Cathy Wright and her husband are not fans of working from home. Indeed, when they bought the two-bedroom house in Seattle that they share with their 10-year-old son, they planned never to use it as a workspace.
“We did not want a home office. We have nothing set up as a home office. We just thought that we would never, never need that,” Wright says.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic had something to say about that plan, forcing the couple to work much of the past year from their officeless home.
“I set up in our bedroom, because I need to have a work phone,” Wright says, adding that she also uses a lap desk for her computer. And while the lap desk is “pretty inobtrusive,” the ethernet cables she uses to access the internet are an irksome, tangly jumble
The phone, too, causes her a good deal of consternation.
“It’s huge. I’d really like to get rid of it, or at least stick it in a closet,” she says. “I’ve got my phone in a space that’s deliberately hidden from me when I’m asleep, but it’s still taking up space.”
Her husband, meanwhile, has been working from their dining table. They still eat meals at the table — “He’s pretty good about packing up his stuff,” Wright says — but his work gear generally stays nearby when the workday ends.
“We have a large window seat that’s been largely taken over by his work stuff,” she says.
While the Wrights are working at the office more often now, the delta variant has injected uncertainty into how often they’ll have to continue to work from home. For Wright, this is a source of frustration.
“I would very much like to reclaim it,” she says of their work-from-home space. “It all just takes up space. Every day I set up my computer, I set up my phone … it’s a little bit of a process to set up and take down every day. Once we go back [to the office full time], I can at least put all that stuff away.”
Like Wright, many of us are longing to reclaim the parts of our homes that have been turned into offices or classrooms — or both — during the past year and a half. And while more people have begun to leave their houses for work or school, others are still at home full or part time.
Paula McHugh, owner and chief designer at the Seattle interior-design firm Belltown Design, says she’s seeing three main types of clients right now, depending on their work or school status.
“There are work-from-home only that are not reclaiming spaces, [and] those who are going to the office a few days a week,” she says. “And there are those who are out of the house now and school is starting again, but there’s still some at-home [work].”
Meanwhile, the delta variant has left many unsure how much home-reclamation is realistic, in case we’re all ordered back into hunker-down mode.
For McHugh, the solution typically revolves around designing your space to be as multifunctional as possible, and making each of the different uses work for you on a sustainable basis.
“This is a lifestyle that we’re becoming accustomed to, but it’s something that many people in small spaces have lived with for a long time,” she says. “We want spaces to be able to convert to many uses. The dining room, for instance, can still act as a school room, but we keep it very minimal.”
If you want to keep the option of utilizing the dining room for school or office work, McHugh recommends adding storage cabinets or shelves so the table can be cleared quickly and easily before meals.
Emma Glubiak, senior social media director for the lifestyle website The Spruce, is also seeing an increase in devoting specific areas of the home to long-term multipurpose use.
“People are being a lot more intentional about their spaces,” she says. “We’ve learned from the past few years that working from home and learning from home isn’t necessarily going away.”
Glubiak says she is seeing an increase in people who are setting up a desk area that’s intended for multiple purposes.
“A lot of creators and people in the home space have been setting up vanities that they can also use as a desk,” she says. “They use it as a desk when they need to work at home, but then it also has a purpose outside of that as a vanity or a dressing table in their bedroom. [The space] isn’t going to waste if they’re going into an office again.
“I think we’ll see this more and more as people go back to offices and to schools: not getting rid of, [but] finding other uses for these stations they’ve set up out of necessity over the past year or two.”
Another option is to establish a work-from-home basket or bin, which provides the flexibility to move your virtual office around as needed. It can contain your headset, mouse or other computer equipment, and can be tucked away so it’s not an off-hours reminder of work. For hybrid workers or those who rarely work from home, the basket can be packed away if needed in the future.
A home to live in
Among those who have been able to plan for a return to the office are teachers. Seattle-area schools are mostly back to full-time, in-person learning. This means teachers are able to reclaim the living spaces in their homes that had been virtual classrooms.
At the start of last school year, elementary teacher Michelle Reisman was living in a small apartment that had no room for a desk, “so I used my dining room table as my classroom.”
“I basically just had this mini storage section within my dining room, which meant that I couldn’t eat there,” she says. “I couldn’t really do anything besides work.”
Now Reisman is back teaching at her Redmond school full time, which is allowing her to rethink the way she uses her dining room. “I associate sitting at my dining room table with grading or, you know, teaching a lesson or something,” she says.
Reisman is trying to change that mindset by redecorating the room to look and feel more like a traditional dining room. She says it worked before when she turned it into a classroom, which “made it feel like a workspace.”
Now, “I’ve hung up different decorations and [put] flowers and things around to make it feel more homey and less like a place to do my grading,” Reisman says.
Making the shift in how you think about a former work-from-home space is important, according to Seattle-based interior designer Michelle Dirkse. She says it boils down to three key steps: “Move the [work] items out, find them a new home, and do something that signifies that the room no longer serves that purpose,” she says.
Work on eliminating any office supplies and other work items you’ve accumulated over the past year.
“Give the items a new home at your place of employment, or in a smaller place within your home,” Dirkse says.
With work gear gone, mentally recalibrate your living space. Consider small changes you can make to signify the space’s return to its former self. Bring back “a dining table or coffee table centerpiece that you love [that will] discourage you from adding work- or school-related items back onto the table,” Dirkse says.
She also recommends taking a few additional decorating steps, such as repainting, doing a deep-clean or adding new window treatments, art, pillows or a rug.
If your situation lends itself to a larger makeover, consider giving your work-from-home area a completely new function.
“If people did move into a space during the pandemic where they had a separate home office and now all of a sudden they don’t need that office, we’re seeing them repurpose those spaces as craft rooms or home gyms, or just areas to use for hobbies outside of work,” Glubiak says.
A plan for the future
Emily Evanson, a Bellevue middle-school teacher, has similar hopes for her in-home classroom.
Evanson and her wife, Blair, recently purchased a 2006 townhome in Seattle’s South Beacon Hill neighborhood that includes a downstairs office area. Evanson set up her classroom in this room, including a large monitor and laptop, a desk, wall art and more. There’s even a bed for her Chihuahua-terrier mix, Baylor, who insisted on joining Evanson’s virtual classroom.
For now, the uncertainty created by the delta variant means that Evanson is keeping her downstairs classroom in place, even though she’s back to teaching in person. Down the line, however, she’d like to turn the spot into a reading room.
“I’ve always wanted a reading-specific room,” she says, with “dark woods and warm lights and comfy chairs.”
As an amateur woodworker, she’d like to build “big, beautiful bookshelves” for the area, and to add new lighting. “The lights I have now are brighter because it’s easier for being onscreen,” Evanson says.
Like Evanson, many are planning for the pandemic to continue into the foreseeable future.
“I think that this way of life is shifting from temporary to permanent, whether it be for one year, five years” or more, McHugh says. “We’re trying to get [our lives] down to what’s essential — that’s the key.”