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Summary:

When I first started writing about working away from the office a few years ago not very many were doing it.  Today that’s hardly the case with many, many folks working on the road, from the coffee house, you name a place and someone is working […]

Activity_cubicle_182518When I first started writing about working away from the office a few years ago not very many were doing it.  Today that’s hardly the case with many, many folks working on the road, from the coffee house, you name a place and someone is working there.  More folks are taking business trips than ever before and all you have to do is drop into a coffee shop in a big city and you’ll see so many folks tapping away at a notebook computer.  We are working mobile more than ever before so it’s time to address some best practices that have been derived from years of working anywhere I found myself for the day.

The cubicle is one of the most reviled places to work in the office world for many well-deserved reasons.  The vision of prairie dog heads sticking up from a bunch of cubes when something unusual happens is one that never fails to amuse when it happens and is a universal symbol for all that is wrong with working in cubicles.  As bad as cubicle farms can be there are some benefits that they provide and since mobile workers can often find themselves working in venues that are less than desirable at those times they would kill for a good cubicle.  My mobile working philosophy is simple in its intent of creating a decent working environment, or “virtual cubicle” no matter where I find myself working at a given moment.  Here’s how I work in a virtual cubicle when away from my office.

A lot of the principles I wrote about building my virtual cubicle are the same today as they were back over two years ago when I covered them but I have tried to simplify them so I’m going to cover what I do today and why I do it that way.  To build a good virtual cubicle environment we have to determine what we need from that environment. Virtual workspaces need to provide a modicum of privacy in areas not designed for that normally which is why I prefer to call them virtual cubicles.  We need to be able to work without compromising our privacy or that of others we might be dealing with remotely.   We also need our mobile workspaces to be relatively comfortable so we can focus on the task at hand rather than the sacrifices we might be making working where we find ourselves.  The right tools can go a long way in making our virtual cubicle more productive and it requires surprisingly little to build a decent working environment.  Lastly our workspace must be a professional place to work which allows us to both get more done in the time available and to present a good image to those we interface with remotely.

Creating a private and professional virtual workspace

CubicleCreating a private space can be tough in very public venues such as coffee shops, anyone who’s worked amongst other like individuals can attest to this.  Most mobile workers are working with laptops and it can be difficult to keep others from sharing in your work given the proximity of the screen.  There are some privacy screens that can be used to prevent those not sitting directly in front of the screen from seeing what’s there but personally I don’t like them.  I do try to create a private workspace from a sound standpoint though, and this is easy to do.  I find it absolutely mandatory to use a headset with my cell phone in a public place.  There is nothing worse than overhearing a neighbor’s phone call when you’re trying to work, and it’s terrible security on their part.  It is surprising how easy it is to hear both sides of a conversation on other people’s phones which is a total lack of privacy.  Using a headset protects the privacy of whomever I am speaking with and usually just hearing one side of a conversation isn’t all that bad.  This is something I will not compromise on, if I’m in a virtual cubicle I am using a headset for privacy but there are other important reasons that play a role too.

Most modern phone headsets have decent noise canceling technology and this goes a long way in making sure that phone calls are pleasant experiences for both parties.  Your colleagues/ clients will likely not even realize you are in a noisy environment as the headset filters background noise effectively.  Your communication is effective and your professional image is intact.  People I speak with on the phone from my virtual cubicle usually don’t even suspect that I am not in my office and I don’t tell them.  The professional image is more important than you might think.   If you think the other party may find it cool that you’re working in the coffee shop I can tell you from experience that they don’t.  They actually get aggravated (I’ve been told) at the thought that you’re “screwing around in a coffee shop” while they are hard at work in their office.  It’s better to conceal where you are and a headset goes a long way to do that.

Coffeecubicle_2One thing I use frequently, especially in those loud coffee shops, are a decent pair of audio headphones to listen to music.  If you don’t speak on the phone much when working remotely then you can use the headphones with your laptop to listen to music.  I find this to be a good way to mask the lousy music the shop may be playing far too loudly and it also removes the background noise like those loud phone talkers I mentioned.  You may not be the same as me but personally I find that listening to my music is very focusing when I work so I often have my headphones on.  Lately I am enjoying the Bang & Olufsen Earset 3 headset for my iPhone which lets me groove to my music and take calls when they come in.  It’s designed for the iPhone but there are plenty of options like these for most phones or laptops.  If your laptop or phone supports the Bluetooth A2DP protocol then you can use wireless audio headphones to listen to music and I find the Plantronics Pulsar 590E headset are great for this and will even work with Skype and many phones.  They look a bit geeky but have stellar audio quality both ways and are a very good way to conduct private Skype conversations.  Both of these headsets I’ve mentioned here sound really great listening to music and keep me working at maximum speed with minimal distractions.

Comfort is king

It can be extremely tough to create a comfortable workspace in a lot of places but I find it to be really important when I need to get some good work done.  You have probably been in a coffee shop and seen some mobile workers sitting in the big comfy chairs with their laptop teetering on the chair’s arm.  They think that since the chair is more comfortable than the little tables and chairs that they are better but trust me they are not.  It is important to have your laptop on a steady table in front of you which is far better for comfort for extended work sessions.  Sitting properly in a chair at a table will always provide a more comfortable virtual cubicle and allow you to work without thinking about the environment.  You will work more productively if your environment is not intruding on your thoughts and this is essential.  Another simple thing you can do is bring a mouse with you for the computer work you are doing.  My basic rule is if you use a mouse in your office then use one in your virtual cubicle too.  This insures you are not compromising your working situation and this will keep you working without thinking about the tools.  I use a wireless mouse but those USB mice work fine too.  You will be amazed how far this can go in making you more productive while mobile.  Sure you can use your laptop’s trackpad or trackstick but I find that if you don’t normally work that way in your office then you are constantly thinking about how much harder this is.  That just interrupts your work which you don’t want.

The virtual cubicle rocks

I have been working mobile for years and it is liberating and productive if you do it correctly.  Creating your own little private, comfortable workspace is very easy to do yet goes such a long way to making these work sessions as productive as they can be.  So unplug and head out, it’s great to have a change of scenery to keep you from being bored.

  1. James: great topic…

    Of the aspects you touch on, the one that I find most challenging is taking/making phone calls while working in public spaces (coffee shops and airports are noisy, parks and the outdoors can be windy, etc). I now use the etyblu BT headset which supposively has good noise canceling tech, but still some people tell me thay have trouble listening to me on the other end. I have had this problem with other BT headsets in the past, and am still looking for “the one”. Do you have this problem? Any recommendations?

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  2. Virtual Office – Skype can be combined with applications such as OnState – http://www.on-state.com – to create a complete virtual office. Make and receive calls from anywhere. Provide professional greetings to callers, and have your voicemail messages integrated with your inbox.

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  3. Fernando, I have had good experiences with both the Jawbone BT headset and the BlueAnt Z9. I seldom have anyone even suspect I am in a loud place when using them. Wind noise is a different problem altogether and I haven’t seen a good solution to this, although the two I’ve mentioned do as good a job as any with it.

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  4. Let’s make some note of the rudeness problem with using cellphones in public, in search of a cure. If people you’re not on the phone with can hear you, something’s gone wrong.

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  5. When I need relative privacy at Starbucks, I go outside and sit at one of their tables, crank up my OQO, and smoke a cigar. IT’s effective and relaxing too.

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  6. In Houston it’s 100 degrees so you wouldn’t be doing that here.

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  7. So much of our population has shifted to the “sunbelt” I think we sometimes forget about working outside. You can generally do it here to as long as you stay out of the elements. Patio’s of coffee shops are busy places here in the summer. (crossed over from the coast today where it was 60 degrees and misting with fog)

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  8. Thanks for providing me much needed information as I was already thinking to set up my virtual cubicle. I think that virtual cubicle out of home but not very far will enhance the output of Virtual Assistant many times.

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  9. Good article, James, you make some very valid points.

    I too can recommend the Jawbone 2 as a noise-free bluetooth headset for mobile phones. Before buying it I also briefly looked into ‘throat mics’ used by motorcyclists which work on vibration from your voicebox, but you obviously look even more weird than with a normal headset.

    I’m still looking for a professional, noise-cancelling stereo headset for use with my laptop for VoIP… anybody have any suggestions, preferably wireless?

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