How’s that home office working for you?
When we were told to stay home in March, workers hastily set up workspaces at home, many assuming it was a short-term fix and they’d soon go back to business as usual. Now, as life in the pandemic era grinds on, many of those makeshift offices are showing their shortcomings.
Even professionals have struggled with the transition.
“It was pretty chaotic the first week,” said Sarah Cronin, owner of Simply Inspired Home Organizing in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
As a professional organizer, her business was already home-based, but now she’s home all the time, coaching clients virtually. And her husband, an engineering project manager, and their four school-age children all need workspaces at home, too.
“It took us three weeks to figure out this situation,” Cronin said. Her husband, who has to be on video calls all day, eventually took over her lower-level office.
Cronin, who has more flexibility, now works at the family dining table, a space she shares with three of their children. She marked the table with masking tape to delineate each workstation, and equipped each child with a bin for their school supplies, stored on the nearby china cabinet, so they can quickly clear the table for family meals.
Interior designer Sue Hunter, owner of Home for a Change in Minneapolis, moved her office from a spare bedroom to her dining room after the stay-at-home order. “I spend more time at home now — I can’t go down (to showrooms) to choose fabrics,” she said. “I moved my office to a sunny spot to make me feel better.”
Even as business offices reopen under the easing of the lockdown, Hunter, whose work includes commercial and residential office design, predicts that more work will be done from home than before the pandemic.
“Companies will be re-evaluating,” she said. “Why spend all this money in rent when people can work at home?”
So instead of settling for the office you cobbled together, now’s a good time for an upgrade — “so you don’t feel you’re trapped in that space but that you enjoy being in that space,” said Hunter.
You’re the office manager, after all.
“It’s a fun time to embrace your space,” said professional organizer Lisa Wendt. “If you want 24 ‘Star Wars’ action figures on your desk, you can do it. If you like flowers or air fresheners, you don’t have to worry about (colleagues’) allergies. Make the best of a not-so-fabulous situation.”
Here are some ideas:
IS THERE A BETTER PLACE FOR YOUR HOME OFFICE?
The work spot you chose at first may not be the optimal one. Start by assessing how much space you really need to work effectively, Wendt advised. Then walk around your home with an appraising eye.
“You might see a new location you haven’t really thought about,” she said. Even a closet can be converted into a workspace with the addition of an adjustable desk and shelving system that can easily be repurposed for general storage.
Make sure your space has a good Wi-Fi connection. “Take your laptop or phone around the house to test hot spots,” said Wendt.
Reinventing your home can have a snowball effect, Cronin noted. She took a table that her family was using to fold laundry and moved it to her son’s room to create a desk, which created a new problem in the laundry room.
That’s why she recommends focusing on one challenge at a time. “We focused on office needs first and didn’t worry about the piles of laundry for a while — so we didn’t have to problem-solve the laundry and the office at the same time.”
IS YOUR OFFICE COMFORTABLE?
Ergonomics matter. “Dining room chairs are not meant to be sat on eight hours a day,” said Cronin, who uses a folded towel to support her lower back. A lumbar pillow also can help a chair provide better comfort and support, Wendt noted.
Desk and chair height are important. Optimally, your wrists should be straight, elbows at 90 degrees, according to Wendt. Knees should be level with hips. If your work chair is uncomfortable it may be time to order a new one.
Cronin’s husband set his computer on a box to create a standing workstation. For those who prefer to work standing up, consider a floor mat to cushion the feet.
ARE YOUR FILES AND SUPPLIES IN DISARRAY?
Both can easily overwhelm a makeshift office that wasn’t set up to handle them.
“Whatever management system you have at the office, try to replicate at home, so you’re not buried under piles of things,” Cronin said.
Hunter doesn’t like papers lying around, especially now that her office is visible from her living room. “I got some pretty boxes for storage so it doesn’t look messy,” she said, in aqua to complement her home’s color scheme. “They look like they belong in the room,” she said. “It’s important to make it pretty so you look at it and feel comfortable in your workspace.”
Wendt likes three-tier rolling carts sold by the Container Store that come in different colors and can be moved from room to room. They’re currently on sale, she noted, with curbside pickup available.
If you can’t spend money on storage, a cleaning caddie or even a shoebox can keep items contained, said Wendt.
And don’t forget a place for trash. “When I help people with home offices, I don’t ever see garbage cans or recycling bins,” she said. It doesn’t have to be fancy; “It can be a grocery bag.”
DOES YOUR OFFICE MAKE YOU SMILE?
Even a temporary office doesn’t have to be drab and utilitarian. Make it a space that you enjoy.
Start with a theme and a color scheme, Hunter suggests. “What makes you happy? If you love the beach, get some pretty artwork in beachy colors.”
Self-stick murals are an affordable way to personalize a space, she said. Or create a travel wall, with photos of places you’ve visited.
If your home office is a hodgepodge of mismatched furniture and file cabinets, consider some replacements. “It makes you feel unproductive,” said Hunter. “It’s not calming. There’s too much going on.”
Order some stackable shelving cubes in simple black or white. If they have backs, dress them up with self-adhesive wallpaper. “If your room makes you happy, you’re going to be happy.”
If you can’t do a major makeover, at least add a few things that you enjoy seeing, such as family photos, house plants or “objects that inspire you,” said Cronin.
DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH LIGHT?
“Good lighting is crucial,” said Wendt. “A computer screen shouldn’t be your only light.” A “happy light,” designed to combat seasonal affective disorder, can brighten your workspace.
Or scout the house for a lamp you can move to your office. Add daylight bulbs, which are designed to imitate natural sunlight, said Cronin. “It’s important for mental health to have daylight.”
Good lighting also will enhance your appearance on Zoom calls, “so you’re not in the shadow and have a nice glow on your face,” said Wendt. Speaking of virtual meetings …
WHAT IMPRESSION ARE YOU MAKING?
Participating in meetings from home puts you and your home in the spotlight. Wendt cited a person who was on a call with someone in a messy room. “There was a guy talking on screen and behind him was a disaster,” she said. “It looked very tacky.”
Before your next call, do a test run with video and get feedback on how you look and sound, she suggested, including whether you tend to talk too loudly, too softly, or to fidget and produce a blurry, distracting image.
If you need to block an unsightly view, consider a room-divider screen to put behind your workspace, she suggested. Or a trifold display board, dressed up with attractive wrapping paper, can provide a simple backdrop. And make sure to set up your workstation so that you’re at eye level on calls.
DO YOU NEED BETTER TECHNOLOGY?
Most home offices aren’t equipped with the technology required for today’s work demands. If you have the resources, it may be worth investing in your workstation. If your work requires international calls where language can be a challenge, a good headset and Bluetooth speaker can enhance sound quality, Wendt noted.
A high-resolution monitor is easier on the eyes than a laptop screen, and more ergonomic, she added. If not having access to a printer is slowing you down, consider buying an all-in-one printer/scanner.
If you don’t have a surge protector, now is the time to get one, with early-summer storms on the horizon, so that you don’t risk losing your data to a lightning strike. And, finally, make sure you have sufficient backup.
ARE YOU JUGGLING WORK AND KIDS?
If kids are continually interrupting your calls and meetings, you need a better system.
“It’s not cute or funny anymore. People’s tolerance is less,” said Wendt. You may be perceived as someone who is always distracted. “You don’t want to be that person.”
Develop a way to signal to children when you shouldn’t be disturbed, such as putting a Post-it note on the back of your computer. Or have a whiteboard where family members can write if they need your attention, she said.
Make your child a part of your workday by setting up a little workstation for them, with art/craft supplies, and scheduling an hour when they can be in your office, working next to you, Hunter suggested. “It makes them feel a part of it, and gives them a sense of doing something important.”
HOW IS YOUR WORK/LIFE BALANCE?
Task management gets muddier when work and life happen in the same place, Cronin noted. “It’s hard to be multi-tasking all the time.” Make sure to build breaks and physical activity into your day.
She uses her smartwatch to alert her hourly to get up from her desk, and get some water. Her husband noticed that he was getting many fewer steps a day while working from home, so they’ve gotten purposeful about taking walks. “Lack of movement makes a home office not feel good.”
Maintain a clear delineation between work time and downtime, Cronin advised. “Have defined tasks that you want or need to accomplish, and then be done with work for the day, so you don’t feel you’re always on call.” Keep a “to do” list of recreational things you want to do, such as gardening.
If you have a hard time walking away from work at the end of the day, use a room divider or bedsheet to cover your workspace at a set time, Wendt suggested. “Put up a ‘Closed’ sign, if that helps you shut down.”
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed, professional organizers offer coaching on home office organization, Cronin noted.