Kitces: The joys and challenges of working from home
(Editor's note: This story, which originally ran June 22, 2018, has new relevance today as the threat of coronavirus forces financial planners to work remotely. This story has been lightly updated throughout.)
The internet has afforded professionals a number of convenient innovations, and chief among them may be the ability to turn a 15-mile commute to a 15-foot walk down the hall.
But while shifting to a home office environment may increase someone’s available time — whether by eliminating the commute, or distractions from colleagues — it may not necessarily improve productivity, given the distractions of home and family.
Consequently, to maintain personal productivity in a home office, it’s necessary to establish some of the same office structure that you might’ve taken for granted in more traditional work environments, from having physically separated space to establishing — both for your family and yourself — the formal office hours about when you’re truly at work (albeit in your home office) and should not be interrupted. Though at the same time, it’s also necessary to have a plan on how to re-create the other essential component of office life — interaction with colleagues (or other human beings in general)!
So whether you’re leaving a massive office environment, or looking to optimize the home office space you already have, here are some best practices to consider.
CREATING OFFICE SPACE
The first key to being able to work from a home office is establishing a physical space that is your formal office space (and yours alone). It may seem obvious, but this space should have walls and, ideally, a door, to establish a clear formal barrier between your personal space and your workspace.
In my case, the home office space is nothing more than an extra bedroom which I took over. Despite the fact that a bedroom is normally part of our personal family space — and is literally right across the hallway from my daughters’ room — this is understood by my family to be Daddy’s Office. When I’m in that bedroom and the door is closed, they know that for all intents I’m not home at all. I’m at work.
Part of the effectiveness of housing an office in a discrete physical space is that it helps get you in the right frame of mind. When you’re in your office, you’re working … and when you’re not, you’re not. However, the physical separation is also important to draw for your family, too.
It may seem strange to some, but if my wife wants to touch base with me during the working day, she will send me a text message via cell phone, or via our family Slack channel. We may be both in the house together, but again, the point is that if the door to my home office is closed, I’m not at home. I’m at work.
The flipside to this is the home office has to be honored as a workspace at all times, and not also a personal or play space. In other words, be cautious not to make your office into a rec room, home theater, “man cave,” etc. Otherwise — as I’ve learned from experience — using workspace as personal space blurs the work/personal line with family, and that blurring can lead to subsequent problems.
For your benefit and everyone else’s living under the same roof, it’s also important to consider setting “Office Hours.” After all, it can be difficult to walk away from work, particularly for those who are exceptionally devoted to it. Setting a schedule lets everyone know — yourself included — when it’s quitting time.
In my own case, I aim to start work — that is, to enter my physical home office — by 9 a.m. (after the kids go to school), and I work until around 6 p.m. Then I spend dinner time with family, occasionally coming back to my office to work for another hour or two after 9 p.m. if necessary (once the kids go to sleep).
Even the hardest of workers in a traditional office won’t stay put at their desks straight through the day. That’s partly because meetings may arise, and/or colleagues may occasionally interrupt for legitimate (or not-so-legitimate) reasons. And sometimes, it’s just because we crave a brief mental break — an opportunity for some fresh air and a little social interaction That’s why the office water cooler often becomes the gathering place. .
But therein lies one of the big challenges of working from home: There are no colleagues with you. And while their interruptions can sometimes be disruptive — and may in fact drive some people to consider working from home in the first place — one of the primary reasons people end out giving up on the home office is the feeling of isolation and lack of social interaction that can accompany it.
Accordingly, working from home well requires having a plan to create — or at least approximate — those social connections and spontaneous interactions that help fuel connectedness (and even creativity).
Personally, my starting point is social media. It’s one of the reasons why I have become so engaged on various platforms, particularly Twitter. When I need to take a five-minute mental break, I check in on Twitter, digest the latest buzz, and respond to questions and comments sent to me. Notably, I limit myself to only a five-minute break on social media to keep from getting sucked in.
My next output for social engagement is my family. With a stay-at-home spouse and young children who are not yet in school full time, taking a break from work for a few minutes involves leaving my office, going to the main living area of the house, and spending a little time with the family. Here again I must set a mental time limit, but the opportunity to share meaningful time with my family during the course of my day helps keep me balanced in what are otherwise still fairly long, intense work days.
Another way to round out social interaction is to be engaged with colleagues through a professional association, such as a local FPA chapter or NAPFA study group. Going to regular meetings and/or getting involved as a volunteer can provide a much-needed social output to engage with peers. It’s no coincidence that the bulk of active membership in the advisor association groups consists of people from smaller independent firms.
And this is why I was involved from the early days of my career in both local FPA chapter leadership — as a former chapter president — and became involved in several national committees and conferences. Nowadays, I’m also traveling to conferences on almost a weekly basis for speaking engagements, which also provides a comfortable balance of social interaction.
For those who work from a home office but are not solo practitioners — i.e., those with a virtual team or those who are part of a firm that also has a(nother) physical office location — using technology tools to support team interaction can help. These can include video conferencing tools for regular team meetings, as well as platforms like Google Hangouts, Slack video or even Sococo to support more impromptu video meetings.
Online team chat apps like Salesforce Chatter or Slack can also help support social interaction. With some of my virtual teams, we have dedicated Slack channels just to support daily intra-team work communications, and a separate channel dedicated solely to sharing fun and entertaining things (whether they relate to work or not).
It’s also important to build in time simply to step out for a breath. As often as I can, I’ll do a walk-and-talk, where I take a conference call on a headset (if it doesn’t specifically require being in front of a computer). There’s also always the local coffeehouse, just for a change of pace, and an opportunity to work elsewhere for a little while.
That food-and-drink consideration is not insignificant when you want to avoid the family equivalent of water cooler chatter. As a result, I keep a compact mini-refrigerator in my home office stocked with water and a mid-day snack, so that I don’t actually need to step out and risk disrupting my work rhythm by bumping into family members (i.e., children who want to play).
INVESTING IN COMFORT
In traditional offices, we often have to take and accept whatever comforts we’re provided. The good news about a home office space, though, is that you have total control over its design.
Given how much time you’re likely to spend in your home office space, however, it’s worth investing your time and resources to get it right. Not only to simply better enjoy a space you’ll be spending a lot of time in, but also because doing so will better help put you in the optimal frame of mind to be productive.
A good desk and office chair are starting points. You may also invest in a good standing desk setup if you prefer. In addition, buy a quality webcam if you’ll be doing a lot of video meetings, and bear in mind you should have an appropriate, professional-looking background, or at least a neutral-colored wall. And to be reasonably assured of smooth video feeds, make certain your home internet connection is capable of supporting high-speed streaming video — generally at least 10Mbps of download and upload speeds.
Also give consideration to how you might build flexibility into your home office. There will always be some space constraints, but even in my home-office-bedroom space, I have made sure to have both a standing desk and, on the other side of the room, a comfortable recliner chair where I can sit and work on my laptop. When laying out your workspace, comfort and professionalism should guide your hand.
WHAT ABOUT MEETINGS?
One important caveat to the home office approach is that just because you have a home office to work from yourself, doesn’t mean you necessarily want to take client meetings there.
In practice, some advisors are happy to meet with clients at their home office, especially if their setup is conducive to having a separate space with its own entrance. Other advisors’ setups may not function very well as a client-facing workspace. These individuals rightly may be concerned that their home office spaces don’t communicate the professional credibility they wish to convey.
In my own case, we have several dedicated office spaces for the advisory firm itself, and my home office is just for my own personal productivity. As a result, any client meetings I cannot join virtually, or take at the client’s office, can simply be taken in the conference rooms at one of our firm’s locations.
For those who work solely from a home office, an increasingly popular option is to rent a meeting room at co-working spaces like Regus or WeWork. After all, simply buying access to conference/meeting rooms on an ad-hoc basis can be much cheaper than actually leasing office space full time.
Once you establish what works best for you, it’s remarkable how productive you can be… especially with all the time you save by turning that 15-mile driving commute into a 15-foot walk down the hallway!