19.06.2022   /  DESIGN

Cracking the Work-at-Home Office Setup Code: Things I Learned from Room Rater

You know that scene in the classic film “The Apartment” where Jack Lemmon’s character enters a beautiful, expansive apartment and exclaims, “I want this job!”? Well, I’m not there yet. But I’ve learned a few things about working from home that you might find helpful if you’ve needed to make the leap.

Belinda D'Alessandro

There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of working from home. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020, the job market has been challenging in some sectors, particularly retail and hospitality, and corporate workers have been “sent home” to work remotely.

However, whilst more and more people were choosing to work remotely at least one day per week before the pandemic, most corporate employees started working from home full-time when the pandemic started.

So were we all really set up to work from home full-time? I suspect the answer for most of us was a BIG NO!

How I started my current work-at-home office

I will tell you the honest truth about how I started my home office. When I first moved to Sydney for a corporate job in 2000, I moved into a small two-bedroom apartment and got myself a desk to set up my sewing machine. I moved home a few times and got a flatmate, but there always seemed room for my reasonably sized desk (and sewing machine) to be set up when my flatmate and I moved. So having my desk set up when I started freelancing and working from home in 2006 was a godsend.

My work-at-home desk

In 2010, I returned to the corporate world (part-time, as a contractor, in banking and finance) to supplement my freelance income. However, by the time my flatmate and I moved to a new apartment again in 2011, I was working full-time in the corporate sector, and bringing the large desk up three flights of stairs didn’t seem justified. Nor did the configuration of the apartment allow for the desk I had, so I got myself a small student desk that could fit in the corner of a room for when I needed to do a bit of freelance work.

I went on an overseas holiday in January 2020. My flatmate moved for work shortly after I got home, so I now had a “spare” room with ensuite, and the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.

My corporate employer sent me (and the vast majority of my colleagues) back to working from home most, if not all, days a week, with the rest of the corporate back-office world, with the laptop and peripherals I needed to work from home.

So I had a “spare” room, and the student desk just wasn’t quite big enough for the monitor I now had. I had decisions to make. Do I lug the desk in storage up three flights of stairs, or do I get a new desk? Do I move my sleeping quarters into the bedroom with the ensuite? Do I use it as my office? Find out shortly!

The mindset of getting organised

When I first started working from home, I did it all wrong before I did it all right. I heard from other people who want to work from home, saying things like “I want to start my own home office” and “I have a work-at-home office now”.

The thing is, I didn’t really have a work-at-home office. I had a room with a desk, the same as when I worked in an office. When I was working as a freelancer, the only difference – well, really, the big difference – was that I was on my own schedule. It didn’t occur to me that working at home is no different than working in an office.  

“I always put in one controversial item. It makes people talk.” Dorothy Draper

Now that I was working from home again, I needed was a space that provided me with “privacy” (for conference calls) and allowed me to concentrate. Having worked from home before, I knew that personal life and work-life can become easily intermingled, leading to many unproductive habits. A messy office, for example, can cause unnecessary anxiety and can distract you from getting to work. Or having the office in the living room, the television could (read would) cause distractions. 

The view behind my desk

I needed to be in a space that would be comfortable enough to work in for hours on end. (This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a dedicated room if you don’t have one, although that is best, if possible. If not, then make sure you have some kind of space in your house where you can work undisturbed.)

Next, I was going to need a clean and open area to work. So the next thing I wanted to do was set up my office with all of the essentials that would make working from home comfortable and productive.

The “spare” room gave me the space I needed, rather than trying to clear up some space in the living area of my home. And it meant I didn’t have to move a whole heap of furniture around before I set up my office.

I needed a desk more significant than the student desk already in the space I could use for writing or working on projects, especially now I had more peripherals. 

So, I had to decide: do I (try to) lug the bulky, static desk (which hadn’t aged well in storage) I had in the garage up three flights of stairs by myself? Do I try to work on the small student desk, or do I get a new desk? Was the student chair I had when I first set up my office, which had also not aged well (the lift mechanism had broken), going to work with a big desk (either old or new) setup?

I figured I would go with a strategy for organising my work-at-home office to stay focused on work and save time on finding things later. When I was finally ready to get my work-at-home office organised, the next step was to take on the mindset. What I could do depended on how much stuff I had, how much space I had, and how much money or time I had to organise it. 

My work-at-home setup

The first thing I had to do was map out a plan of attack. My work-at-home office was going to be my second home. So I made sure that it was set up in the best possible way to help me work efficiently.

When my employer from my corporate gig sent my co-workers and me to work from home, some of my colleagues asked me how I work from home. How do I keep my corporate gig separate from my writing/publishing gig? How do I manage to get so much done in a day? How do I keep my work lives distinct and work and family life separate? 

A designer has a duty to create timeless design. To be timeless you have to think really far into the future, not next year, not in two years but in 20 years minimum.” Phillip Starck

The truth is that it’s not easy. It requires a lot of discipline that I don’t have naturally, so I’ve had to develop some tactics to make it easier. Also, work seems to be all about working from home in the current environment. But often, there are a lot of distractions at home, and sometimes it can be challenging to work on essential tasks.

There were many things to consider when I was designing my work-at-home office, and I’ve pulled together the most essential elements that work for me. Here’s a list of things I have to set up in my work-at-home office to create the perfect work environment for me. For my corporate gig, I have: 

  • A sit-stand desk – for my corporate gig, I decided to get a new, slightly broader and longer desk instead of bringing up my old desk from the garage – being able to raise my desk and stand for at least part of the day helps with a sore back after sitting for a while.
  • A new ergonomic chair to go with my new sit-stand desk, which helps also avoid back and neck pain
  • A laptop and peripherals – a 24-inch external monitor (laptop monitors are never big enough), a keyboard, and a mouse – supplied by my employer for my corporate gig
  • Headphones – for conference calls and online meetings, while the laptop has speakers, it’s good to have something to filter out the background street noise
  • A USB splitter – to accommodate the external monitor, keyboard, the mouse, the phone charger, and headphones – there are never enough USB ports on a laptop

For my writing gig, I have my old student desk, with a pull-out keyboard tray, my old ergonomic chair (although I can no longer adjust it, it fits perfectly under the pull-out keyboard tray of my student desk), my laptop and peripherals (keyboard, mouse and USB splitter), an external hard drive (for backing up my laptop), a scanner and a printer.

Things shared for both corporate and writing gigs are my broadband internet connection (connected via a smart modem with mobile network backup), a small desk lamp (for when it’s overcast during the day or if I’m working at night) and a stack of books. The need for a stack of books might not seem obvious, but with the cameras in my laptop rather than in my external monitor, I use the book stack to raise the computer for a better camera angle when video conferencing (I’ll get to that in a minute!).

Obviously, the most important thing I have is an “office manager”, namely my 11-year-old champagne-coloured cat, Charlie, who “rescued” me when he was about two months old and likes to tell me when to knock off work! While the things I’ve already mentioned are what are essential for me, I’d also like to rearrange my desk, and there are some things that I want for my office:

  • Another external monitor, perhaps with an inbuilt camera or perhaps with a camera attachment
  • Adjustable mounts or arms for my monitor (or two, if I get a second monitor) and for my laptop(s)
  • A keyboard and mouse tray
  • A docking station
  • Cable management ties
  • A bookshelf stacked with books, or maybe a mix of books and ornaments, or for organising stationery (I have one I could move in)
  • Some artwork (again, I have some I could use, I just need to move it in)
  • A floor lamp
  • Lounging chairs
  • Floor rugs
Charlie, my Office Manager

The reasons for the first five items on this want list will be (mostly) obvious. The second external monitor would be for my eyes! I had excellent vision… until I hit middle age! And then one day, BAM! The computer monitor went fuzzy, words on the page blurry, and it was harder to read books… I needed glasses for my short vision!

I ended up with multi-focal glasses to ease switching between a computer and paper, and I have a single focus pair of glasses just for reading. Depending on what I’m working on, I’ll need to have multiple programs open. Switching between views, some on the laptop monitor and some on a single external monitor, is sometimes really hard on my eyes, even with my glasses.  

The adjustable mounts (for the monitors and laptop) and keyboard and mouse tray would get them off my desk and give me more room for writing and editing. Yes, I still write and edit printed copies. But, for me, red ink on paper is sometimes more effective than tracking changes on a word processor. The laptop mount would also mean that I could more easily adjust my laptops to get a better camera angle for video conferencing and clear more desk space.

The docking station would give me more versatility in which cables I use to connect my peripherals. In addition, the cable management ties would keep them neat and tidy and less accessible to Charlie when he’s pawtrolling my office. As for the second five items? Is it vanity? Wanton desire? Wanting to look professional? Maybe a bit of all three… but also mainly about style… Let me explain! 

What I learned from Room Rater

In my current work-at-home “office”, the spare bedroom I now have, of the four walls, there was only one prominent where I could place my desk: against the wall where the bed would go. The wall opposite had the wardrobe (with mirrored glass sliding doors), one wall had the entrance to the ensuite, and the last wall was not really a wall. Instead, it had sliding glass doors to the balcony.

So, with the desk facing the wall, what people see when I join a video conference (when I have the camera on) is the mirrored glass sliding doors of the wardrobe and a reflection of me sitting at my desk… not really a professional look. So I started thinking about what people see on camera and how to reorganise the room so they would see something more professional. It was hard work trying to figure it out!

Then one day, after finishing work one Friday night, I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a tweet mentioning Levi Fetterman. (Levi is a rescue pup living his best life in Pennsylvania, who’s since been joined by a sister rescue pup, Artie – follow Levi & Artie on Twitter to find out more about their inspiring story.) It pictured him relaxing on a sofa and gave Levi a 10/10 Top Dog rating. Hmmm, I wondered… room ratings? 

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris

I then checked the account tweeting the rating: it was Room Rater! Jessie Bahrey (in British Columbia, Canada) & Claude Taylor (in Maryland, U. S. A.) teamed up in in April 2020, just after the beginning of the pandemic, to start rating the rooms from which people were dialling in for interviews on news programmes on U. S. and Canadian broadcast television networks.

They would comment on anything and everything, from lighting, camera angles, décor, and clutter, to room depth and composition, the distance of the interviewee from the camera, plants, fans, and cord placement, and then give a rating out of 10. Their spokeskitty, Ella, will also chime in from time to time with news and updates.

If your cords are in view and aren’t neat and tidy, you’ll get a “violation” and points deducted. Lampshade seam showing? You’ll get a “violation” and points deducted. If your lighting is not up to par, or your camera angle is incorrect or bad, you’ll get a “violation” and points deducted (hence the stack of books I mentioned earlier, to raise the camera angle!). If you’re an author and your books aren’t stacked just so, or there are multiples, you’ll get a “violation” and points deducted.

Charlie: Knock off time!

But if your cords are not in view, the lighting and camera angles are good, and your book stack is just so, the better your rating will be. Good bookcases and colourful backsplashes (if you’re video conferencing from your kitchen or dining room) will also add to your score. Adding a pet can also improve ratings. My office manager, Charlie, wouldn’t mind making the occasional appearance! Those who had “bad” ratings mostly always take their ratings with grace and humour and take the suggestions on board to improve.

Although several humourous bad ratings wouldn’t have been “taken” so well by the recipients, there are others which have been taken graciously and the recipients have taken on the feedback to work on. You’ll get it when you see the ratings on Twitter.

They have an illustrated book, How to Zoom Your Room, due out on 21June. Illustrated by Chris Morris, it offers advice (and gives us their amusing take) on how to up your game on creating good lighting, the perfect camera angle, getting rid of clutter, and adding aesthetically pleasing touches.

By the way, Levi was interviewed for the book by Correspondent Lorenzo the Cat (also in the book after receiving a 10/10 rating) and received his advance copy already with a lovely note Jessie and Claude! I've pre-ordered the book and can't wait for it to arrive!

Where can you go for help with your work-at-home office setup?

The work-at-home office is one of the investments you will make in your working life (whether you’re in corporate working from home or if you’re in business). Having a separate space for work and play can help you stay more focused and productive.

Work-at-home offices aren’t just for entrepreneurs and independent workers. They are becoming more popular among small business owners, freelancers, and employees who need a quiet space away from the corporate office to get things done. 

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris

Your local office supplies store will have the equipment (mentioned above) you need to set up your work-at-home office. But will the office supplies store have the things to style your office? Are you unsure how to style your office for that professional appearance on a video call? Fortunately, several online sites will help you set up your work-at-home office for maximum productivity and professionalism.

At the end of the day

Not so fun fact: You’ll likely work an average of 90,000+ hours in your lifetime. Wouldn’t you want to spend your 9-to-5 in an office that’s as inspirational as it is aspirational?

Whether you’re based out of a coworking space or setting up shop in a spare bedroom, you can still make your office as practical as it is Pinterest-worthy.

The secret to staying productive in your work-at-home office is understanding what productivity really means. Unfortunately, no one definition fits all people, and there’s no magic bullet for productivity.

The best way to define productivity is by looking at what you want to get done and breaking it down into bite-sized, actionable chunks.

Once you have a list of things you have to do, you can start thinking about productivity, and when you do, here are three things you should keep in mind:

  • Stop multi-tasking. It can be tempting to want to take care of a few tasks at once, especially if they seem small or easy. But it simply doesn’t work. Instead, focus on one task at a time, and you’ll complete it faster
  • Take breaks. We might think working longer hours means we’re getting more done, but we never work as well when we’re burned out. Regular breaks help concentration and boost your mood.
  • Set small goals. Big goals can be overwhelming and stressful… but if you break it up into smaller tasks, you’ll feel more in control and be much more productive.

While a work-at-home office should be about productivity, it’s not the only thing. People decorate their offices because it makes them feel more comfortable and satisfied, and that can make them more productive. A stylish work-at-home office will be better organised and a more appealing environment that can motivate you to work. There is no concrete definition for style – it’s distinct and different for everyone, and you can make it whatever you want. You can create a stylish space that reflects your personality and work goals.

You may not be able to renovate (expensive if you own, or not viable if you rent). New furniture, reworking the space, and adding the right office desk accessories can add up. However, there are ways to create a clean and organised workspace on a budget.

Final thoughts 

Here are some of the keys to success when setting up a work-at-home office:

  • Be realistic about what you can do in your space (especially if you rent!)
  • Get a great chair!
  • Set goals for yourself to be more productive!
  • Get great style! If you not sure where to start, start with Room Rater! And don't forget to get How to Zoom Your Room.

We hope you enjoyed hearing about what I learned from Room Rater about styling a work-at-home office. We’d appreciate it if you shared it with your friends if you liked it. We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

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