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There’s No Place Like Home Work: Tips for Designing a Home Office

A well-designed home office can make all the difference between getting that one thing done and napping for 3 hours.

people-working-from-their-home office A well-designed home office can make all the difference between getting that one thing done and napping for 3 hours.

Every office has its fair share of distractions and problems. There’s the person that can’t stop sending out the latest viral long read, the person that needs you to see every blurry picture of his kids, and the person who always leaves a half-eaten donut in the box in the kitchen. 

But when you work from home, you are that person, those kids are your kids, and the donut… well, at least you know that the bite left in it was your own. (Yes, you ate half a donut in a bout of procrastination-induced daydreaming. Check the jelly stain on your shirt.) 

While you may not be able to completely tune out distractions while working from home, you can engineer an environment that helps you find success. Though that could involve keeping round, jelly-filled treats out of the house or blocking access to social media, the core of finding a productive environment is designing a workplace where you can focus.

Whether you’re a freelancer, someone who telecommutes or works from home, or you just need a spot to jam on some weekend work you’re stuck doing, there’s a lot more to putting together that productivity zone than dropping a desk near an outlet.

While you may not be able to follow every ideal recommendation, these home office design tips show how everything from lights and plants to good tech etiquette and organizational techniques can keep you productive in your home office.

Find Your Hot Spot

For some with less-than-spacious digs, finding dedicated space could be a challenge. But Matthew Busscher, architect and designer at Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects, stresses the importance of specifying a dedicated workspace, even if it’s not the roomy, well-lit, idyllic home office of your dreams.

“You need a space you can use only for work,” he says. “That can even just be a specific seat at the kitchen table. The key is separating your workspace from your relaxing space. That helps condition you to focus when in that specific environment.” 

That said, it doesn’t hurt to have a backup plan when your go-to spot isn’t doing the trick. For some, that means researching from the floor, sending a few emails on the couch, or perching the laptop on the kitchen counter while the kettle’s boiling; for others, that means getting out of the house.

Kristen Seymour, freelance writer, stresses the importance of delineating when that move is the right choice. “When I have a project that requires my full attention, it’s best done at my desk,” she says. “But I will occasionally work from a coffee shop for less strenuous task.”

I used to have an entire room for an office, but then we had a kid. Then I had half a room, and then we had another kid. Now I have a small nook in our bedroom. It’s delineated enough that I feel like I’m in my own office.

Aaron Goldfarb, writer for Esquire and author of Gather Around Cocktails: Drinks to Celebrate Usual and Unusual Holidays, learned that changing life situation often means needing to adapt your work lifestyle as well. “I used to have an entire room for an office, but then we had a kid,” he says. “Then I had half a room, and then we had another kid. Now I have a small nook in our bedroom. It’s delineated enough that I feel like I’m in my own office—until my baby cries or my wife turns on the TV in bed.”

Sarah Schwuchow, owner/principal interior designer at Sarah Jacquelyn Interiors, agrees that you don’t need a full-scale wall to produce the necessary delineation. “A decorative screen can help conceal your work area while adding a little more decor to your living space,” she says.

Keeping Organized, Clean, and Supplied

Just as with any room in the house, you’ll need to figure out your storage and organization for your home office so you have the peace of mind to work productively.

That can include putting that stack of mugs in the dishwasher so you can’t see them from your spot at the kitchen table, or it could mean ensuring that your dedicated workspace has been tidied up.

“I adhere to the ‘everything-has-a-home’ rule,” explains Mardee Handler, content marketer and freelance writer. “I keep color-coded files for each client in a desk drawer, and the file on my desks gets my undivided attention. If I wouldn’t have something on my desk in a corporate office, it doesn’t belong on my desk in my home office, either.”

You’ll need to invest in key items to make your office function. Sure, you may have a few pens and a roll of tape in a kitchen drawer, but having a dedicated set of work supplies means you don’t have to go searching.

“Don’t make sacrifices of the essentials you need to work efficiently because your workspace isn’t in a separate office,” Schwuchow says. “Set yourself up for success! Having a specific and logical place for everything you use on a day-to-day basis makes efficient use of your time.”

Lunch at your desk may sound appealing, but a soup spill could mean losing time and important paperwork. You may need to keep old files, but you don’t need to keep them at your desk; carve out some storage space in a closet and make sure to label things so you can find whatever you need. And don’t forget to set a recurring calendar reminder for a good deep-clean. 

Give Yourself a Green Light

You don’t need to rely on technology alone to enable your workspace. Cookbook author and former botanist Nandita Godbole knows the importance of a little greenery. “My desk looks out into a tree, so I’m never far from nature,” she explains.

Bringing nature into your home can make a big difference as well. “Plants help give life to the space and remind us that there is a living, breathing world outside of work that exists whether the work gets done or not,” Busscher explains.

“Every 20 minutes, make sure to look away from the screen to something that is 20 feet away for 20 seconds—and greenery can provide that perfect break”

There’s scientific backing to the value of plants in the office as well. “Blues and greens, most commonly found in nature, have been proven to decrease stress levels, creating a calming work environment,” Schwuchow says. “Make sure you have a place to rest your eyes. Every 20 minutes, make sure to look away from the screen to something that is 20 feet away for 20 seconds—and greenery can provide that perfect break.”

In addition to plant life, lighting is key. “SoCal sunlight does wonders for creativity,” says Teena Apeles, writer, editor, and founder of Los Angeles-based creative collective Narrated Objects. “But when night falls, I choose to have lamps with warm-colored lightbulbs to provide a cozy atmosphere for reflection and productivity.” 

Blues and greens, most commonly found in nature, have been proven to decrease stress levels, creating a calming work environment

Those based in darker, chillier climes need not fear, though. Based in Chicago and familiar with brutal winters, Hirsch MPG LLC architect Elizabeth Kivel stresses the need for a variety of options when it comes to non-natural light.

“Most people forget proper lighting when they’re designing their home offices, but it is crucial to provide enough task lighting to reduce eye strain,” she says. “Desktop lighting in addition to overhead ambient lighting will create the proper light levels needed to have a comfortable work environment.” That variety can also allow for flexibility, allowing you to choose the right lighting for a specific project.

“Not only does this make the space feel more dynamic and flexible, having lighting appropriate to a task—reading print documents versus looking at screen—helps prevent eye strain,” Busscher adds.

For some, however, that dark, windowless cave feeling can be the key to success. “I actually like a lack of natural light,” Goldfarb says. “Light means windows, which means I can easily look outside and see all the fun people are having while I’m trying to work.”

A nocturnal personality may agree—and being a night owl doesn’t mean you need to flip on the fluorescent. “Honestly, my usual writing time is between midnight and 6 a.m — but candles are always nice!” explains Kim Kelly, freelance journalist at Teen Vogue, The New Republic, and other publications.

Home Office Power Tools

As more and more individuals take on jobs that involve some sort of blended role of both working at an office and working at home, producing some sense of consistency can be helpful.

A recent report from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics found that 4.7 million individuals in the United States now work from home at least half the time, and Fundera reported that 82% of telecommuters reported lower stress rates than in-office employees.

Employees with flexible workplaces that allow them to come into the office or work from home as needed can reap the rewards of both worlds—as long as they take their specific needs in mind when at home. That’s especially true when it comes to technology.

“I keep my workspace at home similar to what I have at the office, replicating the experience as best as possible,” explains medical editor Drew Polakoff. “That helps to create some comfort and reduces distraction.” 

To manage your cables well, you really only have to keep three key things in mind: identify everything…avoid tangles…[and] overestimate length.

Chances are you’re going to need to be connected to an outlet—which is to say, you’re going to have some cords to get your feet tangled in. But you can preempt the inevitable headaches and ankle stress. In their piece on design tips for home offices, Lifehacker explained the importance of proper power cord etiquette:

“To manage your cables well, you really only have to keep three key things in mind: identify everything…avoid tangles…[and] overestimate length,” writes Adam Dachis. Keep things neat and tidy, but also remember that you’re going to want to bring those cords with you from time to time.

“Do everything you can to make yourself mobile and make your work space easy to pack up,” says Olivia Chen, business development associate for Colorado Enterprise Fund. A good labeling system means that you’ll be able to grab what you need to pack for the coffee shop and go, rather than picking through the tangle for hours.

Think of technology as part of your home office’s toolset. What do you need to help you focus and be productive? The noise-canceling headphones that drown out the other employees at an open-concept office can be just as effective for blocking out street noise and loud neighbors. And sure, a laptop is convenient, but having a full-sized monitor to plug it into at your desk can put things in a whole new perspective. Smart speakers allow you to request a dedicated “Focus” playlist or a favorite soothing classical composer without getting up from your seat or clicking to another distraction window. 

While this may not be a tip for how to build the best home office, it’s certainly an essential for how to get the most out of it: remember your home office expenses when it comes to tax season! Freelancers can get hit especially hard when April rolls around. Check out this guide from the IRS on how to deduct that new printer or desk to keep yourself in good financial standing. 

Stand, By Me—Or Don’t, But Remember Ergonomics

A big office may have someone whose job includes purchasing laptop stands, wrist guards, and other ergonomic supplies—not to mention the corporate budget to go along with it. But there are simple steps you can take to ensure your ergonomic health doesn’t suffer when you work from home.

Laptop users are especially prone to poor posture and wrist position, so the addition of a laptop stand or the use of an external keyboard and mouse could reduce chronic pain. 

“I recently worked on a project fact-checking an entire book, and poring over a document 10 hours each day for three weeks nearly turned me into Quasimodo,” says Amelia Mularz, freelance travel and lifestyle writer. “But my husband recently got me a stand for my laptop, and it’s been a game changer not having to look down and strain my neck.”

Laptop users are especially prone to poor posture and wrist position, so the addition of a laptop stand or the use of an external keyboard and mouse could reduce chronic pain. 

Standing desks have become a fixture in offices around the world over the last decade. A recent survey shared in US News & World Report showed that 60% of employers now either provide or help employees procure standing desks, and they’re popular for home offices, too.. Seymour, a writer who dedicates a lot of her time to fitness, swears by a Varidesk, which allows her to adjust from sitting to standing, mixing up her perspective and gaining the health benefits of staying off her seat for some portion of the day. Some, however, aren’t quite so sure. 

“I thought using a standing desk would be a ton more productive and all of the sudden I’d lose 30 pounds and eventually live to be 125 years old,” explains Goldfarb. “Honestly, I’m not sure it’s done much for [my] life besides mean I can never sit down even when I’m a little tired.” 

If you do choose to sit, picking the proper height for your chair and desk can mean healthier days. “The ideal sitting desk height for the average person is 30 inches, and seat heights should be around 18 inches,” explains Schwuchow. “Ideally there should be 48 inches of space between the edge of your desk and anything behind you. Adjustable desks and seats can be lifesavers.”

Don’t Get Too Cozy

Finding the elusive balance between getting comfy and getting completely suctioned into the couch is a tricky but essential distinction. FastCompany suggests adding a dedicated comfy chair in the home office for breaks. Don’t have enough space for an armchair? They’ve got some other equally cozy ideas. “Add a luxurious throw and a colorful pillow and you’ll want to take thinking breaks,” writes Laura Vanderkam.

The color palette of your walls and decor can aid that comfy feeling as well. “Use a comfortable and soothing color palette,” Schwuchow suggests. “Avoid intense or high-contrast colors, which can be a strain for the eyes.”

That said, getting too snug can be its own distraction. “A TV can be distracting, and so too can a comfy couch,” Busscher explains. “Your space should be comfortable enough to work in for long hours, but not so comfortable that you can’t escape a nap.”

Your space should be comfortable enough to work in for long hours, but not so comfortable that you can’t escape a nap.

Putting your desk a foot away from your warm and cozy bed might be your only option, but be sure to stay strong and resist the urge to jump back under the covers. “I know it’s a no-no to write in bed, and I’m trying to break myself of the habit,” Kelly says. “It’s way easier to let your mind wander and get distracted when you’re cozy and wrapped up in blankets and nothing seems that urgent—even if it really is!”

But Do Make Yourself At Home

Above all else, the keyword to producing the right workspace for you is keeping it personal. What works for one person may not work for another, and testing out a few new ideas can help you unlock the perfect combination of creativity and productivity. Your office is your space, so make sure it feels that way.

“Even though you’re in your own home and surrounded by your own things, I think it’s important to have a few items on your desk that are meaningful and keep you motivated,” Apeles says. “It could be a picture of a family member, a printed review of your work, or even a family heirloom—mine is a pencil holder/mug from the ’70s that my dad used in his home office.” 

March 30, 2020

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