Hands down, my favorite part of the pandemic has been getting sneak peeks into people’s work from home spaces. Is it weird to say that - a favorite part? It is weird, and I mean, obviously I’m grateful for a number of other real things…but come on. Catching a glimpse of my partner’s CEO’s office? The one that he had completely gutted and remodeled right before things shut down? And when he had to shift his laptop around a couple times to adjust the lighting and I almost got a 180 degree look? That’s the stuff my Zoom dreams are made of. I saw a smidge of under cabinet lighting (dramatic), what looked like a faux indoor olive tree (trendy), a framed and autographed NFL jersey (on brand for this guy), and a large collection of dirty coffee mugs stacked in a corner (he must have just shoved them out of the way last minute). I know I’m a nosey Nellie, but I love those little looks into real life. And it’s so helpful to see how other people have created work from home spaces. I find myself taking mental notes to figure out what I can incorporate in my own situation to make working from home run a little more smoothly.

So how are we making the work and school from home situation work for us? Oh yeah, and we still live at home, too, so how are we incorporating all the necessary work and school stuff into our lives without too much spillover into family life? Welp, trial and error over the last year (year!) has taught us a few things. Of course, we feel grateful for the ability to work from home and these tips are of the dream-list variety - a separate, sunny, plant-filled room all to myself that I can design to work for just me? Yes, please. But if you can pull just one tip from below to help your WFH environment, I think you’ll find a little can go a long way.

Some tips to try:

Designate a work space

This is sort-of one of those “duh” tips, but even over a year into this, some of us are still struggling to define or admit that we need a designated work area. Sure, there are a few folks who can plop down with a laptop anywhere and be productive. But with how blurred the lines between home, work, and family life become when they all happen in the same space day after day (after day), it’s important to have visual and mental cues that signal and reinforce your focus. Whether it’s an actual desk in a separate office or just a corner in the kitchen, designating a space where you do your work can help you get in the right frame of mind for the task while also cue those around you that you are working. The flip side is that it also allows you to disengage when you leave the space, signaling to both you and your family that you are done with work for the time being and can better engage in the next activity.

Organize

It’s hard to keep work life from spilling into home and vice versa when it’s literally on your kitchen table. But some organization, even if it’s not your strong suit, is necessary to compartmentalize different aspects of life and gain some control. Larger bins to hold remote school materials, work files, or even one to quickly scoop everything into when you have a Zoom meeting will keep things tidy. A tray or a cute basket can corral smaller items like office supplies or those damn safety scissors that seem to be a very integral part of early elementary education and yet are impossible to keep track of. These little organizers can also function as accessories to liven up your space. A trip to The Container Store, some online searching on Etsy, a run to Homegoods or Target, or a stop in a local shop can help you find some unique accessories to help things feel a little more upscale and professional at home. (We’re thinking problem solvers like those little adhesive clips that keep your power cord from slipping behind the desk every time you unplug and some prettier versions of old standards to raise the bar like a patterned file organizer to keep everything in order or a hand-thrown vessel to act as a desktop catchall.) Also, think about putting up some shelving to optimize vertical storage. Shelves and brackets can be a fairly inexpensive investment and are often an opportunity to show some style. Function doesn’t have to negate cheerfulness in a workspace, and we can all use a little pep most days.

Prioritize comfort

So I sat on an exercise ball for seven months of homeschooling my kids until it rolled into the space heater and met its demise. (Don’t worry, I was right there next to it so it wasn’t a safety issue.) Did I like sitting on an exercise ball? Nope. Was I in denial that I have spent the last year homeschooling - not remote learning but full-on HOMESCHOOLING my children? Yes. Yes, I was. And I still am. Will buying a legit teacher chair be some sort of admittance that we do homeschool now and this is what we’ve become and there is no end in sight? Maybe…I think that might be why I’m holding out. But it’s become ridiculous! I haul a kitchen chair to our study room and scoot it back and forth between kids and try different combos of pillows on its seat because my rear-end falls asleep otherwise and that is a very strange feeling. Anywho…this is all to say that comfort should be a priority given how much time we are spending in our work/school from home environments. So you may want to pick up a few items to make your space as comfy and functional as possible - a laptop stand so you don’t strain your neck and shoulders, a larger monitor, a wireless mouse for ease, one of those weird gel wrist supports that help with carpal tunnel, a chair that doesn’t cause nerve damage, etc. Sometimes, just a little spot of comfort can hugely boost happiness and function.

Seek out natural light

Sunlight is so important in that it helps with our natural circadian rhythms and can improve sleep. It also diminishes drowsiness and can enhance focus. And it’s just nice to have. Nothing makes you feel more like you’re trapped in a dungeon than not being able to see outside. (I once spent a year living in a “garden level” - basement - studio apartment with a teensy tiny window through which I could watch people’s feet on the sidewalk and that was not a great year in my life.) So if you can set yourself up by a window, go for it. And maybe clean the glass panes to make sure it’s nice and clear to let optimal light in. Also make sure the window is clear of furniture or heavy drapes that could block light. Bonus points if you hang a mirror to reflect that sunshine around the space.

Set up your video call background

I think we all know Zoom meetings are here to stay. Hopefully not in a that’s-the-only-way-we-meet capacity, but maybe in a for-occasional -ease-and-convenience-kind-of-way in the future. So you may as well have a nice set-up, right? I love news shows these days to see the pundits and various academic and medical experts they bring on. I mean, there’s lots of thought-provoking commentary and analysis and yada yada yada, but a view into these homes and offices? Love it. Clearly, a lot of them are curated, but that doesn’t make the nosy voyeur in me love them any less. And while most of us won’t hire a professional stager, putting some thought into what’s on view behind you and how it reflects who you are is important. It has kind of become part of your work outfit and while it doesn’t define you, like it or not, it will give off an impression. So maybe your autographed poster of the Olsen twins made for TV movie How the West Was Fun or your Star Wars PEZ dispenser collection makes you laugh ironically, but it might not strike the right tone for meeting clients over Zoom if you’re going for professionalism. (Totally your call, though!) And, if you’re on-screen a ton, think about investing in a ring light, an actual web camera for a clearer picture, and don’t forget that little “Touch Up My Appearance” filter on Zoom.

Make it feel happy to you

So while you want to consider the appropriateness of what’s on public display via your screen as it relates to your work, if something’s only there for you, then do what makes you feel good. It’s been proven that people who enjoy the appearance of their work spaces are 98% more productive and 117% happier than those that don’t. Ok, I just made those statistics up. But it’s been a really hard year and I think if we can have a space in our home that makes us a little happier, then that’s worth something, right? I don’t know how you measure the effect, but if having a little cluster of your absolute favorite writing pens (we all have favorite pens, right?) hanging out in a cute holder on your desk brightens your mood, then I say go for it. If drinking from a Garfield coffee mug makes your work day a little more palatable, then as long as you’re not doing it while, say, deposing a witness online or explaining to someone why the IRS needs to speak with them, I think you’re golden. Just read the room, eh?

Add some nature

Always add a plant or two. Some people have gone a little bonkers with the plants lately and you don’t have to do that, but grab a little potted something from the floral department of the grocery next time you’re there and set it on your desk. Plants are good for air quality and humans need a little nature around them. And if live plants aren’t your thing, cut some flowers or branches from the yard and bring in the life and nature that way.

And remember, we are all spending more time in our homes and evaluating what works for us and it’s a work in progress as things evolve. I’ve rearranged furniture multiple times and totally reorganized the kitchen cupboards so we have a spot for school materials there. Some of us have moved desks from the living space into our bedroom - to make room for the ping pong table, obviously! (Just be sure to keep your bed out of the the video call frame because that can feel a little cringey.) Everyone’s space and needs are going to be different. But there are some common threads throughout that can help create a comfortable, productive, and happy work or school from home space.