ONE: Stake Out Your Territory

I’ve had home offices in at least a dozen different “homes” in fours cities in three countries. The spaces have ranged from sprawling to crate-sized, but the basics were always the same. In the home office, location isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. Where you work will make your work day heaven or a headache.

Here’s why.

To work at home, you need a place where you can concentrate. If you have children, they have to respect your space as sacred and off limits.

In short, you have to stake out your territory.

Stay out of the kitchen

So where to start? Not in the kitchen. I know many of you are considering temporarily setting up a computer on your dining room or kitchen table. Move on. These are the worst spots to work—especially if you have children.

There are two reasons. First, the kitchen is the social nexus of the house (and I’m not talking as Quebeckers (even though we’re famous for crowding into kitchens to socialize). Kitchens and dining rooms are always meeting places. Kitchen traffic is the worst distraction.

Second, you probably can’t set a permanent workspace in either the kitchen or the dining room. Permanence is key. Home workspaces can’t be mobile, even if they are temporary. If your office is in the kitchen, you’ll have to set it up and tear it down every day, or even several times per day to make way for the essential purpose of space: eating. You need the things in your office to stay put (more on why in a later post).

Why is this “permanence” so important? You need your desk to be waiting for you in the morning, ready to go. And you need to be able to walk away from it at the end of the day and think about something else. That is not going to happen if you are anywhere near food.

I suspect people look to kitchens and dining rooms first as working spaces because they have tables, but don’t be fooled by four legs. Extra tables are not hard to find. Look around your house. There’s usually a small surface somewhere you can repurpose.

Anything with a door

So where do you find prime home office real estate away from eating areas?

Basically anywhere with a door.  I once set up an office in a Paris inside a large, windowed closet, just for that reason. You need to be able to cut yourself off from rest of the activity of the house. Working in a cramped space isn’t nearly as bad as trying to hear yourself think over the hum of the microwave and coffee grinder.

In general, bedrooms are a good choice for a temporary office. In 2014 I lived in Paris with my husband and kids in a 4-room apartment and “staked out my territory” in a tiny space at the foot of our bed. I squeezed in a narrow table (collected from the streets of a Paris) and a cheap padded office chair. I repurposed cardboard filing boxes to organize papers and then just slid the boxes under the desk. Voilà.

It wasn’t luxurious, but it worked surprisingly well. Why? I was cut myself off from the rest of the household activity so I could concentrate.

From my window, I could see my daughters walking home from school every day (actually, leaving school, since it was literally across the street). When they rang the doorbell, I let them in, gave them their  mandatory hug, steered them toward the fridge and headed back to my little kingdom in the bedroom.

If I’d chosen to work anywhere near the kitchen, my day would have been over with the after-school snack. Instead, I retreated to my territory for another precious hour or two.

And then I left the office behind and did something else (more on that later).

The Paris Office was not built to last, but it didn’t have to be. I was only there for a year. It did its job. It let me concentrate. In that tiny workspace, I talked with CEOs and interviewed French philosophers who had no idea where I was. I made my living and researched two books.

Not bad for the corner of a small bedroom.

Next blog: “Working 9-5”: A flexible schedule is much worse than it’s cracked up to be.