It wasn’t too long ago that I’d work from home only when I absolutely had to – when there was a childcare emergency, or an appliance delivery necessitated staying home. Working just ten feet away from a fridge full of food and an iPad full of movies felt very distracting, whereas my presence in a real grown up office signified to me that I was doing important work. At Havenly, we encouraged people to be in the office as often as possible, and we invested in offices with lovely downtown views and many onsite perks like free snacks and drinks – all because of our belief that working in the same space meant quicker and better decisions, more alignment amongst teams, and a stronger sense of camaraderie.
Then March happened —and in the space of one week, all of our preconceived notions about the nature of work and, in particular, the importance of ‘presence’ at an office space shifted out of sheer necessity. Our living rooms and bedrooms became our cubicles, our sofas transformed into workstations, and our dining tables doubled as breakrooms. Once comforting routines were thrown upside down in a mere handful of days and with no physical boundaries to separate work from life it’s become even harder to delineate devoted time for each. We may have checked our inboxes on nights and prepped for a project on weekends, but now work has fully and completed shifted into the home territory – with children on conference calls and thumb-warring our partners for the best workspace.
Years from now, there will be a lot of evidence-based research on how such a massive shift in behavior by the majority of the working population impacted a generation or two. We’ll see the studies on mental health effects and the changes in productivity. But right now, as we embark upon week five of social distancing, I’m noticing some unique challenges (albeit anecdotally) and recommending a few simple solutions.
Distance is hard to come by
Some of us are blessed to have multiple dedicated living, working and sleeping areas. However, for so many, your new work spot is a space that has been primarily used for living purposes. Particularly if your makeshift office set up is near your bedroom, or an area that you use to relax, figuring out how to create a little separation from the workday is paramount.
We’ve seen examples of people making good use of screens or temporary partitions to create some physical separation between their workspace and their bedrooms and living rooms. If you can’t come by physical separation, think about mental separation – take a walk (or run for you over-achievers) before or after work, or play with your kids or dog. Anything that can help mentally signal a shift between home and work mode, your time and your company’s time.
Our day to day routine is being blown up now that so many of us have two people working at home, as well as kids to home school. All while our typical helpers – the babysitters, tutors and cleaning services – that so many of us depend on to maintain a sense of order in the home are unavailable. When you’re being the professional, the mom, the teacher, and the entertainer all day, every day, it’s easy to have your pens, pencils, and note pads combine with laundry, school supplies, and toys.
Create some order in the chaos with intentional organization. Buy different bins with closed tops so you can hide away clutter in a semi organized fashion into appropriate places, without adding a lot of extra work. At the end of the day, create a ritual of saving your laptop files, wrapping away power cords, moving aside notebooks. This will give you a mental break from looking at the relics of the workday while also reducing the visual noise around your spaces to create a greater sense of calm.
Embrace the life you see, or display
At one of my first meetings with a new board member, our four-year-old ran around behind my seat, yelling for a snack, and I’d was mortified. I apologized profusely and inwardly berated myself for a lack of professionalism. But as this new structure evolved, I realized I enjoyed these moments – the home bound college-aged son stealing milk from an investor’s fridge, the newest baby hanging out in the arms of our graphic designer, or even the unfolded pile of laundry behind an interviewee giving me intimate glimpses that go beyond the topic of a meeting. I’ve started to enjoy the visits from our smallest and furriest co-workers on screen, which creates a layer of lightness that feels so desperately needed. Let’s relax our judgment of ourselves and acknowledge it’s okay to show your colleagues a little bit of your life.
That being said, having kids hang on your arms can be a nightmare for productivity. We created a zone in our house, with toy boxes, pencils and papers and (erasable) markers, a laptop and charger, and an iPad that we call the ‘school zone’. When I say: “go to the school zone,” the kids know where to go, and have a good time staying there. This means that I’m not constantly telling them to hush or sending them to ‘their room’ while I’m on Zoom. They still get bored and appear on some calls, but I’ve learned that other people enjoy them just as much as I’ve been enjoying theirs.
Don’t forget inspiration
Necessity sometimes dictates that your workspace is somewhere in your home that isn’t particularly interesting – a dark basement or the undecorated room over the garage. We’re probably in this for a few months, and even then, our guess is working from home will be normalized, so investing in a workplace that has sufficient natural light, a chair that doesn’t kill your back, and some pleasant design vibes is critical to a lengthy stint at home.
Beyond just your immediate environment, remember now that we’re at home we have fewer moments of the serendipitous delight that comes from catching up with your favorite co-worker over lunch or whiteboarding an elegant solution to a problem with your colleagues. Try and create some fluidity and creativity in your workday to avoid the Groundhog Day effect – where every day feels the same, and the same, and the same… Light a different candle, put on lipstick once in a while, or rotate the playlist daily. Take an opportunity to video call a different co-worker, maybe someone you haven’t talked to since we entered our homes but would often interact with around the office. I’ve been having fun simply changing my Zoom backgrounds, pretending I’m in a rustic villa one day, or lying on a beach another (guys, remember travel?).
There’s no single answer to thriving in a work from home environment – some are probably enjoying this time quite a bit, while others are feeling unmoored and frankly a little crazy. But we’ve got this. And just a little bit of design love could help along the way.