Note: I first published this article on July 20 of last year, four months into the pandemic, when the length of the crisis was just starting to sink in. Now, after a year of somewhat drastic change, we're coming to terms with our new reality. I've updated the advice to be more relevant for our current situation.
We've talked a great deal about the working-from-home transition brought on by COVID-19 that we have a dedicated working-from-home section and home office tours at ZDNet.
For many, working from home is a new, sudden experience. As such, just getting set up and going is a challenge. But this transition has proven to be a long-term experience.
If you find that you'll be working from home over the course of years, you'll need to make some decisions about your living environment. If you've been working from home for the past year, you may want to make that lifestyle permanent. If you find yourself needing to move to a new home, factoring in the working-from-home aspect is also going to be important. While I can't advise you on the specifics of house-hunting in these pandemic times, I can share with you my working-from-home experience, and provide strategies you might use when choosing your new place.
I've worked from home for about 20 years, in seven separate living situations. During these 20 years, my career changed. I started as a laid-off employee attempting to become a software entrepreneur, moved into magazine publishing, and then, as an encore career, transitioned to being a columnist, teacher, and advisor.
My earlier work from home situations also involved the challenges of managing employees coming to my home to work, where my more recent experiences have been more about accommodating the wide range of work projects I undertake.
In this article, I'm going to share with you a dozen lessons I've learned integrating home with work. To start, let's climb into the time machine, accelerate to 88 miles per hour, and travel back to the late 1980s...
Make the space
- Lesson: Make the space you need to do your job, even if it's uncomfortable for your personal life
- Living space: One bedroom apartment -- late 1980s
When my company was acquired, I got laid off. Suddenly I found myself on my own. After years of working for others, I decided to start my own company, a software company providing apps for Apple's HyperCard.
This was back in the day when software was sold on disks and in stores. I jobbed out most of the work to a disk duplication company and a box printer, but I still had to manage inventory -- which I did in my living room and the little storage space that came with the apartment.
To have enough room to work, I turned my bedroom into my office and my living room into a storage area. I moved my bed into a small corner of my living room. I was a single guy and the bed in the corner of the living room didn't go over well with my dates -- but it did enable me to bootstrap the company.
Perception of professionalism
- Lesson: Perception of professionalism is important, especially when working from home
- Living situation: Same one-bedroom apartment
This was before the internet. No distributors or stores wanted to buy from a small company. If they called me on the phone (we did that, back then), they wanted a human to answer (we also did that back then).
I wound up hiring an answering service that would shunt calls to me after they answered. It was expensive, but necessary at the time.
It's really interesting how the perception of working from home has changed over the years, from mostly unacceptable in the late 1980s to nearly mandatory in the early 2020s. Where, back then, there was a massive stigma to working from home, now it's expected. Zoom meetings have shown us all a wide selection of bedroom and living room corners.
Don't annoy the neighbors
- Lesson: Take extra care not to annoy your neighbors, landlord, or the city. Have no negative impact on the community around you while working from home.
- Living situation: Rented house -- 1990ish
As the business grew, working out of the apartment proved unsustainable. I hired employees in areas like shipping, sales, administration, and so on. This was still before the internet, so most of these employees came to work at my house. Obviously, this wouldn't be the practice today in our pandemic. But, by the first year, I had eight or so people coming to work at my home each day.
It started with me taking the upstairs as my home and the company taking over the downstairs. Shipping was in the garage. I used a den as my office. The living room, kitchen, and dining area became office space. After a while, there wasn't enough room downstairs for all the employees, so I eventually found my private space tightening, until all I had was one bedroom for living space.
It was in this location that I found myself at odds with the landlord, my neighbors, and even the city. It all came to a head when 18-wheelers picking up and delivering boxed software product blocked the street -- and the neighbors from their homes. They complained to both my landlord and the city, and we were ordered to move out.
10 years in offices
For most of the 1990s, until the events of Sept. 11, 2001, I rented and worked from traditional office space. Like everyone else, I commuted to work. Even once the web gained traction in the mid-1990s, we worked (publishing online magazines and software) from the office, not from home.
The cloud makes it all possible
- Lesson: The big lesson I learned here was one I couldn't appreciate until almost a decade later: The power of cloud-based infrastructure. The idea of cloud-based virtual servers would have transformed our ability to scale, and solved -- in about five minutes -- what took five months to resolve with real-world edge-case bandwidth issues.
- Living situation: Three-bedroom apartment -- 2001-2005
The week after Sept. 11, all our advertisers canceled their contracts. It was impossible to sustain five employees. It was also impossible to sustain office rent. So, after a decade of having my home to myself and Samantha (my cat), I moved the company back into my apartment.
We were no longer a manufacturing company, so inventory wasn't an issue. I took one 11x11ft bedroom and my remaining employees shared another 11x11ft space intended as a dining nook.
The big challenge here was attempting to install a business cable, then ISDN, and finally a T-1 line into my apartment. At that time, the only T-1s in local use were feeding Rutgers and Princeton. I wanted the third to go to my rented apartment. This took a lot of work with various providers. For the back story on this whole mess (and the challenge of getting port 80 access, read this article).
Unless you've been through something like this, you can't imagine how much of a game-changer IaaS offerings from services like AWS and Digital Ocean are. Rather than running a bank of servers in my closet via an insanely expensive T-1 as I did in the early 2000s, I now run 10 servers (with others spun up or down as needed) in the cloud.
More isn't always better
- Lesson: The big lesson I learned was that more floor space isn't always better. It's important to really think through the structure of your home, especially if you're buying or renting knowing you're going to be working from home.
- Living situation: 4,000sqft rental house -- 2005-2011
Prior to this move, I had mostly rented based on my housing needs, without factoring in the special needs of working from home. When circumstances forced me to work from home, I made do. But I often sacrificed comfort, efficiency, and logistics in the process.
When Denise and I moved to Florida right after we got married, we moved into the first property we'd ever chosen with working-from-home in mind. We rented a big place, because, at that time, Florida rents were way cheaper than New Jersey rents, and we were combining two households and office space.
We also wanted space for doing the job. We allocated one room for her office and one for mine. We also allocated one room each for project space. By this time, I was doing a lot of projects that were making it into our magazines.
We had enough space, but it was actually too much. We found ourselves piling things up in spare corners rather than building organizational systems. It was difficult keeping order in a house this large.
- Lesson: Expect things to change. We made certain assumptions about our work environment when we rented, but the reality of how we worked meant that our daily work patterns were very different than we originally expected.
- Living situation: Same large house in Florida
Even though we had allocated offices and workrooms upstairs, Denise and I found we both tended to work downstairs together in the TV den, rather than in our offices. By the time we moved out, we'd put in little work desks and set up a second set of computers in the TV room.
It's important to keep in mind that your working-from-home environment will change both by design and organically over time. Don't build for permanence, but rather for reconfigurability, when it comes to working from home. Things will change.
You're not just buying a house
- Lesson: If you work from home and you're buying a house, you're not just buying a house. You're buying a home, a factory, a lab, an office, and a warehouse. Choose your home with work in mind.
- Living situation: Ranch-style house -- 2011-2017
Finally, it was time to buy our own home. Once again, we each got a room dedicated to our project needs, but the rooms were much smaller: 10x10ft or so. I also set up a 10x9ft room for video and webcasts, which I'd started doing very actively a few years earlier. In fact, I documented a lot about this studio here on ZDNet.
The studio space, small as it was, was a total game-changer for my job. The workshop space in the garage allowed me to expand to all the 3D printing and project coverage I've done. Running Ethernet through the walls gave us high-speed connections to every room.
My work needs expanded, as well. Not only did I need a studio and an office, but I also needed a workshop to do all the maker and fabrication work I highlight on ZDNet. We allocated the garage mostly to my work, which turned out to be quite a win.
Evaluate broadband availability
- Lesson: Research and, if possible, test out broadband availability before making a final decision
- Living situation: Same ranch-style house
After the nightmare that was my port 80 experience a few years earlier, I learned to be much less trusting when it came to broadband. After all, for me, broadband is the critical infrastructure for how I make my living.
In most cases when you buy a house, there's a due diligence period. This is a week or so when you can bring in contractors, home inspectors, and other experts to do a deep dive into the house you're looking at, to make sure you don't get stuck with unaffordable surprises.
Also: Speed up your home office: How to optimize your network for remote work and learning
I had cable internet installed in the new house during this evaluation period. I set up a small PC in the corner running network diagnostics software and measured connectivity and broadband performance for the week. Once I ascertained it was workable, we moved forward with the house purchase. If broadband had failed my tests, we would have declined the house.
Family life complicates
- Lesson: In an office, you're supposed to keep family and work separated. But that's not possible when working from home.
- Living situation: Same ranch-style house
For us, it was the puppy. For you, it might be kids or aging parents. A home layout that worked relatively well prior to the puppy proved unusable once we adopted the little guy.
Because we found that we often worked in the TV room in our previous home, we turned the great room of our new house into both a TV area and our primary office space. It was dead center in the middle of the house and took up most of the floor space.
This area worked great until it didn't. If I was on deadline, my wife couldn't bring friends into the house (this was back when you could bring friends into your house). And when we got our little puppy, he would freak out when we stepped away from his little area (we couldn't let him under the desks, which were filled with wires he liked to chew and big desk chair wheels that he liked to curl up under). When he could see Mommy, but not reach her, he would howl like it was the end of the world.
Plus, hurricanes. Had we stayed, we probably would have reworked the offices and puppy space, but Hurricane Irma was headed straight at us, we evacuated, and after having lived through one too many hurricanes, decided to move as far away from Florida as possible. That turned out to be Oregon.
You can work from pretty much anywhere
- Lesson: If you suddenly have to work from a new space, it's doable in large part because of the cloud
- Living situation: Evacuation across the country -- 2017
I learned a lot during this transition. I was able to work and mostly do my job remotely (even from an empty highway in the middle of the desert) because of LTE hotspotting, cloud-based services, and cloud-based storage. I had to keep up with deadlines even during the time we were on the road from Florida to Oregon.
The cloud made being remote from my servers mostly a non-issue. I was also able to cobble together a functional -- if less than pleasant -- working environment in each hotel. For you folks who may be making the transition to home from the office and whose job involves computers and the internet, keep in mind that you can do this, too. It just takes time and fortitude.
Kindness is critical, especially in chaos
- Lesson: A huge take-away is just how important, especially in times of stress, it can be to be kind to each other. Acting out doesn't buy you anything, but compassion for your closest companions means the world.
- Living situation: Oregon rental house -- 9 months in 2017 and 2018
When we arrived in Oregon, we were essentially refugees. Our choices were quite limited. We needed a rental with a decent number of rooms that would accept a small dog. We found a place with a combined kitchen/bonus room, and that became my office and studio. It also had a nice garage, and that became my temporary workshop.
We didn't invest much time, energy, or money in that house, because we knew we'd be there for less than a year. Using a kitchen-adjacent space as an office and studio was stressful. We were always getting in each others' way. What helped was knowing we were planning on finding a permanent house once we fixed up and sold our place in Florida.
But it is possible to do good work, even if your circumstances are ad-hoc -- especially if you have the support of your family. My wife and I had stresses, certainly. But we worked together to make sure deadlines were met and we took extra effort to be kind to each other, which made everything else possible.
If you take away any one lesson from this article, it's be kind to each other. In the pandemic, we're all experiencing both anxiety and cabin fever. It's at this time we're most likely to act out, and it's at this time that we can least afford to do so. Make it a conscious part of your thought pattern to stay kind, nice, and polite. It may well be the secret weapon that will help you get through this.
Front-load infrastructure investment
- Lesson: Even if it's financially difficult, invest in infrastructure when you can, pick your battles carefully, and chip away steadily at necessary home improvements
- Living situation: Oregon home -- 2 1/2 years so far
We made a laundry list of needs and desires for our new house. We took the time to identify our specific needs and measured the places we looked at against that list. Some were "had to have" while others were "nice to have." The challenge was finding something in our budget (houses in Oregon are a lot more expensive than houses in Florida) and that met our needs.
In order to meet our needs with our limited budget, we finally settled on a fixer-upper. It does meet our structural needs, but it also requires a lot of help. The electrical system was so bad we had to pretty much yank the panel out and start over.
It's important to pick your battles carefully. Your home must provide the critical services you need. In our case, we had to invest in installing heating and AC, because half the house had neither. We had to replace decades-old appliances that were on the edge of total failure.
All of that is financially difficult, and so we had to choose what to spend on. We didn't buy new furniture or paint the house, but we made sure it didn't burst into flame due to the open-ended high-voltage wiring in the attic, for example.
Everyone's situation is different, of course. But when it comes to investing in your working-from-home home, put structural before decorative and functional before beautiful. Even among the most critical items, you're going to have to make trade-off decisions. We have three open pieces of drywall in the house because fixing those eyesores wasn't as critical as having a working fridge, and bringing contractors into the house in the middle of a pandemic doesn't seem like a good idea.
All the suggestions I've discussed in this article are based on my personal experience. Everyone's situation is different, both in terms of family life and job needs. My big bottom-line suggestion is that you identify what you absolutely need to perform well in your job, optimize for that, and then let everything else evolve organically.
Hang in there, good luck, stay sane. Let us know how you're managing working-from-home (if you're lucky enough to be able to do so) in the comments below.
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.