Home & Office

Red means don't bother me! How Alexa helped to create our work-from-home busy light

Working from home is great -- except for the distractions and interruptions. We solved that problem using nothing more than Alexa and a smart bulb. Meet our new, improved busy light.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

The busy light in red mode.

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Working from home has its upsides. My favorite part is that my little dog Pixel can climb up onto my lap and fall asleep while I'm writing. But there are also downsides as well. For me, family interruptions can interrupt my flow, especially when I'm writing or programming.

Back in the earliest days of Alexa, almost a decade ago, my wife and I set up a rudimentary status light system to help manage interruptions. We planted a light cluster in a high-traffic area of the house, and then assigned certain colors to certain conditions. This allowed her to know when she could interrupt me, and when to protect my concentration.

Also: Smart home starter pack: 5 devices that will make your life easier

Back then, Alexa could turn lights on and off, but wasn't able to tell smart bulbs to change color. You could say, "Set light to 40%," for example. But you couldn't say, "Set light to red."

Our workaround was a light bar with three separate Philps Hue bulbs, and each bulb was surrounded by a colored gel: red, yellow, and green. I assigned each bulb a different name, and could turn each on and off with Alexa, letting the gels provide the color.

Also: Philips Hue's new security camera uses your smart lights

The system worked, but it was cumbersome and took a lot of space. When we moved to Oregon in 2017, the alert light system was abandoned. Since then, we've just made do without any status light system.

Until now.

Building a modern busy light

Back in 2014, just about the only smart bulb was the Philips Hue. Now, of course, everything is Alexa-enabled. Not just bulbs, but all sorts of light fixtures. And Alexa can easily assign colors. That ability makes setting up a busy light system now just about as easy as setting up any smart light.

We chose the Govee Night Light, which the company kindly sent me earlier in the year. This is actually a hybrid device, consisting of a small, but very visible lamp that sits on a saucer that's really a Bluetooth speaker. We haven't made use of the Bluetooth speaker, but as a busy light, the Govee Night Light does its job.

Also: The best smart home devices (and how they can make your life easier)

It sits on a furniture unit in our family room and can be seen from every vantage point, not only in the room, but in the hall and passing by. There's no way to miss the signals.

Speaking of signals, we use the same red, green, and yellow we used before, except we decided we liked the color that was displayed by, "Alexa, set busy light to orange," more than the one for yellow.

Configuring the busy light

Linking the light to Alexa is similar for almost any smart light. Generally speaking, you start with the company's own app. In this case, I installed the Govee app from the iOS app store and bound the light to the app. Most smart devices come with instructions on linking the physical hardware to an app.

Configuring busy light
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Then, from inside the Alexa app on my phone, I installed the Govee Skill. Skills are how individual smart devices link into the Alexa ecosystem. Think of them as Alexa's software plugins.

Also: How to make Alexa bilingual

Generally, you locate and install the skill. Then, using the skill, you log in to your device vendor's account and connect the two.

Govee Home
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Finally, you give the item a name. Usually, the name is assigned in the vendor's app and then it propagates through the skill and into the Alexa app. In our case, we named the Govee Night Light as "busy light" and that's how it shows up in the Alexa device inventory.

Govee Home options
Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

The busy light in daily use

One scenario that's fairly common is that I'm quietly drinking my coffee in the morning, quite happily open to conversation and company. Then, out of the blue, a Slack request shows up and I have to instantly switch from coffee klatch mode to I'm-in-a-meeting mode.

Also: Hybrid work is in trouble. Here are 4 ways to make it work

When I'm working on my computer in the family room, my wife can't easily see my screen. It's not easy for her to tell if I'm just poking around the web or trying not to lose the sentence that's in my head. She also can't tell if I'm in a Zoom meeting, responding to that series of concurrent Slack conversations with clients I mentioned, or just listening to Spotify.

In that context, these are the light signals:

  • Red: Under no circumstances interrupt me. No matter what's going on, please deal with it, and do your best to not interrupt me. This is used if I'm in a critical client meeting or if the server has decided it hates me and I'm one mouse click away from flushing all of humanity's knowledge into a black hole. In other words, I save red for when I really, really mean it.
  • Orange: This is the caution light. It means I'm working. If possible, let me concentrate. But if you need something or want to interrupt, you can. The world will not end.
  • Green: Green is good. Green means I'm not working and welcome any and all interruptions.

This approach works well, except Pixel refuses to pay attention to the busy light. He just doesn't care. If he wants to climb the Daddy mountain and knock away the plastic typing thing so he can curl up and sleep on my shoulder, he'll do it. It is the one flaw in an otherwise quite successful busy light strategy.

If you work from home and your family needs to be aware of the varying work modes that can change on a dime, consider setting up your own busy light.

What do you think? Do you think you'll set up a busy light to keep help your family understand when you're working and when you're available for fun and conversation?

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my weekly update newsletter on Substack, and 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.

Editorial standards