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How to get the ultimate home office, according to 4 CEOs who work remotely

The CEOs of Basecamp, Flexjobs, InVision, and Dribbble share the ultimate work-life hacks. Tip No. 1: Make sure there’s a door—that locks.

How to get the ultimate home office, according to 4 CEOs who work remotely
Basecamp CEO Jason Fried’s home office. [Photo: Christopher Barrett]

If you commute to an office every day, working from home is the ultimate perk. But some companies have transitioned completely away from headquarters and have workforces that are entirely remote. Some workplace experts are even calling remote work the “new normal.”

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At a completely remote company, everyone in the organization—even the CEO—has to carve out a space in their home in which to work (or find a lenient coffee shop). Fast Company spoke to four CEOs who head up these remote companies—Jason Fried of Basecamp, Clark Valberg of InVision, Sara Sutton of FlexJobs, and Zack Onisko of Dribbble—about how they designed their personal headquarters for one. Spoiler alert: There are no pajamas involved.

FlexJobs CEO Sara Sutton’s home office. [Photo: courtesy Sara Sutton]

Get yourself a door (or two)

Having some way to separate your home life from your work life is a key element of any home office, according to every CEO Fast Company spoke with.

Jason Fried, the CEO and cofounder of the project management company Basecamp, designed an entirely separate floor in his house for his and his wife’s home offices. As a result, he has created a mini commute for himself when it’s time to go to work: He heads up the stairs to his office, and closes the door. But there’s also another door to the stairwell, giving him an extra partition from the rest of the house. “I wanted to create a mental gap or break between home and work as best I could,” he says.

Same goes for Clark Valberg, CEO and cofounder of the digital design platform InVision. While he doesn’t have two doors, he emphasizes another important feature that enforces the distinction between home and office: “I have a door that locks,” he says. “I think it’s important when you work from home you get in the habit of locking the door every time you walk in [to your office].”

The idea is to prevent distractions, like Valberg’s two children, though he takes time during the day to hang out with both of them. He sees his son when he gets home from school, but he can see his 2-year-old daughter anytime. “It’s great to be able to pop over and see her—much better than an office cat,” Valberg says. “Less hairy, more diaper changes.”

CEOs aren’t your average worker—after all, not everyone can afford their own custom-designed house, let alone an extra room that could be a dedicated office space. For Sara Sutton, the CEO and founder of the remote work recruitment company FlexJobs, there are other ways to create that distance. “If you can’t have a door, it’s a screen—some psychological separation from where you work and where you sleep,” she says.

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Sutton herself has a dedicated office, one she created by putting up a wall in her house’s guest bedroom. Her children’s desks are in there as well. “I want them to have the same sense of differentiation [from when they’re] in front of the computer and when they’re not,” she says.

InVision CEO Clark Valberg’s home office. [Photo: courtesy Clark Valberg]

Start with a clean slate

So you’ve got a door (or screen): How do you start thinking about designing your workspace?

Sutton recommends starting with a bare, clean room—no clutter. Then, see how it works for you before you start adding furniture, technology, and decor that you think will help you create your ultimate working environment.

“If I were starting an office from scratch, I’d really be clear on what makes you happy,” Sutton says. “What elements are most important to you?” For her, dual monitors and a big desk where she can spread out are a must. She also has a scanner and file cabinet, though she says that it’s just as important for her to have a window and a space heater as it is to have a place to store her papers. Some things are necessary for basic comfort.

Dribbble CEO Zack Onisko’s home office. [Photo: courtesy Zack Onisko]

Surround yourself with objects and images that inspire you

Zack Onisko, CEO of design portfolio company Dribbble, describes his office as a “cool little work cave.” He has covered the wall behind his desk with artwork from artists who have their portfolios on Dribbble, as well as illustrations from other people in the design community. His office also doubles as a music studio: There are guitars and a home audio recording set up. His office becomes a place for his passions—work, design, and music.

Sutton also advises adding objects and images to your home office to help nurture a positive mindset. She has a photograph of an ocean over her desk, which she says brings her peace and calm. “Things like that which help you get in a non-cluttered headspace to work are very helpful personally,” she says. Whether it’s an image of the ocean or the Sex Pistols, go with whatever inspires you.

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But be intentional about which images help clear your mind and which might distract you. Sutton says she does have pictures of her children in her office, but they’re mostly off to the side, not in her direct line of sight—which helps her maintain some of that separation between home and work. “There’s already an inherent challenge when you work from home that you’re blurring lines,” Sutton says. “I find that the more you can create spaces where those lines aren’t continually blurred is helpful.”

That idea extends to the objects in her office, which she carefully curates. “I have a little clear quartz stone, and it’s something that symbolizes a good time and good people and hard work,” Sutton says. “It’s something I look at all the time. I have these little touchstones pieces around that ground me in what I’m doing. They can be small. They don’t have to cost a lot. But they bring you to the [mental] place you want to be.”

InVision CEO Clark Valberg’s big green chair. [Photo: courtesy Clark Valberg]

Find a second chair

For any home office, of course you’re going to want an ergonomic chair for your desk. But for Valberg of InVision, you need more than one chair in your home office. He has a hulking green lounge chair on the other side of the room from his desk because sitting in it helps him slightly shift his perspective on the room—and on his work. “I use this impromptu when I find myself creatively stuck,” he says. “It’s a little bit magical. Just get a different chair and put it in the room.”

This can’t just be any chair, though: It has to be a very different feeling chair from your desk chair, with a different height and posture. Bonus points if it’s a wacky color. “This is my shortest commute,” Valberg says. “I will very often take a call from [the chair] to get away from the screen and to change my view of the room.” He also will sometimes answer emails on his phone while sitting in the chair, sketch out ideas in his notebook, read, or watch videos on his VR headset.

While this isn’t necessary for everyone, Valberg also has a third chair in his office, a simple black chair that symbolizes his customer: “[It] reminds me that even if no one else is in the room, the customer is always here,” he says.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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