Managing the Home Office
Many advisors can make the switch from a traditional office to one in their own house.
Insights on working remotely, from someone who walks the walk.
The internet has afforded professionals a number of convenient innovations, and chief among them may be the ability to turn a 15-mile commute into a 15-foot walk down the hall from the bedroom. But while shifting to a home office may increase your 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 you might have taken for granted in more-traditional work environments, from having physically separated space to establishing — both for your family and yourself — formal hours for when you should not be interrupted. At the same time, it’s necessary to have a plan for how to recreate 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 you can consider.
The first key to working from a home office is establishing a physical space that is 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 that I took over. Despite the fact that a bedroom is normally part of our personal family space — and this one 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 and purposes, 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 into the right frame of mind. When you’re in your office, you’re working … and when
It’s necessary to establish an office structure you might’ve taken for granted in more traditional work environments.
you’re not, you’re not. However, the physical separation is also an important line to draw for your family. It may seem strange to some people, but if my wife wants to touch base with me during the working day, she will send me a text message. We may be in the house together, but, again, the point is that, if the door to my home office is closed, I’m not really at home. The home office has to be honored as a workspace at all times. It cannot be a personal or play space. In other words, do not, at any time, make your office into a rec room, home theater, “man cave” or anything else that isn’t related to your work. Using workspace as personal space blurs the work and personal line with family, and this blurring can lead to problems. For your benefit and everyone else’s, it’s also important to consider setting formal office hours. After all, it can be difficult to walk away from work, particularly for those of us who are exceptionally devoted to what we do. Setting a schedule lets everyone know when it’s quitting time. I aim to start work by 9 a.m., and I typically work until around 6 p.m. Then, I spend dinnertime with family, occasionally coming back to my office to work for another hour or two after 9 p.m., if necessary.
Even the hardest 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-solegitimate) reasons. Sometimes it’s simply because we crave a brief mental break — an opportunity for some fresh air and a little social interaction. That’s why the office watercooler often becomes a popular gathering place in a traditional setting. But therein lays 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 may give up on the home office is the feeling of isolation and lack of social interaction that can accompany this lifestyle. Accordingly, working effectively from home requires having a plan to create those social connections and spontaneous interactions that help fuel connectedness (and even creativity).
Online team chat apps such as Salesforce Chatter or Slack can also help support social interaction.
My starting point is social media. It’s one of the reasons 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 the 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. Because I have 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 our main living area 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 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 or getting involved as a volunteer can provide a much-needed social output to engage with peers. It is no coincidence that the bulk of active membership in the advisor association groups consists of people who work for smaller independent firms. This is why I was involved from the early days of my career in local FPA chapter leadership — as a former chapter president — and 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, using technology tools to support team interaction can help. These can include video conferencing tools for regular team meetings, as well as platforms such as Google Hangouts, Slack video or even Sococo to support more impromptu meetings. Online team chat apps such as Salesforce Chatter or Slack can also help support social interaction. With some of my virtual teams, we have dedicated Slack channels just for daily intra-team work communications, and a separate channel dedicated to sharing entertaining information (whether this relates 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. There’s also always the local
“Given how much time you’re likely to spend in your home office space, it’s worth investing your time and resources to get it right,” Michael Kitces says.