Working remotely takes a lot of getting used to. And when I first started, I had no idea how important it would be to work out the kinks of my workspace setup itself.
Now I’m not talking about fancy keyboards and other incredibly tempting productivity gear. There’s plenty of material on that if you just Google.
I’m talking about the holistic design of the entire workspace.
I’ll mention some essential pieces of gear, but I’ll also discuss furniture, storage, and how to intentionally set up the space so you never find yourself in a state of resistance or frustration. And most importantly, I’ll discuss how you should use the space and how it should exist in the context of your entire home, which impacts your productivity in more ways than I ever imagined.
Here’s how to setup the ultimate engineering workspace in any size home.
Divide the ship (and respect the boundaries)
The absolute bedrock of working from home productively is this: Pick a place where work happens and make it your temple of technical productivity.
While this applies to many kinds of work, it's absolutely critical for software engineering. We're just one of those professions that requires large amounts of intense focus and creative thinking. You really can't get away with being sloppy about your work rituals without serious productivity consequences.
When you work in an office, this is all figured for you. The very act of entering the building and sitting down at your desk is a psychological trigger that puts you in the mindset for development work. And as I explained here, there are many other environmental and cultural cues that keep you focused in ways you may have taken for granted.
Likewise, when you're at home, sitting on your couch may trigger the mindset for gaming. Entering your kitchen may trigger hunger. Going to the gym gives you more energy to workout than you would in your bedroom.
The point is, your environment materially impacts your energy for different activities — and you don't want to be triggered to Netflix and chill when you really need analyze and bug-squash.
That's why the only thing that can happen in your workspace is creative work. No eating, no watching Netflix, no checking Facebook or Instagram.
This video by CGP Grey explains this point exquisitely and what to do when you find yourself tempted to give in to crossing wires. I recommend watching the whole thing, but if you absolutely must skip ahead, 2:30 is where he introduces the meat of the idea, and 7:50 is where he goes into detail about the all-important Creation Station.
And the best thing is you don't need multiple rooms to make this work. Even a studio apartment with well-defined boundaries will work better than untamed habits in a large suburban home. This is an option for everyone.
Which room (or corner) is best?
Now, since you're going to be spending many hours parked at this dev station, you're going to want to prioritize where it's located in your living space. That is, it should occupy a portion of your space that you actually enjoy being in — and this should take priority over other stations.
As a software engineer, you might think this is a mere nice-to-have suggestion. Our work is very heady after all. Half the time we don't even notice what's happening in the environment around us as we focus completely on designing solutions and unmasking problems. What does it matter where that happens?
The truth is, whether you're consciously aware or not, the location has an impact on your state of mind and desire to be in that space. If it's in some dark corner of your room facing a wall, you're likely going to find yourself resisting returning to it, and end up working on your couch or in your bed, which will eventually erode all the benefits of having well-defined spaces in the first place.
Your goal is to reduce inner-resistance to being in your work space as much as humanly possible:
- Similar to avoiding the traps of working in your favorite TV spot in your house, you should also avoid establishing your permanent work camp in your bedroom, if possible. Just entering your bedroom brings with it all sorts of associations that trigger the exact opposite of a productive state of mine, and working in your sleeping space also makes it harder to sleep. However, if your bedroom is the only option (e.g. because you have roommates), then your work space should face away from your bed and feel like a distinct area within the bedroom as much as possible. You don't want to see your bed while you work. You want to feel like you're in a separate room even when you're not.
- If you want to be better at solving problems, bring nature into the mix. Not only does walking in nature reduce stress, but even looking at photos of nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase one's problem-solving ability. Therefore, it's wise to position your desk near a window where you have access to natural light. If you have some semblance of a view, even better. But even if your view is a brick wall, proximity to fresh air can still expand your sense of your space and inject random bits of positivity into your day.
Set yourself up with dedicated gear
Now, gear is obviously important in WFH stations, too. But instead of just worrying about the kind that you should get, it’s important to simply make sure you get yourself as much developer work gear that is separate from your personal devices and peripherals.
For example, my WFH station includes dedicated chargers for my laptop and other devices, cables, test devices, my favorite pens and scratch paper for thinking, a work iPad, and a white board.
One idea here is that your work/creation station should be frictionless. It should have everything you need to create solutions literally within arms reach (and reliably), and such a convenient setup should actually make the idea of working elsewhere in your home actually feels less desirable. The secondary reason to make sure your workstation is stocked at all times is to nip in the bud any excuse for you to get up and interrupt your work vibes – like if your laptop battery is dying and you need to run for a charger, or an idea just came to mind that you have to jot out by hand.
Now it's true that cables and chargers can add up. A MacBook Pro charger is $80 these days without a cable, and a full copy of the rest of your gear could be rather significant. In many cases, though, the benefits strongly outweigh the costs. But if this cost just isn't an option, then I'd encourage you to keep your primary set of gear at your desk as much as possible. If it leaves, make a habit to return it as soon as you're done with it. Your productivity will thank you later.
Bonus tip: Surely keeping a solid pair of headphones at your dev space is a good idea, too. But if you’re going out and getting a set just for work, I thoroughly endorse getting some with noise-cancelling. These aren’t always a great idea for the office, but since WFH means you only have to be alert to your boss’s Slack messages and not them dropping by your desk, I think the added separation from non-work distractions in the home (from kids, roommates, pets, etc) can be a life-saver. And you don't need some large, fancy pair. I have two of these $60 bluetooth earpieces from Poly (formerly Plantronics) and they work great.
A workspace is more than a desk
All of this gear needs somewhere to go. Having it strewn all over your desk is going to make your workspace feel chaotic, not welcoming. You need furniture that will accommodate all of the things you need in an organized fashion, and you need to balance that with the physics of actually doing work.
Notice I said furniture, not desk. Your desk is just one piece of the puzzle that may also include shelving, drawer units, little bins on your shelves, etc. The point is, the overall solution needs to accommodate your tools. The responsibility doesn't rely solely on the desk.
For example, if you have a smaller space, a small leaning desk like this might be perfectly acceptable. The work surface is actually quite small, but I was able to make it work because of how I utilized the shelving above and to the side to store my essentials. The desk surface itself only ever held my laptop, a cup of coffee, and a place for writing my thoughts, while all gear was stored in thoughtful bins that I could reach with my office chair on wheels.
Once I found myself with a little more space, I opted for this larger desk from CB2. It's super useful for a million reasons:
- The ledge to the front is a great place to store pens and little tools. As an iOS developer, I have a little dish with a tool to open SIM card trays on test devices, as well as a little stand I use while running apps on device.
- The space beneath the ledge fits some wireless keyboard perfectly if you decide to mount a display or two above the desk.
- The left drawer is where I store all of my cables with a drawer organizer so they're in arms reach, and the right drawer is where I keep scratch paper and notebooks.
- When I'm done for the day, I make a ritual of closing my laptop, and putting it away in the middle drawer to indicate that work for the day has come to an end.
- There is a wire bank beneath the desk where my laptop charger lives, with the cable peaking out from the dedicated opening to the right beneath the ledge.
- And to top things off, I have a dedicated coaster for coffee.
You can find a variety of attractive and useful desks (that aren't eye sores) at places like Crate & Barrel, West Elm, CB2, IKEA, and many others.
Two schools of thought on chair choice
I want to make one thing clear: You don't need the ultimate or perfect coding chair to be highly productive at home.
You do, however, need a seating arrangement that does not actively fight your focus and productivity.
There's basically two schools of thought on this matter that I call brain in a vat and a foot in presence.
The brain in a vat model optimizes entirely around your physical comfort. You might invest upwards of 1k on an ergonomic masterpiece like the Aeron or Cosm chair, so you can forget you even have a body and fully occupy mind-space like an unstoppable coding machine.
The foot in presence model, on the other hand, intentionally utilizes discomfort to force you to maintain at least a little awareness of your body even while you engage in mind-intensive tasks. This ball chair, for example, is intended to force you to monitor your posture and occasionally get up and walk around. It's just not comfortable enough to sit in for hours without a break. Interestingly, I've actually found that not being allowed to get totally consumed by mental space allows me to solve problems a bit better. That is, by making it harder to get lost in coding rabbit holes and maintain a connection to higher level perspectives that guide my efforts.
Both of these models have their advantages and disadvantages. A foot in presence is a bit healthier, but if you're realistically not going to actually get up and walk around on the regular and instead slouch on the ball and ruin your posture, it's probably a net negative. I personally own a chair that's somewhere in the middle. It's not comfortable enough to get lost in code without interruption for an entire day, but it also does not constantly interrupt me to get up or cause physical pain (like other chairs I've used).
Experiment with chairs you have, then research others that might be a good fit.
Don’t forget to add a dash of ‘joy’
There's one last factor in the design of your space that will impact your productivity: the flow of energy in the space. Having dedicated gear and the right furniture reduces a lot of friction, but there's also a technique I love for imbuing my space with positive energy.
Marie Kondo might not be widely known in engineering circles, but she should be. The author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a wellspring of practical advice for removing energy-draining clutter from any space. (And it turns out, she recently wrote a new book that focuses entirely on optimizing your workplace in exactly this way.)
But one important takeaway I extrapolated from Marie is to not only get rid of items from my space that do not “spark joy,” but to strategically add items that do spark joy (or something even more useful).
In the context of my engineering workspace, I have items that remind me to be a better problem solver, especially since it can be so easy to get lost in your own thinking. I have a rubber duck to remind me to apply rubber duck debugging (the right way) when I get stuck. I have a few framed quotes above my desk to remind me not to indulge frustration and center on accepting whatever technical obstacles lie ahead. And I have a couple other nicknacks that remind me of my goals and the why behind them. In total, there's about five items around my desk that don't occupy too much space but do actively add utility in the way they keep me grounded on wisdom that has a direct effect on my ability to solve engineering problems.
In your case, these items might include a book about clean code you find useful, even if you never open it. Likewise you may have a photo of someone you admire, or a product that represents your values as an engineer. Just looking at these things will remind you of lessons you've already learned or values you already hold. Find a handful of them (but not too many), and place them in positions where you're likely to accidentally glance upon them, but where they don't get in your way by occupying space for something you might actively need to use (like a cable or tool). A strategic balance of these things can indeed be magical, so long as you don't get carried away.
Anyhow, best of luck with all the important pieces involved with creating your very own (and very productive) WFH space for engineering!
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