Some offices I know

When I'm at the corporate office in midtown Manhattan, I have what I need to do my job effectively. Well, mostly. For one thing, I don't have a room with a door I can close. But telephone-based interruptions come with such frequency that my noisy surroundings aren't the bottleneck to peacefully and quietly getting my work done. Okay, that first sentence was a lie. But it was a well-meaning lie. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is: no.

When I'm at the home office in upstate Manhattan, I have my pick of rooms with doors I can close. One of them has a 30” monitor and a whiteboard. Another has a recliner. Another has a burr grinder, a temperature-controlled electric kettle, and an AeroPress. The sun streams in from the south and west, setting over the George Washington Bridge, New Jersey Palisades, Hudson River, Fort Washington Park, and what is by far the largest of three better-than-bean-bag chairs.

It's not as idyllic as it sounds. Construction — with a particular emphasis on jackhammers — has been proceeding right outside for at least a year. At what feels like the exact same time, the unit above mine became inhabited by a small but heavy-footed child who has appropriated the railroad apartment's hallway as a training ground for the 2028 Summer Olympics.

But every jackhammer and sprint trial must occasionally come to a fleetingly temporary halt, and on the best days my home office is a truly great working environment, with near-ideal conditions for accomplishing tasks that require solitude and concentration. And on more typical days, when my schedule's dotted with meetings and the pavement's dotted with machines, the home office still wins for utility: while on a call, I can simultaneously be looking out the window at what passes for nature in these parts, or folding laundry, or pacing freely — and, I hope, lightly — to induce my mental gears to turn. The corporate office is superior for exactly two purposes: spending quality time with coworkers, and pressing the power switch on the computer at my desk. Otherwise it's noisier, distractier, further away from my softest pieces of furniture, and nowhere near persnickety enough about coffee.

Places of work

For the last several years I've been working from many locations, not just these two. I started working from anywhere because I could; I've continued working from anywhere because I've needed to.

Working from anywhere is not new. There exist successful companies designed around the idea. The organizational design typically includes such features as asynchronous communication and distributed version control. These working conditions reliably provide for the basic needs of the self-motivated programmer, enabling productivity in a wide range of environments and timezones.

I work for a company designed around employees who work from anywhere — but it's not a software company, my job is only occasionally to be a programmer, and the working conditions available to me necessarily reflect very different organizational constraints. So the lessons of GitHub, 37signals, and their ilk have been of limited applicability to my situation. By trial and error, I've come to understand that there isn't a single environment that best enables my productivity across a wide range of tasks, but rather environmental choices for me to make that depend primarily on what I'm trying to get done. Armed with a set of highly portable mix-and-match tools, I'm productive from nearly anywhere.

Besides the corporate office in midtown and my home office uptown, I work fairly frequently from such locations as:

  • Homes of friends and family
  • Coffeeshops and libraries
  • In-between places (planes, trains, buses, cars I'm not actively driving)

Having the option to work from places that aren't “the office” is freeing. When I choose to exercise the option, I'm choosing to manage my work needs using my personal resources. As this post will illustrate, I'm comfortable making that commitment. When it's up to me how to get my work done, I get more done.

Types of work

My professional time is divided between two modes of operation:

  1. Communicating (in-person meetings, phone meetings, instant messaging, emailing)
  2. Thinking (planning, designing, testing, implementing)

My company has a meeting-heavy culture. My team is expected to deliver software anyway. I've been throwing my body in front of oncoming meetings with the hope that in so doing, I'm saving the rest of the team from my fate. It mostly works.

A few of my meetings have a critical mass of people in the same building, or are one-on-ones. Naturally, I strongly prefer to attend these in person whenever possible. Most of my meetings are conference calls involving people from multiple locations. They frequently involve observing someone's shared screen over the network, or sharing mine with others.

A great meeting can lead to insights I wouldn't have arrived at on my own. When this happens, it's gratifying to be part of a conversation that led to a better outcome. In the aggregate, however, meetings take me out of the mental state in which I may arrive at insights. This wouldn't matter much if it weren't part of my job to be insightful, but it is, so it does.

When the task to be done requires extended concentration, I need a block of time during which I feel confident I won't be interrupted. During business hours, I approximate this by blocking out the time on my calendar (with a self-scheduled meeting!) and not opening instant messages or email. Our culture of meetings ensures that this is only an approximation, because new meetings can — and often do — appear on my calendar at any time, such as at the last minute. The phone can always ring. And if I'm in the corporate office, my shoulder can always receive a tap. So on the occasions when I must concentrate in order to be efficient and careful, I schedule the task for non-business hours. In this regard, the high cost of meetings is mitigated somewhat by the flexibility to work from home.

Examples of workdays

NYC: in-person meetings

Go to the office (usually midtown, occasionally downtown).

NYC: early meetings and/or several contiguous meetings

Stay at the home office. As needed, make really good coffee, look out the window, pace up and down the hall, etc.

NYC: no meetings

Rejoice, for this day is special. Block out the calendar. Stay at the home office (or, on occasion, join a coworker at his preferred coffeeshop). Think through designs and plans and/or write code.

Bloomington: many meetings

Work from Bekki's place, in a room where I can close the door. Make my own coffee.

Bloomington: few meetings

Work on campus at the open workspace in the business school. For coffee and snacks, go down the hall. For meetings, duck into one of the small private conference rooms with doors that lock.

Bloomington: no meetings

Rejoice, for this day is special. Block out the calendar. If it's nice out, maybe stay at Bekki's place and spend some of it outside. Otherwise, go to a coffeeshop. Think through designs and plans and/or write code.

Visiting my parents

If no meetings, work from parents' house or public library (both of which have coffee). If meetings, go to the Northbrook branch office, convince them I'm really from corporate, and set up in an unused room.

Visiting Bekki's family

Bring IP phone from home office to Germany. Set up a desk upstairs. For fancy coffee, go downstairs. If meetings, beware timezones: I may not be off the phone and able to sleep till after midnight.

Requirements of work

For all professional purposes: good coffee (or at least coffee).

For quick phone calls: company-issued cell phone, reliable cell coverage.

For basic phone meetings: all of the above, minimal background noise, privacy.

For presentations or deeper discussions: all of the above, hands-free headset, laptop, reliable low-latency network access.

For designing, planning, and programming: laptop, reliable low-latency network access, external display.

For working in noisy places: all my music, over-the-ear headphones.

Tools of work

  • Tonx coffee
  • Avaya 4620 desk phone and Plantronics CS55 wireless headset for calls at the home office
  • Verizon Blackberry Bold 9930 (company-issued) and MEElectronics Air-Fi AF32 Bluetooth Headset for calls and email away from home
  • iPod classic and the AF32 headset for music
  • AT&T iPhone 5 for backup internet (via tethering) and phone (with MaxBoost Atomic Air battery pack)
  • Jawbone Jambox for speakerphone and music away from home
  • Jawbone Era for calls while driving (hardly ever happens)
  • 11-inch MacBook Air for general-purpose remote computing with Unix (via SSH) and Windows (via Citrix) systems
    • Quirky PowerCurl for compact power-cord transport
    • RadTech ScreenSavrz for screen protection and cleaning
  • iPad 4 as my second monitor (via Air Display)
    • Smarter Stand for flexible positioning
  • Tabletote Plus portable desk

The 11” MacBook Air is a perfect fit for buses, trains, and planes: the screen is short enough to tilt far back enough to see comfortably, and the keyboard is far enough away to type comfortably. At a desk, the iPad with Air Display adds screen real estate. All of the above gadgets (minus the desk phone and desk) fit into my Tom Bihn Ristretto. If I need the desk, I use the Victorinox Architecture 2.0 Big Ben backpack (link is to 3.0) instead. If I just need the laptop and some tunes, I carry the InCase Sling Sleeve.

Since I can bring my own desk and internet access, the technical limit to how long I could work while sitting in the middle of a field had been the battery life of my laptop. No longer: I just upgraded from the late-2010 MacBook Air to the mid-2013 (which is what prompted me to write this post). I don't usually work from fields, though, so the practical upshot is that when I go to a coffeeshop for the day, I no longer need to worry about bringing a power cord or finding an outlet.

An exhortation

Working from everywhere requires discipline, internal motivation, self-observation, and control over your environment. If you know what you need and you know you've got it, you can do anything. Go forth and be productive!