Earlier this year, I faced a conundrum that many of us who work from home know well: Where in the house can I actually work?
Unless you’re blessed with a home large enough for a dedicated office, or are a truly nomadic worker and able to set up shop on a sofa with nothing more than a cup of tea and your laptop, you’re inevitably going to have to carve out space in a room that isn’t naturally intended for work.
Any spot you choose has the potential to diminish what you had before. Set up camp in your bedroom, and you’re left staring down your desk when you’re trying to get to sleep, all those unanswered emails calling to you as you lie awake at 4 a.m. Move to the kitchen or dining room, and snack time becomes an endless loop. (Why work when you could sample that fresh salsa from the farmers market?) Steal a corner of the living room, and suddenly your prime social area feels like some weird break room outside an office cubicle.
These were my options when I relinquished my airy bedroom office to my son when he outgrew the room he had long shared with his sister. I knew this day would come, and yet, when it did, I still didn’t have a good answer for where to go.
So I went to the place where all objects with no obvious home inevitably end up: the basement.
I convinced myself it could work and outfitted the room with as many inviting details as I could muster. I installed new flooring and took out the drop ceiling, exposing the wood beams, which added height and dimension to the space. I painted the room a light color and installed recessed lighting, turning part of the space into a cozy TV room for the family. The rest would be mine. I bought an aromatherapy diffuser, filling the air with the smell of citrus and rosemary. I filled the built-in shelves with books and photographs. I even had a window. I thought, how bad could it be?
In the end, it was the window that did me in. Half the size of a regular window, and positioned above my head when I was seated, it provided an unobstructed view of the back of a shrub. If I craned my neck, I could see the sky and briefly catch a glimpse of daylight, not unlike a prisoner trapped in a medieval dungeon.
Increasingly, Americans are working from home, either telecommuting or freelancing. Nearly a quarter of full-time employees worked at home at least part of the time in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet, our home work spaces often don’t reflect our eagerness to get out of the office, leaving us dissatisfied with what could otherwise be a great setup.
Sure, it’s nice not to have to get dressed and get on the train every morning. But the arrangement can quickly lose its luster. A 2015 study published in “Psychological Science in the Public Interest” found that telecommuting can blur the lines between work life and family life, leading to family conflict, while also leaving workers feeling socially and professionally isolated. You know what’s isolating? Sitting alone all day in a basement, accompanied only by the low rumble of the boiler.
In “My Creative Space: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation,” a book to be published in October, architect Donald M. Rattner argues that we don’t give our work spaces all the attention they deserve, and should instead think of our entire home as a creative vehicle, designing it with colors, light, music and art that aim to inspire.
“People do a lot of things that they don’t realize are contradictory to what makes for a good office space,” Rattner said.
Too often we find half-baked solutions for our work needs, like converting a closet, yes, a closet, into an office. Empty it of its contents, shove a desk in it and voilà, you have a home office. “Your mental space contracts in direct proportion to your physical space,” Rattner said of such a setup. “Your mind is going to narrow.”
But sometimes it’s your options that are narrow. When Savannah Ashour, 41, a freelance book doctor and ghostwriter, moved into a studio apartment in Los Angeles five years ago, she wasn’t sure how long she would be freelancing, so she didn’t want to invest too much time and money creating a home office. Her sunny eat-in kitchen had a window facing a jacaranda tree, and was large enough to squeeze in a desk, an Aeron chair and a table. With her back to the rest of the apartment, she could forget that she was at home and focus.
Last year, long after it became clear that this was no temporary arrangement, she committed to the space. She upgraded to a white sitting-standing desk from Ikea and bought a cheerful red-and-orange outdoor rug from Target to define the space. Rather than buy a traditional office chair, which she worried would be an eyesore in a tiny apartment, she opted for a stool where she could sit, lean or move aside to stand.
“Something about being shut into an apartment by yourself to work, you kind of need to build in extra perks” by making the space aesthetically pleasing and stealing the best assets, like the window facing a glorious tree, for work, she said. “At least you feel like there’s a nice trade-off for all the challenges that come with working from home.”
After three months cloistered in my basement dungeon, my bedroom started to look like a much more appealing option, despite all the warnings that it would ruin the serenity of my sleeping space. On one particularly dreary afternoon, I dragged my desk upstairs, planting it on the far wall. With my back to the bed, and facing a window, I could almost forget where I was.
Sharing your office with the bedroom brings new challenges. In the mornings, I’m often greeted with a discarded shirt, tossed on my chair by my better half, or an empty glass of water left on my desk. When I step in the bedroom, it’s hard not to notice the huge computer monitor staring back at me — hardly a soothing aesthetic. These inconveniences serve as daily reminders that this is still a temporary measure — an improvement from the dark underworld, but no equal to the charming space I had before. The reshuffling game feels far from over as I eye other parts of the house for a more perfect little corner.
Or maybe, with a few modifications, my bedroom office could be good enough. Anjie Cho, an interior architect and feng shui designer, keeps her home office in her bedroom, saying that the arrangement, while not ideal, is a common one. She suggested I could cover the monitor with a scarf at night, or hang a curtain or add a screen to separate the sleeping area from the work space. I doubt a screen would work, as it would mean losing light to the rest of the bedroom, but a scarf draped over the monitor seems simple enough.
The key, Cho said, is to give the space the attention it deserves. “If you have a home office where you’re serious about your career,” she said, “then you have to find a way to carve out some space.”