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Through the looking glass: Bringing our work home

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Alice looking through a laptop monitor

As people have been forced to abandon their offices, classrooms, and campus learning environments many have found unique ways to carve out refuge for themselves in their homes.  There is no question that it has been challenging sharing our work areas with partners, parents, children, and siblings but we’ve become creative in customizing our spaces and far more flexible than we once thought possible. Co-locating in the same physical place with our colleagues simply isn’t possible at the moment; so unchaining ourselves from our former working/ learning environments is an exercise we must undertake.  We have to disassociate ourselves from the previous situation of “being away at school/work” and focus on our current predicament of “working from home” (WFH). 

Our concept of the working/learning environment has shifted dramatically and this has a lot to do with our use of information and communication technologies. Telecommuting, remote work, and online learning are feasible because of Internet connectivity and the multitude of devices and software. This technology has not only allowed us to connect to others who are not physically within our private space, but it has also had the consequence of blurring the boundaries between what is considered public and private.  Our home, once a private space secluded from others, except by invitation, is now part of a larger network that imposes itself on our most intimate world, our domestic sphere through our work, school, and leisure activities.

We must be cognizant that for many of us we are not working from home (WFH) alone.  With school closures, transitioning to online learning, and conducting electronic conference meetings for several individuals simultaneously within a household, separating family life from work life is not just difficult but almost impossible.  How we stay focused and motivated while being productive can at times be exhausting.  Our electronic devices are helpful, keeping us connected, and offering to make life easier, but they can make it harder to break away from the pressures of the public realm and be attentive to the needs of the family on the home front.  We are constantly bombarded with updates, messages, work/ school emails, and urgent texts that are perhaps less pressing than they seem. We have broken the barriers of geographical space and time with information readily available at our fingertips but psychologically we have also invited the public world of stressors into the spaces of our private home. So if we can’t modify our method of engagement with our colleagues, can’t change where we reside, and certainly can’t abandon our family, what choices do we have?  Well, we can adjust the “spaces” we live in and be selective of the “stuff” we put in our homes.

Traditionally, our homes have represented a place of separation from the rest of the world and contained significant private rooms acting as spaces of refuge.  We’ve been pretty rigid about the purpose assigned to each room and the standard architectural features we’ve allocated specifically to them.  Our daily routines have framed how spaces have been designed and what is suitable or appropriate.  Yet, with WFH our pre-pandemic notion of what was functional is being called into question. The idea of specifically dedicated or single function rooms is no longer feasible.  What spaces are actually critical to our daily lives, what spaces are we willing to reconfigure, and what spaces can we eliminate, have become important questions to ask.  This also applies to furniture.  For example, our kitchen and dining room tables and couches must be flexible enough to suit our work requirements as well as our family/social needs.  We must begin taking a holistic approach to our homes, which means seriously reexamining the activities we perform in them, redefining the spaces, and then redesigning them.

Let’s face it, not much has changed in home/apartment design over the last fifty years except that there is a fixation with McMansions.  We need to seriously examine our residential built environments and create spaces that challenge the status quo and more suitably reflect our requirements.  We must repurpose our existing structures in ways that are adaptive and sustainable. So, as strange as this may sound, this current pandemic presents an opportunity to take an entirely different approach with our living environments. We appreciate that this isn’t something that is going to happen overnight, but if we use our home work/office spaces as a place to start, we can begin the process.

So how do we begin?  Well there are 3 basic issues that need to be addressed when considering how we blend our virtual and physical environments: privacycomfort, and personalization.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start, and will illustrate how function and behavior weave together.  We must also be cognizant of the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing.  Interior features like lighting, sound, materiality, separation and proximity, can’t be neglected. Ignoring the effective integration of them into our interiors puts us at risk. We’re quite sure, that after all this time in our homes, people have already discovered what works and what doesn’t, so we’re not going to create a long list of things needing change.  What we are going to do, however, is make some suggestions about things to consider that may help facilitate our everyday activities (work, studying, and relaxation).

Privacy

There is often a dramatic contrast in domestic architecture between the formality of dedicated single use spaces in older homes and the more casual configuration of open concept space in newer homes/apartments where individual activities and social togetherness coexist (living room, dining room and kitchen blended into one space).  One approach or preference is not necessarily better than the other.  They are simply different.  What is important recognizing is how practical the spaces are in accommodating the activities that must take place in them.  Having a space where you can block out noise and cut down on interruptions while working may be of critical concern to some, whereas for others, being able to supervise and communicate with children may be the primary focus.  So the key issue is not how much space or the identification of the space as a specific room but the ability to have the necessary privacy and functionality required in performing various tasks and promoting productivity.  

In creating suitable environments that respond to our need for both separateness and togetherness, we need to acknowledge that some degree of control of our space is necessary.  We must be able to create boundaries when necessary and be able to choose when we interact with others.  Having spaces where we can be alone or away from others is essential.  But sometimes changing physical locations is simply unavailable.  So why not create spaces that serve multiple functions and change with our needs?  Privacy and flexibility don’t have to be diametrically opposed but can be understood from the perspective of personal space, providing periodic distancing and protection from unwanted intrusion.  Space doesn’t have to be perceived as static but can be understood as dynamic in nature, ebbing and flowing with situational needs.  During the pandemic people have intuitively adapted to their physical settings, with furniture selection and layout being recognized as essential in establishing a sense of place rather than the label/name originally assigned to the physical location.

The following are some ways we can personalize our spaces and shift with the changing circumstances of our environment, needs, and desired level of privacy:

  • In an attempt not to restrict a space to a single layout put the furniture on wheels.  Moveable furniture supports functionality through flexibility.  There aren’t any rules as to what should become mobile just make sure that it’s in your best interest and use.
  • Dedicate a flat surface (desk, table, piece of plywood) that is specifically for home work.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be neat and tidy, if you’re messy that’s okay, but it does have to be devoted specifically for the purpose of your work/study.  It can be stationary and remain in the same space all the time, like the corner of the bedroom or the living/ family/ dining room, or consider putting it on wheels so you can move it around when needed. What is important is that the surface is identified as yours.
  • Your work surface doesn’t have to be huge it simply has to be outfitted with the necessary tools that allow you to complete your tasks.  Also consider useful pieces of multi-functional furniture that provide you with not only a work surface but storage, shelving, and lighting as well.  Versatility and space-efficiency can be seamlessly integrated together. 
  • Consider investing in freestanding bookcases or wall units that can be used to demarcate spaces into distinct areas immediately recognized for work.  This is practical in open concept plans and extremely useful when the units are on wheels, so they can be relocated for establishing privacy when needed. 
  • It is important that others at home have respect for your identified space, and that when occupying it you are uninterrupted.  This is of course easier said than done, especially when there are young children involved, but no matter the size, shape, configuration, and location of your work environment it must be distinguished and respected as your space, even if it changes from day to day.

Comfort

Once you’ve found a space that is your own private working area, the next step is to ensure the space is comfortable. There are a lot of factors that must be considered when creating a comfortable environment, and many of them centre around ergonomics.  As we adjust to WFH, people generally find themselves spending more time sitting in front of a computer, not only to complete their work but to communicate and socialize with others. There are health risks associated with sitting for long hours and placing our body in unnatural and unhealthy postures.  Not only can sitting cause pain in our neck and back but staring at a computer also increases eye strain.  So when WFH, being conscious of these risks is important, and being aware of the options available can help you feel more comfortable, both in body and mind.

When furnishing your space, the following tips may help:

  • Find chairs and desks that are the appropriate height for you and offer enough support for your back and limbs.  Make sure your feet are kept flat on the floor and consider using pillows to alleviate lumbar tension and cramping.
  • If you’re fortunate enough to have an exercise ball (Swiss Ball) consider periodically replacing your work/office chair with the exercise ball.  This will allow more freedom of movement than a conventional chair. 
  • Position your computer so your eyes are directly on the screen and you don’t need to tilt your head.  Adjusting the height of the monitor with books/ boxes stacked underneath to a comfortable level or using one of the many laptop stands/ notebook holders currently available will assist with this.  
  • Standing desks are great options for those who prefer not to sit all day. Most are adjustable and can be changed throughout working hours.  But you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on one. Consider converting your regular work surface by simply placing your computer on a stack of books or you can purchase one of the more reasonably priced sit-to-stand desktop risers.
  • Take note of the light in your workspace.  Is it adequate?  Is it easy to see and read? Would it be easier if there were a desk light or additional light source?  Consider brightness, glare, backlight, reflection, shadows, and placement/ positioning.  What is the colour of your light source?  Yup colour! Light bulbs have ranges of colour temperature from warm to cool.  How do you control the light in your space, which includes the light from your technology? If you’re working in your bedroom you want to be able to turn lighting generated from your devices off so you can get a restful night’s sleep.
  • Think about the quality of your lighting in terms of both electric and daylight.  What is the orientation of your workspace to outside views?  Sure you don’t want to be distracted but you also need to consider how a view and daylight can help enhance your mood, reduce your stress, and improve your creativity. Unfortunately sun through a window doesn’t allow ultraviolet B rays in, too bad, because we need all the Vitamin D we can get these days.  There can certainly be glare from the windows but this can easily be remedied with a set of curtains, blinds, shades or privacy screens, and if the window is behind you while you’re on screen, PLEASE make sure they’re pulled down. 
  • During the winter have available a small heater, heating pad, or blanket by your work surface just in case you become uncomfortable as result of the cold. And in the summer, if you don’t have AC, or you’re not close to a window for cross ventilation, consider locating a small fan to generate a point specific breeze. These don’t have to be large items that condition the air in your entire home, they’re simply meant to keep you comfortable in your immediate work area.
  • Also be sure to take a break from time to time and get up and move around. This will keep your body active.  If your work environment has enough space create strolling areas where you can walk around while on the phone.  If you don’t have the room, venture out into shared spaces but be careful about getting too distracted, you may not return.

Personalization

After creating a comfortable private space to work in, the next step is personalizing this space to your preferences and making it reflect you.  If you’re going to spend several hours a day there, then you need to make it yours.  Having agency over your work area is critical and an uninspiring boring environment can negatively affect your perception of the space and ultimately your productivity.  So integrating things that express your creativity, without being distracting, cannot only be comforting but also uplifting.  But take note, a relaxed overall space works best not some contrived room that looks like a TV set, in other words, you want your work area to be inviting and calm. 

Now we certainly recognize that when WFH you’re making endless video and phone calls hence inviting your coworkers, employers, teachers, and fellow students into your home.  The pandemic has definitely advanced the shattering of the public/ private space boundary.  The spatial and temporal separation between work and home is in the process of disappearing and in all probability won’t return to pre-pandemic norms.  We’ve been propelled into a different reality of what home space is and the technological tools we use have shifted our approach to working.  Our relationship to our coworkers is now also tied to our private space by what we make visible to them.  This requires us not only thinking about how our space functions but the aesthetics of our workspace, and how it may be perceived and interpreted by those we invite “through the looking glass”.

The following are ways to fuse functionality with aesthetics thereby creatively bridging efficiency and design:

  • Take a moment to evaluate your workspace.  Where are you sitting, what do you see, and what do others see of your space?  You don’t have to be working in a picture perfect environment but you do have to recognize that periodically you’re sharing your space with colleagues during a videoconference.  What do you want them to see, a blank background/wall to keep visual distractions at bay or one of the customizable green screen backgrounds?  What you pick is your preference but remember you’re trying to remain somewhat professional and your background although fun can over time have an impact on your personal image.  So choose wisely.
  • There is no substitute for a good physical background, which results in you not having to worry about the variation in the different video platforms.  Consider how you can turn the bland wall behind you into something interesting.  What colour is it, a neutral palette that promotes calm or something with stronger colours that is more dynamic?  What do you have hanging on your walls – posters, photos, artwork?  It doesn’t have to be a curated surface but it should be organized and not too intrusive.  
  • A space with no character can feel impersonal, but too many knick-knacks or untidiness may come off as unprofessional.  Finding this balance is key to making a working space both functional and comfortable.  
  • Having an organized work area helps enhance your focus so try and find suitable storage.  It doesn’t have to be a filing cabinet but some modular bookcases or even colourful stacking bins/drawers can help de-clutter the space and make it more peaceful while working. 
  • A concept being discussed more frequently these days is Biophilia, the notion that people are deeply connected to nature and that we are our best when surrounded by it. There is growing research about the positive physiological and psychological benefits of being exposed to nature and how it generates a sense of well-being which affects our creativity, ability to focus, and levels of productivity.  Of course this does not translate into placing your workspace outdoors, but what it does mean is considering things like natural lighting and views, fresh air and aromas, textures and patterns, and sounds.  One of the easiest ways to bring nature indoors is incorporating potted plants into your environment.  They can be plants sitting on your floor, sitting atop your work surface, hanging from your ceiling, or even a part of a movable wall divider.  The critical point is connecting with nature and creating our own green spaces.
  • For many of us we don’t have enough electrical outlets in our work spaces. They’re either hidden behind furniture or they aren’t where we need them. As a result we have extension cords strewn over the floor everywhere.  Make sure when you’re selecting your work area you consider your proximity to power outlets so you can easily charge your gadgets and you don’t have foot traffic over cords that can damage wiring and cause a fire.   So in this matter we’re not talking exclusively about aesthetics (messy cords in our work area) but we’re concerned about personal safety. 

Conclusion

So, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter whether we’re in a 4-bedroom house or bachelor apartment.  What we need to do is seriously examine our work environments and our personal relationship with them.  We need to question whether our spaces allow us an adequate degree of control in meeting our changing work/study requirements and are flexible enough to conduct the variety of functions that are demanded of them.  Pre-pandemic, we were inclined to rigidly label our home spaces and strictly define what took place in them, but we can no longer do that. We need to be conscious of the dynamics of privacy and personal space and the mechanisms that allow us to achieve them in our varied environments.  Let’s face it, we’re currently using our spaces based on the external necessities and stresses imposed upon us, and the reactions to our workspaces are very complicated.  We are products of our social and our physical environment, and as the saying goes “we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us” (W. Churchill).  Not only is it necessary to have an understanding of the flexibility of our spaces and how they allow for personal interaction across the screen, room, and home, but it is also critical for us to be aware of the impact privacy, comfort, and personalization have on the satisfaction of our spaces and our effective use of them. 

Websites with Work From Home ideas and applications

Archdaily: “Tiny Offices: Extensions Separating Home from Workspaces

Architectural Digest: “65 Home Office Ideas That Will Inspire Productivity

Curbed: “Movable Walls Transform Giant Studio into Two-Bedroom Pad

Homedit: “Furniture on Wheels

Houzz: “Home Office Ideas

WorkDesign Magazine: “Enriching The Workplace With Biophilic Design

Dr. Veronika Mogyorody is the founder and past coordinator of the interdisciplinary Visual Arts and the Built Environment [VABE] program associated with the University of Windsor's School of Creative Arts, and the University of Detroit Mercy's School of Architecture. Recognized for her educational leadership, Dr. Mogyorody has been honored with a 3M National Teaching Fellowship and awarded the Brightspace Teaching and Learning Innovation Award. She is currently a Teaching and Learning Senior Fellow at the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

Amanda Gatto is a recent graduate of the Masters of Architecture program from the University of Detroit Mercy. She also received a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Detroit Mercy and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Windsor as a part of the VABE program. She is interested in studying how pedagogy can influence architecture and its impact on design. She is also a recipient of the Medal of Excellence from the National Architectural Accrediting Board.

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