casual meeting there, or just using it to take a break from the office (whether that be a company office, or home office), and just checking email or reading RSS, or what not. But I don't buy it for serious work, and secondarily, I think you people who do do that suck. Yep, straight up, you suck. You go into a coffee shop, and take up space, and then ignore everyone. Why are you there? And why do you think that's fair? You are in no way contributing to the "cafe culture" or environment of a cafe, you are detracting from it. I was glad to see Ritual take away outlets and such. You shouldn't be sitting there for hours on end leeching from them.

And furthermore, I simply don't buy it as a productive environment, even when you wall yourself off from what is around you - which by definition tells me you don't think it's a productive environment either, otherwise you wouldn't need to bring your headphones and ignore everyone and all that.

Instead, make yourself a nice home office. There are a ton of resources on the web on how to do this if you need some pointers. Which leads me to...

What's Important in a Home Office - And In Working at Home

The above referenced articles already cover some of this, I'll try to be brief. Bring on the bullets:

  • Great chair and desk, see above

  • Proper lighting. In this I mean both the actual lights, but also how windows affect your workspace. Do not face directly into a window, as much as the view may be awesome. Usually you want windows on the side of you (not in front or back). I have a nice forest, mostly, to look out on my left side window - easy enough when I need a break to just turn my head.

  • A separate room. Not everyone can do this, but I feel VERY strongly about this if you plan to do significant amounts of work at home. You need a space that you can go to that is your office, where you can make a shift into work mode, have some isolation, close doors (so phone calls are quiet and so you can work without distraction), etc. It doesn't have to be huge, but make it your office space.

  • Good machine and monitor(s). Big monitors are key. I use a MacBook Pro as my main machine, but have an external 24" monitor (I want to go to a 30" when I can) on it as well, and an external keyboard is good too.

  • I feel you shouldn't have a beverage bar in your office. Just keep it in the kitchen, save electricity or whatever. But, for me, this is a good way to force me to get up and walk a bit, allows some different thinking time, etc. I almost always have a glass of water on my desk, but I get up to make an espresso, or maybe grab some fruit, or whatever. The break is always good.

  • Ok, I used to laugh at this recommendation, but I'm now one who does it, although I don't think it's required... Get up, and take a shower, get dressed, etc. I mention this for the two reasons I need to do it (but if you don't, then no biggy): I am not a morning person. I need to wake up a bit slower, and I prefer less interaction with people when I first get up. So, for me, what I've found is great, is to get up, and go shower. It is my way of having a slower re-entry. But, it also helps shift me into work mode (even if I don't wind up "going to work" for another hour or two. It flips that switch more explicitly for me.

That's all for now, as I want to get on to the last point...


In some of the referenced articles, and this has grown to be discussed a lot in reference to these, there is mention of whether folks need to be work-a-holics to have a successful startup. 37 Signals says to fire them. Calcanas mostly the opposite. I'm very strongly in the 37 Signals camp on this - to me it all comes down to passion. I believe this beyond startups as well, and it's one reason I just have no interest in working for larger companies anymore, because I feel the logistics simply make it a lot harder to have everyone be passionate. But, in the end, the folks I want to work with are passionate about their work/the project. This is how I want to be with what I'm working on. Sure, there are always parts that aren't as fun, but the overall idea is to have an overarching passion for what you're doing. To me that produces the best result, regardless of actual hours worked. In fact, I'd argue that you will get FAR better results from passionate folks working moderate hours, than simply a box of people putting in massive hours.

I recall we used to joke about how there was this notion that at Oracle (or substitute various others), all the engineers worked 80 hour weeks. That was BS of course. Note, I haven't worked at Oracle, but know folks who did, although that is somewhat beside the point... They may have been at the office 80 hours a week, but there is no way they were productively cranking out great work for all 80 hours. No, they were going to the gym, eating in the cafes, goofing off, or half awake at the keyboard. Recipe for burnout.

Now, as long as you have the passion, that's the key to me. After that, if you want to put in some epic hours because you're so psyched to be moving some great project forward, that's cool. I've done it. I don't think it's something that's sustainable long term, but bursts of this are great, go for it.

Right now, to share a bit, I'm making less money than I have in a long long time, but I'm more psyched than I probably ever have been, on the work I'm doing. I'm hoping the money part changes as the startups I'm working on grow, but I'm just loving it. Working with others who are passionate, working on cool stuff, running the show myself, or being involved at fundamental levels is why I left the mothership, and I really just wish I'd left sooner. I can get into that Creative Zone every day, and I look forward to doing so!

So, I recommend you think hard about your work environment, how you make for a productive and enjoyable environment. But most of all, shoot for the passion, and mold your environment to support and foster that passion.


Film Scholar said...

Great blog! Keep writing. It's really good

Anonymous said...

This was interesting...I felt like I was in a siminar about home office fung shui.

~A. Elaine

Rupert Piston said...

This was a great read for me. I had a home work space until I gave it up so my 3 year old could have a play room. After a few months it really sucked and I wasn't getting any work done for myself (in my day job I teach HS). Finally I set up a work space in the garage. Not optimal, but mine, dangit, and I can look at my motorcycle while I draw motorcycles. Or whatever.

Like they said, keep writing. I found this because Blogger thought it was neat, and it rocks. Rock on.

Anonymous said...

Just incredibly true.

Maria V said...

i've been working at home for years - i'm now giving up another 6 hours teaching just to be working even more at home; apart form cooking for 6, cleaning, washing and ferrying children from school to activities, etc, i like to blog about daily life through the food we eat at home. and that's what i call work - I've even set up a little office to do just that!

sri-executive said...

Good post, thanks for all the info.

La Gringa said...

This is fascinating. I just stumbled onto your site via Blogs of Note. I am also in the software business though I don't code. I am product manager / business analyst for one client and have several small QA projects. I started working from home in New Jersey in 2004. I converted the never-used dining room into my office.

After about six months, It occured to me that I could be doing this job from anywhere. In September 2005, my husband and I sold everything and moved to the Turks & Caicos Islands (see our blog). We have recently nearly completed construction on and moved into a new house. I have a small office with a view of the ocean - my first ever non-cubicle environment (aside from short stint in dining room). It's fabulous and everything I thought it could be.

My clients, though initially skeptical about my move, are giving me more work than ever and recently accepted a 20% rate increase without batting an eyelash! Yes, the working from home thing is most definitely working for me!

Thanks for some great advice!

Anonymous said...

As a fulltime telecommuter myself for almost 8 yrs, I thought your post was great with the exception of your rant on the "cafe culture". Everyone I work with is thousands of miles away. Now that my kids are both in school and my wife has gone back to work, I spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, alone sitting in the same 10x13 office (albeit with a nice view this time of year). My professional interaction with others is limited to a telephone and IM.

I'm one of those people who goes to Starbucks or Panera a couple of times a week and "leeches" for a couple of hours. Although I rarely interact with those around me, the occasional environment change - the sights, smells, voices, etc - is important to me in maintaining my sanity.

MaryAnn Cleary said...

What a great blog. I have worked at home for a few years and having a separate space is especially important as it helps with separating work time with personal time.

Recently, I returned from working and living in China for two years, to quitting my engineering job and following my dream of being an artist. I am in the process of converting or reducing my previous office space to an art studio.

Great blog!

Chris said...

@La Gringa: more and more people are doing this, and there's even a name for it: "LIP" - Location Independent Professional. There's even a site/blog dedicated to it. I happen to live in a non-exotic place, but I'm essentially a LIP myself. All the companies I work for are in a different state, I travel as needed (but not very much these days), and I could live basically anywhere that made it so I could travel without too much pain. Last year when we moved, it was the culmination of a year and a half of looking all over for where we wanted to move - with little to no influence by my job (at the time I worked for Adobe, so I did have to be somewhere near an airport to travel about monthly, but otherwise could be wherever I wanted).

Chris said...

@Anonymous: in regard to the cafe leeching, I couldn't agree more that it's key to get out and have a change of scenery. Your use sounds like it falls in my gray area of use: you aren't there everyday, and it sounds like not for a full day when you are. You're using it for the change of scenery, as opposed to feeling like it's your office and entitled.

I should have mentioned that there is definitely a movement towards "coworking" spaces. Mostly they are available in larger cities so far, where they can balance the costs of running the place with the number of people using it (I've considered doing it for Eugene, OR, but I don't feel there is likely enough people to use it to sustain the costs). But, if you're somewhere that can do it, then that may be an even more interesting option, because you get a place dedicated to this kind of thing, as well as others around that you might actually want to talk to and enjoy the company of (often in these places there is at least some common interest or kind of work, etc.).

Grandma Julia said...

Very informative! I just decided to do some writing at this latter stage of my life. It is a big work at my age. I got lots of ideas from you on how to make the work easier and fun. Thanks.

Nitin said...

Very, very informative and interesting. I work from home too and I believe in most of the things that you say especially the part about not trying to save money on chairs.

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herodes de la betica said...

Good morning. Your blog is really good, and interesting. I felt like in a similar about home. Keep writing, please and I send you best regards from Seville, Spain. I like your blog a lot.

Chris said...

@herodes de la betica, thanks for the comment. How common/popular is working from home in Spain? Is it common for people working in technology, or other fields, or?

Saurabh said...

Interesting read.

herodes de la betica said...

The most common home work is mailing, teaching, but no in technology field, for the moment.
Best regards from Seville.
Please visit my blog, and tell me what about it?

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Danny Thornton said...

I have to say that I agree on the issues of the chairs and desk. When I went to buy my office furniture I spared no expense and went after what I wanted, not what I needed to get by.

Chris said...

@Danny I would advocate that as long as you can "afford" it as well. That was my take, plus you can write all this stuff off. But, for folks thinking about it, think about what "affording it" means for this. For folks who have a home office as their primary office, this chair and desk are going to be something you are sitting at all day long (most likely). Do you really want that to be cheap or ugly or whatever? Probably not. You don't have to spend a fortune, but I would say don't just slap a board on some uprights just to save yourself money, you will regret it.

David said...

I thought it was particularly fitting that you started by talking about the importance of having an ergonomic chair. I had to learn my lesson the hard way. I sat for two years in a no-name brand chair from Office Depot until I bought my Aeron. I was worried about the price, but it's more than worth it. Not only that, I was able to get a great deal on the chair from www.OfficeDesigns.com. They shipped the chair for free and even had the Sapphire color I wanted that I couldn't find anywhere else. Anyone in the market for home office furniture should check them out.

Andrew said...

It took me a while to shell out the cash for one but now I wish I'd done it sooner. I found mine from www.aerondeals.com