Some people love working from home, and can’t imagine anything better than a day with their laptop clad in pajama pants. Others miss the structure and the casual chats with coworkers that happen in their office hallways. But whether you love it or hate it, the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus is likely to make working from home increasingly common, at least for the next few months.
Of course, not every job lends itself to this kind of flexibility. But for those of us who can do it, working from home can help decrease the overall exposure of the population to the virus, which epidemiologists say reduces the risk for those most vulnerable: older adults and people with compromised immune systems.
For those of you new to working from home, there’s a lot of advice out there about how to deal with the pitfalls and stay productive and sane (“Take a shower!” “Don’t spend too much time on social media!”). But from my own experience, working from home can be a real delight if you let it. So today I want to share a few ideas for creating a workspace and routines that will make working from home a joyful, sustainable experience. (And who knows? You might not even want to go back to the office!)
Take care of your body
In her book, Proposals for the Feminine Economy, Jenn Armbrust offers a series of principles, the first one being: “You have a body.” Sounds simple, but working from home can make it easy to forget about your body’s basic needs. While at your office, you likely have an ergonomic desk chair or an adjustable workstation, unless you work from home regularly, your workspace might consist of a kitchen table and basic wooden chair.
This doesn’t mean you need to invest in a whole home office setup, but rather to pay attention to how your body feels as you work from home. One advantage to working at home, as opposed to an office, is that you can change positions frequently. Try out lots of postures, whether that’s sitting in a chair, standing at your kitchen counter, relaxing on the sofa, or sitting on a yoga block on the floor with your coffee table as desk. It took me a long time, and some serious shoulder pain, to realize that the best position for long writing stretches for me is sitting on a backless bench at the dining table. Testing different positions can help you find physical ease faster.
Another thing to pay attention to is movement. You likely have to do some walking in the course of an office workday — to the office from the train or parking lot, between meetings, to the café for more coffee — and these movement breaks easily disappear when everything you need is within a couple of rooms. When I first started working from home, I was surprised to find that I could sometimes get fewer than 1000 steps in a day!
The flexibility of home work means, though, that you can move whenever you want to. Try setting a timer for a yoga or workout to break up a long email session. While writing JOYFUL, I took impromptu dance breaks whenever I was stuck on a section, something that cleared my head, but would’ve been hard to do in the office. I also started to put away the computer at the end of each day, printed out my work, and took a long walk in the park. In the summer, I’d take the latest draft with me and sit in the shade while marking it up. In the winter, I’d do this at the kitchen island after coming home.
Use your commute
How long is your commute? For many people, it can range between 30 minutes to 2 hours or more roundtrip. It’s easy to let that time slip away, but it can really add up. Even at the short end, that 30 minutes more per day adds up to two and a half hours gained per week! That’s enough to start a fitness regimen, write in your journal, read most of a book a week, do morning pages, start learning a new language, sew a quilt, play with your kids, make your own jam… Or, you can just let that time get subsumed by work or procrastination.
The key is being intentional about how you use that time. Schedule it in your calendar (it doesn’t have to be at the same time as your commute, of course) just as you would a meeting. You can also block that time out for free, unstructured time (something most adults don’t get enough of!) but then make sure to put tools down when the calendar alert goes off and give yourself space to enjoy it!
Get some sunshine
One poorly designed aspect of many traditional offices is how little daylight exposure is available in workspaces. For most workers in cubicles, call centers, or factories, the only light available during the day comes from the dull fluorescents overhead. Yet research shows that workers who get more exposure to daylight sleep better (up to 46 minutes more per night!), are less stressed, and are more active during the day. Light regulates key hormones and neurotransmitters, influencing everything from our alertness to stress levels, our immune system to moods.
In your home, you have more control over where you choose to work, so if possible, choose a space near a window. And if you don’t have much natural light in your space? Use lamps to boost the brightness. Just as too much blue light from our screens can keep us up at night, a healthy dose of bright artificial light during the day can help keep our 24-hour internal clock in sync.
Also, when heading to the office, you likely get at least a little sunlight on your commute, which you lose if you jump straight into work first thing. Light has the greatest impact on our Circadian rhythms in the morning, so get outside for even a brief walk before you sit down at your desk.
Create a sensory landscape
With their dull color palettes, synthetic carpets, and humming HVAC systems, most offices have a joyless sensory landscape. Add in the noise from open plan workspaces, and the fact that many spaces are too cold for women to work in comfortably (or productively), and the typical office environment can be deeply unpleasant to spend time in, much less get focused work done.
While we often see the problem as overstimulation, in fact, offices are just as likely to be under-stimulating. Workspaces have traditionally been designed based on the belief that to maximize productivity you need to minimize distraction, leading to bland, featureless spaces. But research shows that when people in these “lean” workspaces are compared to people working in “enriched” spaces that have art, plants, and more sensorial stimulation, the workers in the enriched spaces are 15% more productive. And if the workers have control over the placement of things in their workspace? They’re 32% more productive!
The beauty of working from home is that you can be like those workers in the study who controlled their own workspace, and create a sensory landscape that works for you. Part of this may mean eliminating unpleasant sensations, by getting noise cancelling headphones to tune out distracting noises or turning up the heat to a comfortable temperature. But also look for ways to add pleasant sensations into your workspace. Hang art that gives your gaze something to rest on while you glance away from your screen. Play nature sounds. Choose a brightly colored mug for your morning coffee.
The senses of touch and smell are particularly under-stimulated during the hours we’re tapping away at a keyboard, so look for ways to appeal to these. For example, I cover the bench I sit on when writing with a sheepskin, which has a decidedly un-office-like soft texture. I keep a bottle of essential oils on my desk, and sometimes use a diffuser to scent the air. (One oil to try is hinoki cypress, which has been shown in studies to increase the activity of our natural killer (NK) cells, a type of immune cell critical to fighting off viral infections.)
Green your workspace
While we’re on the subject of workspace, a simple thing you can do to make yours more joyful is to add greenery. Plants that might struggle to survive in the dim light of your cubicle can thrive at home, and you gain the extra benefit of getting to enjoy them when you’re not working as well.
You don’t have to have as many plants as Summer Rayne Oakes does in her home office, shown here, but even just adding a few has been shown to reduce stress and restore your ability to concentrate.
Make a “Get to Work” playlist
One challenge I’ve found in working from home is transitions. It can be hard to stop doing all those home things (emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, etc.) and get down to work, especially if there’s work you’re avoiding. (In fact, many writers joke that their home is never tidier than when they’re working on a book!)
One thing that can help is having some sort of ritual that marks a transition into a worksession. I have a couple of “Get to Work” playlists that help with this: one for writing, one for email. The playlists always start with the same song, so it becomes like a kind of sonic trigger that primes me to focus. Other transition ideas might be pouring a fresh cup of tea or coffee, doing a quick stretch, or setting a focus timer (I use the Tide app on my phone).
Make snack time special
A lot of working from home guides advise you to take a real lunch, but I confess that when I’m in flow, I much prefer to eat at my desk. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in taking breaks, though. As I mentioned above, the most important features of breaks for me are to get outside and to incorporate movement into my day. I also love a good snack break!
We often think of snacks as fuel, but for me, they’re more of a treat. And as Gretchen Rubin points out, treats can help make us feel cared for, energized, and motivated. Having access to your own kitchen means that you don’t have to rely on the processed foods that constitute a snack in most offices — nor do you have to eat it out of a bag. I’m a big fan of cutting up fruit and arranging it in a wheel around my plate (harmony aesthetic!), or making little sampler plates from the fridge of pickles, olives, and other nibbles. I also make energy balls or banana bread and freeze some so I can have it for a midweek treat.
You’re your own office manager now, so think about what would make you feel cared for and create space for that in your daily routine.
Offices have been designed with work in mind, yet mysteriously, we’ve decided that work is somehow the opposite of play. But as play researcher Brian Sutton-Smith says, “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” Bringing your work home gives you a chance to reimagine this divide, and invite more play into your workflow. And this can start with your workspace.
A playful workspace creates more opportunities for play in your day. These can be small, like the miniature spinning tops I keep on my desk to spin when I get stuck on an idea, or they can be larger, like having a trampoline to bounce on or a hula hoop to play with. Changing out a desk chair for an exercise ball can bring a sense of play to a workspace. A giant bowl of Legos or a big puzzle can keep hands busy while your mind is working through ideas.
You can also experiment with adding playful forms of decor, like children’s drawings on the wall, or cute objects for your desk, like these office accessories from Ban.do in the studio of Madeline Ellis of Mimosa Handcrafted. (I got the same effect by putting googly eyes on my stapler.) Cute things may even benefit our productivity, according to research out of Japan, by enhancing our ability to focus.
Imagine: if you’d never been to an office before, what would you want it to look like? When you work from home, there’s no reason not to create a space that lets your imagination run free.
Pack it up and put it away
Perhaps the worst thing about working from home? It’s hard to know when the workday ends. Writer Kevin Roose has found, for example, that remote workers take shorter breaks and fewer sick days, suggesting that boundaries can be an issue. And this is even more challenging if you don’t have a dedicated home office space. When your laptop sits out on the dining table, or the coffee table is covered in stacks of manila folders, it’s hard to fully feel like you’ve turned off.
This is one reason why I insisted on building in two tiny home offices in our current renovation. I still will probably spend time working at the dining table, but I wanted a place to put everything at night so that I can close the door on it and not be distracted by the things I didn’t get done. You don’t need a spare room to do this, though. Simply having a nice basket or closet to tuck your laptop and papers into at night will do the trick. Creating a physical boundary will help you reset your mind and reclaim your home life.
Do you have tips for finding more joy while working from home? Please share them in the comments!