While cubicles and watercooler gossip aren’t a thing of the past just yet, 2020 definitely redefined what it means to “go to work.” For many people, the new normal no longer involves heading to the office in bumper-to-bumper traffic and grabbing coffee from the drive-thru window.
Instead, it’s a battle for internet bandwidth and extra space at the kitchen table.
Since the pandemic set in earlier this year, a significant number of employees have transitioned to working either part-time or full-time from home. And, according to one study, many of them have little to no interest in returning once the pandemic is over.
A survey conducted by Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting firm, finds that nearly half of respondents would look for another job if their employer didn’t allow them to continue working remotely at least some, if not all, of the time.
“Employers are struggling with some tough decisions about the future of remote work right now, and employees are eager for answers,” says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. “In the face of so much ambiguity, both are feeling the need for a vision of how they will be working in the future.”
Regardless of the outcome, one thing is certain; home offices are here to stay – and creating one that’s functional, practical, and stylish is essential to optimizing workflow. It can also make the difference between working from home, and being home, feeling overwhelmed with work.
Space, the final frontier
“I’m passionate about creating home offices that work for people who think it’s going to be long term,” says Sharon McCormick, an interior designer and owner of Sharon McCormick Design, based in Glastonbury. “What I’m doing now for some of my clients is looking for space that hasn’t been utilized enough in their house.”
According to McCormick, that space can be found in any number of places, including spare bedrooms, closets, and even under stairs. “That’s a big, empty space,” she says. “So, you can put a door on it and make an office out of it.”
But not everyone has space to spare – including McCormick, who lives in an apartment and, due to COVID-19, transitioned from an office to working out of her home.
To make it work, she moved a desk into her living room and incorporated it into her living space. She also got creative, repurposing items she already owned for more storage. “You can use furniture to put your supplies in,” she says. “You can convert a dresser for things that you don’t need every day, like paper.”
McCormick says that part of converting a portion of her home into a workspace was viewing things from a new perspective. “You have to figure out how you can do things differently in this space you have. If you’re an outsider looking in, what’s redundant? How you can streamline it? How you could get things online?”
Ideas include scanning receipts, then tossing them; using your TV as a computer monitor, and ridding kitchen cabinets of unused pans and dishes to clear space for items you use more often.
“It’s really important to understand yourself and spend some time looking at what you do – how many times you have to get a file, what you touch, and that will tell you what you need on a daily basis.”
Finally, to help avoid a tangled nest of cords cluttering up your space, McCormick recommends investing in an under-desk surge suppressor with multiple outlets and USB ports to bundle them together. Tucked up underneath a desk or dining room table, they’re much less of a visual and physical nuisance.
“It’s much neater and it doesn’t look so office-y. One cord is all you need.”
Don’t just like it, love it
Whether your home office is a dedicated space or carved-out corner of the family room, it’s essential that it’s a space you enjoy working in, and look forward to going to, as opposed to feeling like you’re spending 40 hours a week in a work dungeon.
“Now, more than ever, it’s extremely important to love it,” says Jennifer Moreau, an interior designer and owner of Moreau Designs in Granby.
“People are realizing, after spending some time at home, how the space makes them feel and that they need to take action. It really makes you realize that you are affected by your environment.”
Moreau, who emphasizes wellness and healthful living in her designs, says that she incorporates colors that help her clients feel happy, and surrounds them with biophilic – or natural – elements. “I believe it makes you calmer and makes more of an environment for you,” she says. “I try to make your home feel good.”
Moreau put her philosophy into practice when she converted an extra bedroom into a work studio for her interior design firm.
Wanting a space that was both inspiring and functional, she started by ripping out the old carpeting. The hardwood she found beneath it was in rough shape, so she painted a design on it. Then, she enlisted her daughter, a graphic designer, to paint a mural on the wall.
Moreau added other functional elements to the room like a worktable, bookshelves, and good lighting.
“It’s a multi-use space, but it’s great to be able to work there and feel like, at any given time, if I go off on a tangent, I can do it. I can create. It was really important to me have something that was vibrant, light, and bright.”
When putting together a home office, Moreau says that even if you’re working on a budget, try and pick out one or two items that are “must haves,” whether they be functional or meaningful.
“If you buy something cheap, or something to just make do, you’re never going to really, truly love it and you’ll probably end up replacing it. So, I would take the risk and I would say, ‘This is the non-negotiable piece that I have to have for this space.’”
It wasn’t that long ago that people congregated in boardrooms for discussions and meetings. But much like wearing makeup and dress clothes, in-person gatherings have been kicked to the curb in favor of Zoom and Teams calls.
In this brave, new, virtual world, background is king. AWnd while many people are opting to superimpose themselves in front palatial estates and nature retreats, there’s no substitute for actually having a virtual-worthy background of your very own.
Jonathan Gordon, lead designer and owner of Design by the Jonathans, LLC, suggests doing some strategic decorating to help create an aesthetically pleasing backdrop, starting with plants.
“You have to stage a little vignette. A small table or bookshelf, maybe put a few books on it … but add some greenery; the greenery makes it feel like an enjoyable background and like it’s an intentional space, even if it’s in a high-traffic area, like a dining room. People don’t see what you see. They’re looking at your face and they’re looking behind you.”
He suggests concentrating on that viewable space by mindfully putting furniture, books, art and other visually pleasing items within the line of sight.
“It doesn’t have to be completely balanced,” he says. “You can put pieces in one area and a couple of pieces in another area, but you don’t want to see wires and you don’t want to see general mess. You want to keep it curated.”
He also says that a home office should reflect your personal taste.
“Do you want it light and bright? Do you want it a little bit darker or more moody? You can express parts of your own character, your own design, look, and feel, Gordon says. “Somebody may want glossy white furniture; somebody else may want dark oak paneling. It just depends on personal aesthetic.”
Beyond appearance, Gordon says it’s important to create a home office around the tools that you use every day, and what your primary needs are. “The bare bones is really designing it around your electronics,” he says.
Lighting is also critical – whether it’s overhead, recessed, or lamp lighting. Give consideration to your window treatments as well. “You don’t want to get glare on the screen.”
Of all the items in your office, the chair might just be the most crucial. “Comfort is key. A good chair is so important for a comfortable office. It’s a matter of health.” It might be expensive, but according to Gordon, a good chair is worth the investment to help preserve your back, posture and how you feel overall.
If you’re on a budget, he recommends doing a secondhand or pre-owned office furniture search. With many companies closing down their physical offices, good deals can be had on everything from chairs and desks to tables and bookcases.
“You may find some really good things,” he says, “but also understand that they have to fit in your house.”
If you’re unsure of how to design your office, spend some time looking at Pinterest, Houzz, Instagram, and other sites to find ideas and inspiration. Sometimes, however, it’s best to leave it up to the experts. “If it’s a complex space or needs a complex solution,” he says, “you probably need a designer.”
A place for everything
Part of creating an ideal work-from-home space is mapping out a plan to help optimize storage and reduce clutter.
“People tend to overcomplicate the amount of materials they need to run a functional office,” says Kristin Vander Wiede, owner of Livable Solutions, a professional organizing business located in Guilford.
“Most need the basics: a printer, stapler, paperclips, Post-it notes, pens, pencils, a notepad, and file folders. In sum, keep it simple. No desk decorations, paper weights, or trendy office organization products.”
To keep clutter under control, Vander Wiede recommends going digital with paperwork and calendars, and foregoing common paper traps.
“Avoid flat trays that tend to accumulate items all around your surface areas in an office,” she says.
“Categorize paper into action folders or file it away. If you need more room, maximize your vertical space with a functional bookshelf or closet area, with shelving to store paperwork and supplies off the surfaces.”
Some of the most common mistakes Vander Wiede sees clients making are trying to work in a central area of the home, setting up an office in a place they don’t enjoy working in, and using non-functional furniture.
“Many of my clients work with furniture pieces they have inherited or that were bought for a different purpose. With a renewed need to have functional spaces in our homes, it’s important to make sure your furniture is functional as well,” she says.
“Does your desk have drawers for supplies? Do you have enough room for your computer and space to write? Are your walls covered with furniture or loose bins holding items that can be consolidated into one tall bookshelf? Really focus on what you want your ideal workspace to look like, and don’t be afraid to invest in the right pieces you need to pull it together.”
Working from home with children can be especially difficult and presents its own, unique set of challenges.
“As a parent working from home with two kids 2 and 7 years old, there is no greater challenge than the constant interruptions and keeping them occupied. I think most parents are having a difficult time staying focused long enough to be productive,” she says.
To help, Vander Wiede suggests keeping storage systems simple and purging old toys, clothes, and other items that can pile up and get in the way.
If possible, create a separate workspace for children, free from toys and distractions – or set up a mobile workspace by using portable containers and supplies that can be put away at the end of the day.
The final step in creating the ideal home office space is implementing good practices.
“It’s all about systems,” says Leslie Raycraft, owner of POSH Organizing in West Hartford.
“Having a system just saves you all the time of paper shuffling. You’re like, ‘I wrote it down somewhere’ or ‘I know I got an email,’ then you’re shuffling through paper or your emails looking for that one particular thing and you waste so much time.”
To combat time lost trying to locate information, Raycraft recommends creating action files for paperwork and emails so you know where to look for quick access.
“A filing system is huge because, like anything, if you don’t have a system for the paper, it’s just going to pile up.”
According to Raycraft there’s not one, single, right way to set it up. Instead, it should be tailored to meet the individual needs of the person.
“Some people need to have it front and center right on the desk, others are fine to hide it,” she says, adding that what matters isn’t necessarily where you put things, but rather that you’re able to easily find them when you need them.
Raycraft notes that with any workspace, it’s essential to set limits.
“If you’re working from home, act like you’re going to work. Get dressed, take a shower, work out before you start your day, do your routine, ‘go to work,’ but also take breaks,” she advises.
“We’ve brought our job into our home and it can be seamless. So, whenever your normal end-of-day time is, stop. People have to learn to set boundaries and have a hard stop.”
Sarah Lemire is a journalist, columnist and author whose new humor book, “I Could Have Been a Hand Model,” is coming out this spring. After a recent writing stint in New York City, she is now once again happily working out of her home office and hoarding leftover Halloween candy.