“My partner is moving for their job,” “I would like to move out of the city” or “I need to spend some time caring for my relatives,” so would the conversation often start. Then, unavoidably, “and so I am thinking about working remotely.” Then, an awkward silence.
My co-workers often start this conversation and then get stuck. Beyond “why,” a transition to remote work comes with many questions which you may not know how to ask. This week, I’ll cover this one: “how do you get started, practically?”
It sounds almost too obvious, too silly to even ask. A computer, an internet connection, a place to sit or to stand near a power outlet, what else could you possibly need?
Yet, instinctively, everyone can feel that just those items are insufficient. But what else is missing? Can you enumerate the things that turn the “place where you work” into a workplace, or even a place where you can live and prosper?
My number one thing, above anything else, is a plant. There are multiple known psychological, cognitive and productivity benefits to having plants around you at the place where you work.
Besides those documented benefits, in my experience the exercise of caring for a plant also provides one with a reason to regularly step out from one’s mental routine.
I personally adopted a ficus tree.
But even before what a plant can do for you, a plant is also a biological check on your physical environment: if your space is not healthy for a plant, it is not healthy for you.
In particular …
You and your plant need daylight.
You can choose either a window for this purpose, or a specialized “full spectrum” light bulb that will illuminate you both at least 6 hours a day from multiple angles—i.e. just a desk lamp is likely insufficient.
The benefits of daylight on physical and mental health are also well-documented, and an online search away. It too almost sounds obvious. Yet I have numerous times advised friends and co-workers against repurposed closets, windowless basements and dark living room corners for this exact reason.
Do yourself a favor and find yourself and your plant ample light throughout your waking hours.
Additionally, you and your plant need an adequate amount of moisture.
With excess heating and air conditioning, the air becomes too try. Your plant’s leaves will likely dry up, like your skin. Your nose risks more frequent bleeding. Your body will excessively perspire without you noticing (because the sweat immediately evaporates) and you will feel generally colder, which reduces productivity. Continuous perspiration will also deprive your brain of water and make you generally more tired and less focused.
Conversely, without sufficient heating or air conditioning, the air may become too humid. This is particularly true if your space is set up in a basement or next to (or alongside) a laundry room. Your plant’s leaves will likely develop stains, or darken. You will develop colds and other illnesses, which will also impair your productivity or your ability to work altogether. With excess temperature, you will find yourself sweating excessively, causing discomfort, reduced focus and also lower productivity.
Ideal moisture comes for free and without hassle in a moderate climate, when you work in a space with a window which you can open and close as needed. In other circumstances, you will need humidity control: water to evaporate, like a fountain, when it is too dry, and a water absorption device for when it is too humid.
At this point I should probably mention the obvious: don’t choose a succulent or tropical plant as a work plant. The climate that makes those healthy is not good for you.
Finally, both you and your plant will be a healthy separation between “daytime” and “night-time”. Here I am not talking about light any more, but rather sleep and in particular how the change in light quantity and quality influences your sleep cycles.
If you work mostly when it’s light outside, you will want to control the amount of blue light that comes off your screen at the end of the day, when your body should be preparing for sleep. You can use applications such as fl.ux, redshift or “night mode” on your computer, to reduce the warmth of the screen’s colors. I personally also use an additional blue light filter in my glass lenses.
Conversely, if you work mostly when it’s dark outside, you will want to control the amount of daylight (or light in general) that shines on you while you sleep, to ensure that your sleep does not get disturbed. I recommend fully opaque curtains and/or an eye mask. For bonus sleep quality, you should also monitor the ambient noise level and protect your sleep accordingly, for example using earplugs.
Even though you might not realize yet, you will want a stand-up desk.
Besides documented health benefits related to standing while working, I found that certain work activities are also feel more natural while standing: giving a presentation, attending a stand-up meeting, and even some casual remote chats with co-workers. Standing while you co-workers also do will make for a better feeling of “belonging” with your group of co-workers.
I personally use the Conset 501-7 for a practical and aesthetic reason: it does not have feet in the front. I run into the desk less often with my chair and it gives an illusion of a larger space when walking nearby. (nb: I do not receive affiliate income from advertising this brand. I just like them.)
Finally, you will need a door.
The door can be physical or metaphorical. What matters is that you implement a physical obstacle between your workplace and the rest of your living space. This obstacle should not be just a separation of space that you have to walk to and from; it should also separate what you see during the day.
In particular, you should not let yourself see your workplace when you are not working, to avoid letting your work creep into your non-work psychological life.
(The same, incidentally, applies to a work laptop brought at home, for example due to a call shift. The work laptop should reside in a closet or a cupboard, in a place where you don’t see it when you don’t use it and which you have to cross physically to access it.)
Conversely, you should avoid letting your non-work activities creep into your work time, especially focused time where you need to concentrate. This includes a hobby workplace, which you should implement in a separate space. It also includes family life and other sources of distractions.
If you choose a workplace close to (or inside) your family’s living space, your loved ones should be informed that “work time” should be treated as “not there time.” Signaling availability becomes obvious with the position of a physical door. Absent the physical door, you can adopt a symbolic lamp, ribbon or other physical symbol negotiated beforehand.
There is obviously more to say about the challenges of remote work. Much has been written over work communication, work/life balance, career prospects and the like. Yet I have found that much of these topics yield conclusions that differ widely based on your personal circumstances. You should definitely research these topics, but no one-size-fits-all will tell you what will work best for you.
On the other hand, the topics discussed above are more clearly universal. A plant will force you to organize light, moisture and day/night cycles in a way that makes you both more happy and more productive. Your desk matters and you should find a way to not be sitting throughout all your work. And you will need a symbolic and strongly signaling door between your workplace and the rest of your life.