When It Comes to Working From Home, Less Is More

CC BY 2.0. A minimalist dual-screen setup/ Lloyd Alter

Keep it simple, keep it light, keep it mobile.

Our tip jar recently had a post from a tiny house site that described "how to set up your 'work from home' tiny home office" and which had all of our TreeHugger eyeballs rolling. It had everything from high-speed internet (hard to find where most tiny houses are hidden) to printer/scanner combo units to standing desk extenders, because "the human body was not designed to sit." My first thought was, where are they going to put all this stuff in a tiny house? I wondered, what do you really need?

We have covered a bit of this topic at the beginning of the shutdown and other posts, but all of the TreeHugger team have been working virtually forever, from tiny apartments to coffee shops to hotel lobbies, so we have a bit of experience to share.

1. Keep it simple and don't spend a lot of money.

It's fast enough for most things

It's fast enough for most things/ Lloyd Alter/Screen capture

Unless you work for someone like Twitter where your boss has told you that you can stay at home forever, nobody knows when they are going back to offices or even, in so many cases, whether they are going to have a job a few months down the road. Take that high-speed connection; it can cost money to bring in fiber, and probably takes a couple of months to get it. I work for three months of the year on what's essentially a cellular modem, and when I got close to my data limits would switch to my phone; my phone company just announced an unlimited data plan that would actually do the job.

2. Your office is where you are.

Ace Hotel Lobby

Ace Hotel Lobby/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In 1985 Philip Stone and Robert Luchetti wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the new wireless office phones (infrared at the time) would change everything, that you would no longer be fixed to a desk but instead, Your office is where you are. (My favorite office away from office is the Ace Hotel on Broadway.) It's taken 35 years to prove Stone and Luchetti were right, but it is really true now. As Ian Bogost noted:

In a way, “quarantine” is just a raw, surprising name for the condition that computer technologies have brought about over the last two decades: making almost everything possible from the quiet isolation of a desk or a chair illuminated by an internet-connected laptop or tablet.

Notebook computers are powerful and light; Slack and Skype and Google and Zoom make it easy to communicate: Have notebook will travel. Most TreeHugger writers have been moving around their houses and apartments for years; TreeHugger's Katherine Martinko, who has a desk and an iMac, tells us that she's not using it. "I prefer my laptop more than ever these days because it allows me to move away from the kid noise. I'm constantly moving around the house to the quietest spot."

I know a prominent tech writer for a major newspaper who is working on a Galaxy android tablet, and another on his iPad; he likes the way it limits his multi-tasking and increases his focus on the task at hand. I use my iPad as a second screen with the new Sidecar app; Windows users can get Duet Display.

3. What else do you need?

My multifunction printer/scanner stopped working in October when Apple dumped 32-bit drivers; I have had to print something exactly twice since then. I use my iPhone for scanning. TreeHugger's Melissa Breyer says, "If I had a tiny house, I wouldn't take up precious real estate with a printer! With all the apps and options, I can't remember the last time I printed something."

4. Zoom changes everything.

This has been my big surprise since the shutdown: so much is happening on Zoom or other video conferencing technologies. Since we became part of the Dotdash team, we have meetings every day; there are now webinars and I even have a kind of beer bash every Wednesday evening with the Passivhaus crowd. Your setup really matters for this; most people wouldn't go to a Zoom office meeting without brushing their hair, yet they happily sit backlit so you can't see their face or with distracting backgrounds.

TreeHugger's Lindsey Reynolds attends the morning meetings from a lush garden under flattering natural light; that's the virtue of portability. I have a window behind my computer specifically to get good lighting on video, but grab my notebook in the afternoon and move when the sun comes around to the west side of the house. During meetings, you want a quiet spot with light in front of you and a nice wall or carefully curated bookshelf behind, but it may not be the most comfortable spot at other times; that's another reason to travel light.

I have become disenchanted with Zoom backgrounds; they don't cut around my hair very well, body parts and animals come weirdly in and out randomly, and my notebook doesn't have enough oomph to run them. I think that a carefully chosen real background is a lot better and says more about you.

In summary: Less is more.

We have covered these issues before, but the context of a tiny house or apartment raises different issues. Go minimalist and use as little equipment as possible; you probably really can get by with just a little notebook. We have all been doing it for years. As the weather gets nicer and the parks are opened, get out of your tiny place and work outside. If you want to work standing up, find a shelf or a counter and move to it. And even though we are out of the office, we are still social beings and care about how we present ourselves; whenever your camera is on, think about what's behind you and where the light is coming from. Keep it light, keep it portable, keep it simple, and keep moving.