The Key to Maximizing Productivity When Working from Home May Be All in Your Space

By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

As of 2016, nearly half of American workers reported that they spent at least some time working from home, and by 2017, 5.2% (roughly eight million) worked from home full-time, a number that continues to increase.

Affording workers the flexibility to do their jobs outside of the traditional office setting has been linked to employee productivity and retention, and Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace Report found that flexible scheduling and remote-working opportunities are increasingly playing a role in workers’ choice of employer. The ability to work from home and create schedules around personal responsibility has also been identified as a way to help close the gender pay gap and prevent women and primary caregivers from incurring the motherhood penalty, and this practice also makes it possible for employees to take care of aging family members.

We asked three business and management experts how this growing segment of workers can maximize productivity when working from home, and the answer was unanimous: you must create the space.

Reserve and preserve a mental space

The duties of domestic life will always call, and it’s difficult to ignore this when a sink full of dishes is staring you in the face or a child is knocking on your office door. Allowing household demands to creep into your mental space during your working day creates an attention rift.

Not having a proper workspace at home can seriously affect your productivity, and constantly being distracted by personal issues can undermine your ability to focus on your work,” says attention management expert Maura Thomas. For those without children in the home, this may be easily accomplished by establishing daily routine, dressing for work, making a physical space only for work, and drawing a line in time between work and personal obligations.

Jamie Gruman, professor and senior research fellow at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recommends creating this mental space by keeping two separate calendars: “one for work and one for non-work activities. This way you won’t be distracted by items like ‘get ingredient for chicken soup’ while scanning your agenda for the next item on your work to-do list.”

For those who work from home to care for children, creating a mental space for productivity requires additional effort. While those with school-aged kids can make the most of school hours, those will younger children will have to weigh the cost of paying for childcare or tag-teaming with a partner or family member as a means of creating this mental (and physical) space. Even if childcare is not available to you, this mental space can be created, with creativity: maximize productivity during nap times or after children go to bed or, for those with children of a more autonomous age, by creating for them a movie hour (or two).

Reserve and preserve a physical space

The ability to devote attention to work at home is also dependent on physical space. Thomas argues that the most important question to ask about the home office is, is it really a workspace?

“Do you have an appropriate amount of space for the tools of your work, such as ample room to comfortably hold your computer and peripherals, some space to write and do work that isn’t computer-based, plus storage space for other tools and accessories, like pens, stapler, paper clips, phone, calculator, reference material, unopened mail, glass of water, outlets, and USB ports, etc.? If you routinely “work” squeezed into a corner of your couch, the end of the dining room table, or squeezed onto some flat surface in a corner of your bedroom, then you are seriously impacting your productivity.”

We asked three business and management experts how this growing segment of workers can maximize productivity when working from home, and the answer was unanimous: you must create the space.”

Thomas points out that many of today’s workers are “knowledge workers” (this is increasingly true of the work-from-home segment), which means that the tools for productivity are information and communication.

“If you have to stop what you’re working on because you can’t find what you need quickly, you will have interrupted your flow. Even simple things, like not being able to find a pencil when you need one, can cause enough of a distraction to have an impact on your productivity.”

Having a room in your home reserved only for work is ideal, but for workers with little space to spare, this can present an obstacle. “Someday I would love to have a designated office, but since I live in a small apartment, my desk lives in the main living area,” Seattle-based blogger Chelsea Lankford told House Method in an interview last year. “However, I only let myself sit at my desk when I’m working. I do get a little stir-crazy at times, but that’s when I pick up my work and head to a cafe or walk down the street to Lake Union when I need a break.”

Business consultant and contributor to Entrepreneur Phil La Duke says that the I don’t have enough room argument doesn’t really work—you make room. “When I first started working from home, I was renting a small duplex. I put my desk in my bedroom and literally made a cube out of a room divider. My office took up very little space and the room divider made it seem more like an office from the inside, but didn’t look like an office from the outside.”

Stick to a schedule

Much like reserving a physical space, those who work from home should reserve a space in time for their work. Marking regular work hours (even if those are not the traditional nine to five), practicing time blocking, mastering to-do lists and scheduling, and breaking for lunch create the temporal space for productivity in the home office.

Thomas advises: “Try to be realistic—you’re not going to complete your work and then do 10 other personal tasks on the same day. Also, tame your task list. Do you have to check two different email accounts, the Post-It notes on your computer, your calendar, and your voicemail to figure out what you need to do? Get your to-dos all in one place. Your brain doesn’t know what to do with ill-defined tasks until you turn them into smaller, actionable steps that are very specific. Use verbs when entering items on your task list so you’ll know exactly what you have to do to take appropriate action.”

The obstacle of isolation

Despite the number of Americans who are moving their workplace into the home, and the benefits around productivity and career advancement it affords, this is a relatively new business practice. Last year Huffington Post reported that there may still be psychological ramifications for some who opt for this arrangement: the pressure to “appear” busy at all times, to make oneself available for more hours outside of the workday (if not all the time), and even a sense of guilt over the ability to work from home, especially if colleagues do not do the same.

Understanding that these pressures may be self-imposed and mastering productivity at home may make it easier to take ownership of the arrangement.

Remember that your boss has their own job to do, so it’s unlikely that they will spend their working hours tracking your movements, so if they’ve afforded you this flexibility, they should deliver without penalty. And while I can’t solve for the reality of the motherhood penalty here, I will make the argument that feeling in control of your productivity at home leads to confidence in work product, which may help mitigate the emotional labor of caretakers who work from home.

Additionally, “I would tell people who feel pressure to look busy that they are probably far more productive than when they are in an office with coworkers and they need make time for coffee breaks, meals, etc.,” La Duke argues. The pressure [to be available at all times] can be enormous, but it is largely self-imposed,” says La Duke of his own work-from-home arrangement, but encourages workers to examine exactly where that pressure is coming from.

More tips for maximizing productivity when working from home

Use your office only for work

La Duke recommends keeping work spaces work spaces to establish that mental distance. “Your home office is your workplace that just so happens to be located in your home. Don’t blur the lines by making it a place where you pay bills, watch sports, or do anything but work.”

Establish a dress code

Follow the same dress code as you would if you were going into an office. Not only does this put you in work mode, but when you change clothes when you get off work, you get the transition you between work and home that your commute would normally provide,” La Duke says.

Don’t neglect ergonomics

When creating your physical space, make it one where you can comfortably and sustainably spend a full work day. Don’t skimp on the right desk chair, and if you use a standing desk, get a mat to protect your back and legs.

Block out noise

There have been studies that show certain types of ambient noise can boost creativity. Free tools like Noisli and Coffitivity are great for creating your own mix of white noise, or for blocking out a noisy household.

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