Whether you’re a college student or city dweller, most of us have workspaces and offices much smaller than we’d like. Here’s how to get the most from your workspace, no matter how small it is.
Photo from the Compact Productivity: The Walk-In Closet Workspace.
Before we get started, we’re going to throw our most helpful tip out there. If you can empty the space that is, or will be, your workspace before getting started, your job as office makeover engineer will be much, much, easier. It’s less stressful to start with a blank slate and add items in than it is to try and work around the existing workspace. You’ll be fine either way, but if you can, start from empty.
Note: As always, rules were made to be broken. The tips below aim to provide helpful guidelines, but at the end of the day, if something works, it works.
People are inclined to make timid design choices in a small space. The space is small so everything should be small, including decisions about color and design considerations, right? Wrong. Sure you can’t put a massive and ornately carved desk in a 6’x4’ study nook, but that doesn’t mean you have to go with a timid and tiny white desk and no color. Small spaces require more focus and design energy than large spaces because every single inch counts when you’re appointing a tiny space. Make bold design choices but keep them few and far in between. Painting one wall red is a bold design choice. Painting one wall red, the desk blue, and covering it with Japanese figurines is something well beyond bold and cruising towards eye-sore territory. Photo from Tiny Workspaces: The Black Hole Home Office.
Don’t be afraid of color. A small workspace doesn’t have to look like a newsprint page. Paint the wall green, red, bright blue, whatever color strikes your fancy and works with the palette of your space. If you don’t add in some visual energy to your small space, it can feel draining to sit there working. Can’t paint the walls? Put up a colorful print or poster. Use LED up-lighting to cast a colorful glow on the wall. Do something to introduce variation.
Go easy on the prints. Try to stick to solid or very subtle prints. A tiny home office may not be the place for a chair with a dense and loud fabric pattern. You may also want to keep objects like furniture and office chairs on the darker side, since light objects appear larger to the eye. A huge white leather executive chair in a small office will look even larger than a traditional black one. You can ignore this rule if you have really dark walls, a lighter desk or chair will stand out more and provide contrast if you have slate gray walls.
Accentuate areas of interest in your workspace. Does your office have an interesting window? Architectural details like period molding, textured walls, or other eye catching details? Try to accentuate them. A bare brick wall behind your desk offers far more visual interest than you’d be afforded with a matte white wall. Don’t ignore the innate details in your office when choosing where to place your desk, shelves, and other office necessities. Photo from An Industrial Vibe: Workspace in a Wool Mill.
Don’t skimp on the lighting. The recently featured workspace of Lifehacker reader Ed Venture (above) really drives home the importance of good lighting. His home office is a multipurpose media room, office, guest room, and all-purpose room for his family. He set up multiple lighting schemes for everything from studying to computer work to watching movies to reading on the couch. While you might not opt to have as many lighting schemes and effects as Ed, don’t neglect to factor in lighting. Changes in lighting can dramatically shift the appearance of a small space. Consider bright lighting for tasks that need it, subdued back-lighting on your monitors for reduced eye strain, and general lighting to brighten the place up. Lighting is particularly important if you’re dealing with a space that has little or no natural light.
Purge, Purge, and Purge Some More
Clutter is the absolute death of a small office. If you’re going to have a functional and effective small office, you have to continually purge. Regular offices get cluttered up quickly; your tiny home office with a small desk and limited storage can be lost to a few days worth of junk mail and unsorted work. Photo from The Organic-Shelf Office.
Corral and purge office clutter. You can’t stop the flow of things into your office, but you can contain them properly. Everything should go through your inbox. (In this context, consider your inbox any defined space on your desk for stuff that needs processed.) If something can’t fit into your inbox, then it’s large enough you really need to deal with it right then and figure out where it belongs. Empty your inbox daily. File or shred daily. You don’t have a big enough workspace to get into the habit of pushing piles around and dealing with things later. When you have a small workspace, your entire desk is the “Deal with it now!” zone. Not sure your filing system is up for the challenge of daily use? Beat your filing cabinet into shape with a filing system workflow.
While you’re at it, if the task of keeping clutter at bay seems impossible, re-evaluate your office gear to simplify and declutter, ditch forgotten items, consider starting over with a clean slate, or use the "this isn’t my stuff" approach to decluttering.
Organization Is Key to Small Office Happiness
Once you’ve got a solid handle on purging—and purging again and again!—it’s time to focus on organization. If your office isn’t well organized, chances are everything will end up on your desk. That’s where everything goes in a messy office—right to the desk. The purging you did above will cut down on the stuff you need or organize; an organization plan will keep things tidy. Photo from The Organized Corner Office.
Organize based on frequency of use, not location of use. People tend to think in terms of “Where do I use this?” rather than “How often do I use this?” when it comes to organizing and storing their office supplies. Scanners are a perfect example of this. If you’re a design professional and you use a scanner every single day, it should be on your desk. If you use a scanner three or four times a year to scan legal documents or invoices, it should be stowed neatly on the top shelf of a closet or out of sight inside a piece of office furniture. Use your staple puller every day? Keep it on the desk or in your top desk drawer. Otherwise put it in the office supply bin in the closet. Use a big microphone for daily pod casts? Keep it out. Use it for once a year dub-overs on family films? Put it in the closet.
It sounds elementary when it’s laid out like that but most people work along the lines of “This is a USB device, USB devices must be plugged into computers!” If you don’t use it frequently, it has no purpose sitting on your space-constrained desk.
Use vertical spaces. Let’s say you are so limited on space for your workspace that you can’t carve out more than the spot your desk sits on. You’ve still got around 20-30 square feet of wall space right behind your desk that could have shelving on it. Don’t overlook your vertical spaces. We don’t suggest covering all your wall space with storage or cabinets, but you’re missing out on prime storage space in a small office if you limit yourself to the desk and other low-to-the-ground furniture. Photo from The Floating Shelves and Hidden Cables Workspace.
Conceal the clutter. Unless you’ve reduced your entire workspace to a single table with a single laptop on it, there is no way you can avoid having a little office clutter. Having lots of stuff on surfaces, whether your desktop or shelving, really shrinks the space and makes it feel like there just isn’t enough room. Use baskets on shelves to hold small objects, drawers under the desk, and try to minimize what sits on the desk. Remember if it’s not in daily use it really shouldn’t be on the desk.
Wrangle your cables. If a tangle of cables looks unsightly in a big office, it looks like a spider’s nest of doom in a small one. We’ve shared numerous solutions over the years for managing your cable clutter. Our top 10 ways to get cables under control and cable management tag page are great places to get started brainstorming ideas on everything from creating a cable-free workspace to managing cords on your mobile devices, including using rain gutters as cable managers (above). Photo by Seandavid010.
Steal Some Great Ideas
Before we leave the topic of workspace design we need to take a peek at where you can get good design ideas. The easiest way to get great ideas for your small office is to look at other small offices and workspaces. In the gallery below we’ve grabbed some workspaces from the Lifehacker Workspace Show and Tell Pool and our Compact Workspace call for submissions—these are just a fraction of the thousands of photos in the pool and our featured workspaces series.
Always keep your eye out for something that would work in your office. Not every office in the workspace pool will be the size as yours, in a color palette you like, or in the same budget range as you’re working with, but you’ll always be able to find something new and interesting to incorporate into your office.
Every small space workspace and its occupant have different needs. Starting with a blank slate, however, and introducing elements of color, good lighting for work and play, and purging unnecessary clutter will go a long way towards creating an effective and enjoyable workspace. Have a tip or trick to share for maximizing a small space? let’s hear about it in the comments.
By Jason Fitzpatrick