How to build a virtual cubicle for working anywhere

How to build a virtual cubicle for working anywhere

Summary: Whether working remotely is productive or not depends on the work environment at a given location. Here are some basic tips for building a good virtual cubicle no matter where you work.

TOPICS: CXO, IT Employment

More folks are working outside of a conventional office than ever before, with telecommuting rising in popularity due to lower costs to the employer. New telecommuters are discovering what home workers have enjoyed all along -- freedom from the daily commute is a real attitude adjuster. While some home workers require specific equipment that mandates only working at home, others are able to work just about anywhere.

Whether working remotely is productive or not depends on the work environment at a given location. Here are some basic tips for building a good virtual cubicle no matter where you work. Many are simply common sense, but all are tried and true methods I've used for years to work anywhere.

Choose your venue wisely

Cubicle farms are not the most comfortable place to work, but compared to some venues they can be downright comfortable. That's why it is important to choose your remote work spot wisely. Coffee shops are popular work venues, but they can often be a mixed bag when it comes to providing a proper work environment. Many shops are as noisy as can be, so preparing for that possibility is a must.

In large cities there are alternative work spots that few use, making them great remote offices occasionally. I find neighborhood libraries make for great quiet work spots that are comfortable for a few hours. It is imperative you work quietly, but you get lots of quiet in return. I often listen to music with headphones to keep my noise down.

Many museums have comfortable places to work reserved for supporters, and for a reasonable annual contribution they'll let you set up whenever you want to get some work done. They often provide nice tables and chairs for patrons who like to come in and soak up the unique environment that can only be found in museums. This has the added advantage of providing great breaks from work sessions, spent checking out the exhibits. It is a win-win situation.

Many cities have coworking establishments that allow transient workers to drop in and work for a few hours. These places have good WiFi and in addition to a proper work environment they have other like-minded individuals that can provide interaction for those who typically work in the isolated home office. Many coworking offices have different levels of membership available, from private office rentals to free table and chair provision.

Be a good remote worker »

Be a good remote worker

Those who work outside the home office a lot end up frequenting a coffee shop or similar place. Remember that these are places of business; don't wear out your welcome. Buy a beverage every time you come in to work. Be sure to chat up the workers and get to know them; they will get to know you in the process and will look forward to your visits. They are in business to make money, and most places love the regular patron. You'll have fewer problems sitting for extended periods if you get to know the staff.

Don't abuse the environment with loud phone calls. Nothing gets staff and other patrons annoyed faster than the remote worker constantly making loud phone calls in the midst of everyone. If you must make/take a call, walk outside to do so. No one wants to listen to your one side of the conversation. Use a headset with your phone, preferably one with noise cancellation so the other party can hear you in noisy environments. You are working in a coffee shop, and your professional image will suffer if those you converse with by phone are aware of that. A good headset will give the appearance that you are working in an office as expected, while minimizing the disruption to those around you.

Don't regularly have meetings in the coffee shop. Most shops have limited space available, and dominating it with meetings won't win you any friends. More importantly, a public venue is not the place for a business meeting, as everything discussed will be shared with the crowd. I have witnessed confidential business meetings on more than one occasion in coffee shops, where I had no business being privy to everything discussed.

Even worse than having private meetings in public places, do not conduct job interviews there. This is not fair to the interviewee, as all patrons become privy to a very private conversation. It also makes everyone in earshot very uncomfortable, and will get you labeled as a bad patron.

Virtual cubicle gear bag and conclusion »

Virtual cubicle gear bag

No matter where you set up to work remotely, having the proper gear in the bag can go a long way to dealing with any eventuality that crops up in such sessions. Having the proper notebook computer is a given, and especially one with good battery life. It is not always possible to find a power outlet in coffee shops and the like, so it is good to be prepared for working as long as needed using battery power. A second laptop battery may be a good investment for those who frequently work remotely.

If you are fortunate to find a regular work venue that has a few power outlets, one simple gadget can keep you from wearing out your welcome by hogging one of them. A travel power strip with extra outlets lets you tap into the power for extended periods, and provide a few outlets for fellow workers. This keeps patrons and shop workers happy, as instead of the one who always takes the outlet you are the one who always brings extra outlets for others. Just search for "portable power strip" and you'll find plenty of options that take up little room in the gear bag.

In addition to bringing a good phone headset, it might be a good idea to also bring a second battery along for the phone. A phone with a dead battery is of no use and it only takes a minute to swap in a fresh one to keep working. Those using the phone's mobile hotspot feature for connectivity will find that it drains the battery rapidly, so a backup battery is a wise thing to throw in the gear bag. I carry a second phone battery in the little pocket of my business card holder.

The proper laptop will turn any place into a full remote office. Make sure you have one that fits your work style and has all the software tools working properly. Do all of your system maintenance before you head out for remote work sessions so you don't waste time (and battery) performing it when you should be working. If you use a mouse in the home office, bring one to use remotely. You'll find it to be less disruptive and more productive to keep things the same as much as possible.

Try to maintain an ergonomic position while working as much as possible. This is not always easy to do in some locations, but make the best of what is available. Don't slouch or sit in the comfy chair with the laptop perched precariously on the chair's arm. You'll pay for it later, and be less productive than you will if you sit up straight with a proper position for typing.

Bring backup connectivity even if the venue has WiFi. It's not that uncommon for a hotspot to not be working, or to be so saturated that the network crawls. If connectivity is important, bring your own in the gear bag. This can be a mobile hotspot device like a MiFi, or a smartphone with the hotspot feature enabled. This requires a monthly fee to activate, but for those who frequently work remotely it is usually a worthwhile expense. It is liberating to not have to worry about connectivity wherever you might work.


Following these tips will go a long way to helping build a productive virtual cubicle just about anywhere. The advantages of working remotely will be leveraged to the fullest with the proper gear and attitude.

Image credit: Flickr user ste3ve

Topics: CXO, IT Employment

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  • Houston Museums

    Which museums in Houston have space like that? Might be a nice alternative to the office a couple of days a week. Park downtown and take the train to the Museum district.
    • RE: How to build a virtual cubicle for working anywhere

      @seanabrady The Museum of Natural Science has areas where you can work. $50/year for individual membership which has lots of benefits. I don't know if their location in Sugar Land has any spot to work.
      • RE: How to build a virtual cubicle for working anywhere

        @JamesKendrick Hmm. I am a member, will need to check it out.
  • RE: How to build a virtual cubicle for working anywhere

    Cool tips, when not working from home, I like to work at the nearest Starbuks. I like the atmosphere there, and it allows me to concentrate, something I find kind of hard sometimes at the home office.
  • Botanic Gardens

    I'm a fan of the Botanic Gardens. In most cities that I travel to, my membership is reciprocal, meaning that I can get in for free by belonging to the Botanic Garden in my home town. Many of them have free WiFi, or are often in good areas for cell reception to tether from my phone. I have the option of working outside in a quiet and beautiful location, or inside at a coffee shop, etc, all on the grounds of the gardens.
  • Charging your phone while remote

    An extended life battery is always a good idea. But if you don't want to or haven't had the chance to invest in one, you can always keep your phone charged simply by plugging it into the USB port on your laptop (assuming you bring the right cable). You already have your laptop going, this is a trickle charge that keeps your phone topped off.
  • Ergonomics

    Consider bringing (1) a compact portable keyboard with extra USB port for your pointing device, (2) your favorite mouse or trackball, and (3) A book stand that is designed to hold books open for long reading sessions.

    Then you can open your laptop display panel to about the 180 degree position, and put the laptop in the "book stand" in a nearly vertical position. Hook up the keyboard and mouse, and your mobile workstation will be nearly as ergonomic as a regular office desk, with the display up at the proper viewing angle so that you are a lot less likely to develop neck problems from looking down all the time.

    Another thought to consider on the subject of mouse versus trackball, I prefer a good trackball like a Logitech Trackman Marble with the ball in the index finger position because it's much easier to use in tiny spaces. I found it took a bit of time to get used to, but once I did, it became my preferred pointing device because you can't accidentally jiggle the pointer when clicking.

    • RE: How to build a virtual cubicle for working anywhere

      @dvorme Forgive me if I giggle, just a little, when I see you working in a public place with a laptop splayed upright in a book stand with a USB keyboard and mouse...and perhaps a copier and shredder to the side.

      You might want to find a laptop that has a great keyboard and trackpad.
  • RE: How to build a virtual cubicle for working anywhere

    I've found that in a pinch, the environment in a car is typically reasonably quiet (while parked, of course). I park in someplace like a park, use a "DC inverter" (a device that plugs into the car's cigarette lighter & turns the car's 12 volts DC into standard AC like you'd get out of a wall socket). This allows me to run the laptop off the car's electrical system & work much longer than just the laptop battery would allow. Car seats are pretty comfortable and if parked in a reasonably peaceful location, you can function pretty well - you can even bring snacks along. Just don't go too far overboard... if you run your laptop a long, LONG time off the car's system, you can actually drain the car's battery and end up needing to have your car jump-started. Being somewhat of an "extremist" myself, I've actually had this problem... and ended up setting up a dual-battery system in my car, with a switch to isolate the second battery from the main one while working with the laptop, so I'm not draining the battery that needs to be able to start the car. <br><br>Of course, if you're in a cold climate, this may not be a very good option during snowy, cold weather (nor in extreme heat, for that matter). But during more pleasant weather it works really well. And when I need something, I can just close the lid of the laptop and head out to pick up a needed item or go take care of a necessary task. Often, if I need to enter a store, I just toss a jacket over the laptop (which would be parked on the passenger-seat) so passers-by can't see that it's there, and when I come back from a quick purchase and head back to my "work site", all I need to do is open the laptop and I'm back on the job. Also, in the car there are no issues over "loud calls" & phone conversations, which were mentioned in the preceding article as being an issue for places like libraries & coffee shops. Nobody takes issue with you if you make phone calls in your car (unless you do it while driving, of course).<br><br>I'm sure the many "road warriors" in the "audience" here could contribute additional helpful suggestions that would also facilitate the ability to work & function in reasonable comfort, and be productive while out & about.<br><br>W. Barney<br>Northern California
  • RE: How to build a virtual cubicle for working anywhere

    Great aricle!