Hardware

Creating a productive workspace: An IT consultant's office essentials

Chip Camden advises IT consultants to spend less on sprucing up their office for clients and take more time on making their office a productive space. He also discusses what to keep in mind if you're setting up a home office.

 For a corporation, the physical office space serves as a location for at least two activities: to work and entertain visitors (especially prospects). For the independent consultant, most clients never see our workplace (we usually meet at their offices or not at all), and we hardly ever entertain visitors. (In almost 18 years of consulting, I have only met 42% of my clients face-to-face -- the rest of my business has been conducted solely over the Internet --and I've only had three clients visit my office.) So it's pointless to spend a lot of money making your physical address ostentatious or even presentable -- focus instead on making your office a productive space for accomplishing work.

Here is a list of the office features that are important to keeping me productive. I also offer tips on what to keep in mind if you're considering working from home.

The essentials

A good Internet connection

This is critical. But I've found that a telephone isn't as important. You need to be able to use a telephone while at your computers (a speaker phone to keep your hands free is a good idea), but you don't want it to always be ringing in your face so the telemarketers can break your concentration 82 times a day.

A room with a view

Regardless of whether your office is in your home or not, it needs to be your private cave where you can get into the Zone. That means, for one thing, that you need a window with a view. Not an overly distracting view like Wrigley Field (although that would be awesome in many ways) -- calm and fairly predictable would be best: the ocean, the mountains, or the woods are my favorites. Why do you need this? You want to be able to stare outside while you're thinking over a problem that has hit an impasse, rendering further review of the situation on a monitor frustratingly fruitless. If you don't have a view from your office, you're going to have to get up and leave in order to achieve the same result.

More than one monitor

You need plenty of space for all your gear and space on your desk for all your monitors and input devices. Yes, I said monitors -- plural. My first 10 years of consulting were conducted with a single monitor connected to one workstation/server, but I shudder to think of all the productivity I lost during those years just from not having a second screen. How often do you need to switch between an editor session, a command prompt, and a requirements specification? If you can keep all three up and visible at once, how much needless window twiddling have you eliminated? Maybe you don't need six monitors (though that is truly awesome), but two monitors are a huge improvement over one. I currently have four monitors wired to three systems, and I use Synergy to direct all four with the same keyboard and mouse. One of those monitors is my laptop, which allows me to travel with an abridged form of my setup.

Multiple systems

You also need more than one system, even if some of those machines are virtual. If you try to do all of your work on a single system, it will get completely overgrown with crap in no time. Even though I have separate machines for my private server and two workstations, I still use VMware to create individual virtual machines for testing purposes. Not only does this prevent conflicts between software-in-testing and my production systems, it also insures that my testing is performed in a clean, controlled environment. If you're going to run virtual machines, you need enough horsepower in terms of CPU and memory to avoid bringing the whole thing to a thrashing crawl.

Lighting The right lighting makes a huge difference. Windows with a southern exposure can create too much glare -- a northern exposure works best, because no matter where the sun is in the sky or how brightly it shines, you only get it indirectly so it's more consistent. Artificial lighting needs fine control. My office has ceiling-mounted track lighting with a dimmer switch, so I can control both the intensity and direction of each light source. Ergonomics Ergonomics are extremely important. You'll be sitting in that same chair, staring at that same set of monitors, and manipulating those same input devices all day long every working day of the year. All of your chairs should be comfortable and arranged to promote good posture. It's also important to have all of your equipment (monitors, keyboards, and mice) positioned to promote good posture. If the monitor is too low, for instance, then I'm hunched over no matter how ergonomic my chair is. Storage space for equipment and media You should have a closet or other enclosed space where you can keep all your spare gear, cables, manuals, media, and books; otherwise, they end up all over the desk and floor. I don't have the neatest office in the world, but I do avoid permanent clutter. Anything that is meant to stay in my office has an assigned place therein. Music Some people work better in silence, but I'm more productive with the right music playing. Not too loudly, though. Jazz seems to work best for me -- it's not overly intense, and it easily fades into the background. But, occasionally, an entire day of J.S. Bach will help me to make the stunningly complex amazingly comprehensible. Close proximity to coffee and bathroom

The bathroom and the coffee pot (or beverage generator of your choice) should be readily accessible. If you have to traverse a significant portion of the building for either one, expect to get side-tracked on your way.

Be realistic when setting up your home office

While you certainly don't need to rent a high-priced office space in order to create a "presence" for your clients, you do need to consider whether working out of your home is right for you. (Check out my post, Four issues to consider before becoming a remote IT consultant.) Sure, it's convenient to have a 50-foot commute from the breakfast table to your desk without even needing to stop by the shower on your way, but you must impose some boundaries between home and work. If you allow yourself to be interrupted frequently by non-work-related activities, your productivity will suffer. I've found that I need to be able to at least close a door and enforce the rule that it shall not be opened or knocked upon unless someone is bleeding, or the house is on fire.

It also helps to have some physical distance between your office and the rest of your house. This not only curbs interruptions, but it also blocks noise from your family members. My office is currently at the end of a hall beyond all of the bedrooms and that's just about the minimum amount of space required, as far as I'm concerned. A separate structure would be ideal -- like above a garage, for example. In one house we rented, the lower floor was completely separate from the upper floor; you had to go outside to get from one to the other. The landlord planned to rent the floors out separately, but we rented both and I made the lower floor my office. I've often considered renting office space away from home purely for the separation factor, but that's a big expense for what it buys you.

TechRepublic member Glen Ford recently mentioned that "being with the family while working is sometimes helpful." I haven't found it to be so, unless by "helpful" he means "helpful to the family." In my corporate days, I never had to break away from a big project in order to unclog a toilet. But if you want to be able to work close to your family members at times, I suggest setting up a wireless LAN and roaming with a laptop. That's also nice for a change of scenery, like working outside on a pleasant day.

What's in your office?

What other features do you think are important in your office? Do you disagree with anything I've labeled as an important feature? Share your thoughts in the discussion.

Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

39 comments
reisen55
reisen55

Good things on the wall and desk. My office has five systems upstairs and about 10 more downstairs. So my office has accumulated life trivia in abundance, FAR from computer related. A blueprint of the Nautilus from 20000 Leages (Disney - Harper Goff), pictures of the Hannibal Twin 8 from THE GREAT RACE, a few of me in years past (with a wonderful horse). Ship model of the AKAGI on my book case with not one computer book in it. All give an outside sense of life.

ahmadrw
ahmadrw

Why don't you show us pictures of your home office so that we can really know what are you talking about? Thanks

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Wireless Headset Phone: You can use your hands freely, and it allows you to take calls beyond the office. Sometimes it's nice to be able to rake leaves while walking someone through some otherwise tedious procedure. WiFi and a Lap Desk: Allows you to use your laptop comfortably at places other than a desk or table. Some days, it's nice to work outside on the laptop. Much of the time, this only requires your laptop & wireless phone. I also frequently work evenings in the family room on the couch while the Mrs watches TV. Aquarium: I find watching fish swim back and forth calming during tedious phone conversations. I have a separate TV & couch. Sometimes, you need to take a break and veg, watch the news, etc. Windows with a view: Chip covered this, and I agree that it's very important, if for no other reason than to exercise your eyes. These days, it looks over the forest in the back yard. When I lived in a condo (before I was married) my office view was of the complex swimming pool, which often became way to distracting.

tim_birch
tim_birch

Thanks ? I?m off to buy the coffee machine - it will pay for itself within a day.

reisen55
reisen55

I have a computer network of 27 systems in-house, more than my clients have in a few cases, but rarely are more than 3 on at any one time. Server and two stations are always on, and others turned on and off for redundancy backup purposes. I keep copies of stuff always. Rolodex: here is a little contact manager I CANNOT get rid of because it has too much stuff in it over the years, but as it is a DOS program, it is damn fast to start and fast to search. ROLODEX LIVE so if you can find it, use it. Nice and quick. Office away from the office: I have another networking relationship with a company in NJ that allows me space in their office, so I periodically travel down there to simulate a work commute, mentally very good indeed. Give yourself breaks at work - most companies already do that. Why should home be any different.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Great article Chip ... even if you did end by bashing me :O Couple of comments (of course) .... Before starting you need to know your own style and your own job. And you need to have the discipline to let that guide you. You also need to have a handle on the equipment you need to do your job. For example ... I'm a people person (as is my wife -- an artist) and being constantly separated from people can be difficult for me (and my wife). My work also isn't usually heads down coding. So having a secondary office in the living area helps keep me working. I don't keep bouncing down to the kitchen just to see another human besides my own reflection in the CRT. And my wife isn't disrupting my work because she needs to see a human not composed of pigment. And when I get a phone call I've got plenty of room to pace. I also (and this is important) don't have a problem with interruptions affecting my productivity. My family accepts that I am working and cannot be disturbed. And by being in view my wife doesn't need to talk to me. (Telemarketers drive me nuts though -- they seem to need more maintenance than my family). Where I have a problem is with procrastination and avoidance. So knowing that my wife knows what I'm working on - or not - is helpful in ensuring I am disciplined. While I do use my laptop I have some physical limitations that require me to focus on ergonomics (i.e. my chair) somewhat more than Chip apparently does. And while working around the pool is tempting I usually find it's less comfortable than it appears. It's either 10 below or 30+ up here and seldom in between (that's Celsius folks). On the other hand, I do sometimes work as a programmer or I'm running a webinar or in a conference call. Then I need to be in my own space with a closed door. So I maintain a separate office for that purpose. And if I'm in the wrong office my wife usually points it out to me very quickly. In fact, I'm currently trying to figure out how I can do videos in my home. At this point it looks like I'll need to set up a studio area in my rec room because it's the only room with sufficient length (I want to do green screen). :_| Thank heavens for portable equipment. Similarly with systems. Most of my work uses a computer but doesn't require working on a computer (there are exceptions). So I don't need multiple monitors or multiple systems. I do, however, need a separate server(s) and several test/training beds. While Chip doesn't need a good telephone, I can spend a great deal of time on the phone. So my requirements for a phone are not as flexible as his. Our taste in music is different too ... I'm more of a Celtic music type ... although Bach and other Baroque composers and Gregorian chants frequently appear on my playlists. Marketing planning to pirate shanties ... gotta love it. :^0 The point of all this is that you need to decide before doing anything ... what's your style, what's your level of discipline, how likely is interruption, how disruptive is interruption to your productivity. And how much and what type of equipment do you need. Your requirements for office space and location will stem directly from that. Also remember the tax requirements (in Canada a separate office isn't a requirement). Having said that some things -- like a window in your office and good lighting -- are necessary whatever your needs. And Chip has covered many of those items. P.S. You also need a window because your eyes need to periodically shift from short focus (i.e. the monitor or paper on your desk) to long focus (infinity or at least the house across the street). You need to be taking a break every 45 minutes or so for this purpose. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.TrainingNOW.ca

lisakanarek
lisakanarek

Chip,you covered a lot of areas in one article...good job. I think the key take-home message is that you need to work from home the same way you work in a corporate office. Set a schedule, minimize interruptions and have the technology you need to be productive. Working from home isn't for everyone but for some of us, it's the only way to work.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Many years ago I lived in a house with a view over our neighbor's yard, where the tall, slender woman of the house liked to sunbathe. Definitely not a productivity booster. What sort of lap desk do you use?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I don't know why it took my so long to figure out that you can have more than one coffee maker per house. Having one for the office helps a lot (of course, then you also need to have a ready source of water, and a refrigerator, and...)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Truly, YMMV -- and I should have said that in the article. Celtic music attracts my attention too much. Maybe if I were more used to it, it wouldn't. After all, at one time I couldn't do anything else while listening to Bach.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, the discipline to make yourself get to work is certainly more important than any one feature of your office. But having fewer distractions helps.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

I keep a slinky on the desk as something to twiddle with during long conversations.

cmaritz
cmaritz

Some years ago I visited a software house where the programmers (+-8) worked in quite a nice spacious U-shaped arrangement, and hanging in the center was a punchbag :-) Otherwise, I think you got all the big points, Chip. I must say, I confess to using a single monitor for much too long now. Thanks for the informative post!

burntfinger1
burntfinger1

I'd give the location relative to the coffee pot and bathroom a higher priority :) but that's just me getting geezerly and not wanting to be so far from the bathroom. Interuptions are pretty much a necessary nuisense (sp) as I homeschool my 15 year old daughter but she's pretty good about knowing when to interupt. Evenings and weekends are another matter.

Timbo Zimbabwe
Timbo Zimbabwe

"Maybe you don?t need six monitors (though that is truly awesome), but two monitors are a huge improvement over one. I currently have four monitors wired to three systems" I agree; multiple monitors and systems is essential for productivity. I have 2 monitors connected to 3 systems; 1 monitor for my server, one for my test system, and both monitors will toggle to my main computer/workspace. This way I have visual access to any 2 systems simultaneously. This is a huge help in my opinion....

Second and Goal
Second and Goal

... to share this with my wife. Maybe if she sees the "do not disturb" concept in print, I can bring it up without winding up in the doghouse. I'm in the process of getting a part time consulting business off the ground, and she can't help but interrupt me to help with little things around the house (in her defense, she's working on night school projects, but you get the point).

fatman65535
fatman65535

I knew someone who moved his recording studio from a city, and out to the "boonies". Sound isolation issues forced the separation of the living area in the house, and the studio which he located in an old barn about 50 feet away. I had suggested that he give his kids a "summer day task" and bury some 2-1/2 PVC conduit between the house and the barn for phone, network, video feeds; and at the same time, he had a water and sewer line tapped from the house, out to the studio. He sent me a picture taken from the control room during the summer. Although the control room normally "looks" into the sound room, if one were to turn around, the large "back wall" has a spectacular view. The wide angle shot of the Cascades in the background was absolutely stunning. Much closer to his building, the stream that passed about 100 yards behind was a definite mood relaxer. His wife, who also worked for herself, liked what he did with the larger barn so much, that she remodeled the smaller barn into HER home office. They both have essentially the same view.

apotheon
apotheon

Rubik's cube, TechRepublic flag, blow-up doll... I have two out of three, at least. I'm not likely to get the other one.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Bookshelves, filing cabinets, garbage can, paper shredder, crying towel, office warfare weaponry .... Glen Ford

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Maybe even a pocket game like Yahtzee that you can grab on your way to the can...

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Not sure it has a name. It's a very simple affair; a 13x17 flat surface with a bean-bag on the bottom. Very comfortable to use, and quite necessary during the warmer months. I recall finding it online a dozen or so years ago at the suggestion of my wife. Nowadays, you can find various versions everywhere, like at Bed Bath and Beyond.

reisen55
reisen55

I may have 26 systems up that I can turn on, but only two and sometimes three are up all of the time. Server and one general purpose workstaiton which I can access remotely through dyndns.org via client site and sometimes system upstairs. So electric bill is not a hard hit.

ps2goat
ps2goat

He said he rarely had 2 or 3 on at a time, so it can't be that bad. Unless they're Pentium 4s. It's worse playing Xbox 360 on a big screen late at night and passing out after turning your heat up so the basement media room gets warm. Eight hours of that is rough on the utility bill!

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Absolutely ... there are lots of important common points though e.g. having a window, having an escape area, having a quiet area. But one of the first things that you need to do is figure out what your vehicle needs to do. (Cute allusion huh?) I mentioned two items (personal style/bad habits, and job requirements) but are there any others? As for Celtic music ... I learnt to multitask using Folk, Rock and Classical (sometimes separately and sometimes together -- and yes, we really had Rock music back then - and no it wasn't from banging two rocks together). So I can tolerate a little toe tapping quite easily. Glen

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

My editor questioned whether those two belonged in the same list at all, or if they were just "nice to haves". I replied that it isn't just about convenience -- the further you have to travel, the more likely you'll get sidetracked.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Even our fellow techies can often be tempted to interrupt thoughtlessly, and they should know better. It's no wonder that non-techies can't understand our need to focus deeply.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Rubber-band shooters used to be standard issue when I worked in the corporate world -- who do you fight with when you're on your own?

kent.manley
kent.manley

If you can swing it, Levenger.com has many different styles, some with and some without the bean bag bottom and/or legs. I tend to move my laptop from the desk to a recliner and the lap desk is virtually required for that. Nice post, by the way. It definitely validates a lot of things I've done in my home office, including moving it up from the basement (for the view and the room). I do have shelves (book shelves and low shelves for spreading stuff out) in my office, which really helps a lot, too. I think aesthetics of an office are important. It doesn't have to be an executive suite, but should be a clean, comfortable place to work.

apotheon
apotheon

I've seen them at Barnes & Noble, too.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... our spa, and the electric heater I turn on for our dogs when it gets below freezing at night. The 10,000 RPM drives in my server don't hold a candle to either of those.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Let's see ... my own bad habits (thus the mirror)... And certain clients who just don't get it (thus the phone) ... although that's more of a crying towel thing. And my son ... who's been home sick for the past two months ... especially when he hogs the computer. I don't usually use my wife ... she tends to escalate ... do you realize how sharp pencils and paint brushes can get???? And ink bottles?? Oy,vey they sting!!!! :^0 Oh, and the cats ... well, not really they tend to ignore my threats and me ... unless I'm working in my quiet office. Glen

Editor's Picks