Making home “work,” physically and emotionally

Design Engineering Director

Today, our homes have to play many roles – not just as our sanctuaries, but also where we work, educate, workout, and attempt to entertain – just ourselves. No more can we leave the mood of one environment behind by simply commuting, hitting a coffee shop, gym, or bar. With towns and cities on pause, so are the endless ways to change mindsets through environments and experiences. Our challenge is to develop other ways to shift gears between work, and everything else.

I speak for all at Smart Design, that we feel incredibly grateful to be part of a company where we spend our work hours coming up with creative solutions for our clients, and for ourselves. Covid-19 gives us a new set of challenges to solve for, not least of which is maintaining work-life balance and dealing with cabin fever.

Here are some observations from our Smarties, with solutions we think are worth implementing for work-life balance now, and into the future.

Work is here…now gone

The physical work area gets to the heart of setting boundaries around work-life. Many of us have tried moving our workspace around our home living spaces, from couch to chair to table. Others committed to one area as a workspace but found it to be an ever-present pull into work routines at the wrong times. A work spot that can be transformed or hidden at the end of the day is a critical step to switch the workday on and off. Potential systems include a folding tabletop, a rolling cart, or a bin under the table to clear things quickly. Use both sides of a poster board or wall hanging in the area: one side as a canvas for your work, with schedules or post-its. Flip it around (or hang it back up) at the end of your day to signal a departure from your office.

Keep it green

Plants refresh the air and calm the mind. In a 2015 study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, green space improved cognitive performance dramatically. Scores for participants who worked in greener environments were, on average, double those of participants who worked in conventional environments. Bring some nature inside.

The seat of productivity

We hear it too often: “my posture is shot.” Posture and spine health are integral to a balanced life, and productivity.  Select a comfortable chair in your home as your office chair, or invest in a good one. Designers tend to be seating snobs; for anyone who must spend a great deal of time seated, comfort and alignment are first priority.

Light it right

At Smart Design, we normally work in well-lit office space. Back at home, not so much for some of us. Several of us found a good desk lamp with a dimmer useful – and served a secondary purpose. Lamp on: work is on. When the lamp goes off, the workday is over. For those fortunate to have strong natural light at home, working at a window allows morning and evening light to signal work hours. End-of-day light will naturally align with your body’s circadian rhythm.

Have some signals

Most of us share our homes. Let housemates know through visual cues when work requires our complete focus, and when the virtual door is closed.  Wireless headphones help tune out distractions and signal to others, “Quiet please. I’m on a call.” Lower tech solutions also abound, like this stop sign:

Get some outdoor space

Sharing a home in these times means we spend all our time near to family and housemates. Smarties prioritize finding their own space at regular intervals. Before the workday begins, step outside for at least a few minutes (in a mask, if in public). Just a brief visit to a balcony or rooftop, when available, gives a sense of calm and a natural chance to reflect or meditate. For some of us, practicing gratitude energizes our days

Get moving

These days Smarties not only work together, many of us workout together. We know how important it is to keep our endorphins up and have found new workout routines using body weight and minimal equipment. We also gamify workouts, like a 30-day push-up challenge with a leaderboard. We look for ways to inspire accountability and make it social.

Take real lunch

It’s too easy to chew through meetings and keep the pace going. However, it’s all-around healthier to break. Schedule a hard stop for lunch. The act of making lunch can sometimes be cathartic. Some of us schedule time to chat with others during lunch, even for ten minutes, simulating our community table. The key here is to leave your “desk” and eat in another spot, and to talk to someone.

Switch gears

One physical location for work, parenting, schooling, recreation, and downtime challenges anyone’s ability to compartmentalize. We’re always “on,” so Smarties are looking for new ways to switch off. Help your brain transition to “home mode.” Close and stow the laptop, prototypes or notebooks. Turn-off email notifications at a preset time and set your Slack icon to “Hell-No!” If you can, leave for a short walk, balcony sit, or rooftop meditation in between tasks, modes or phases of your day. Find the ritual that signals the shift for yourself and others. We have found renewed appreciation for non-digital activities like jigsaw puzzles and board games that help shift from work to relax mode.

Get into weekend mode

By the time Smart Design’s virtual Friday Happy Hour comes onscreen, nearly all Smarties have flipped the switch. One Smartie reported, “I won’t turn on Slack until Monday morning. I never did that before.” This sets us up for our own goals on our own time. Now more than ever, getting creative with personal projects and activities is needed for balance. Inevitably, many of us have rearranged the furniture several times, and reportedly “it does wonders to your sense of what you should be doing in a space.” Others have found recipes, hiked, biked, or built things. So plant those vegetables, create that website, start writing that blog post, or repaint that bathroom. If this isn’t the time, when is?

Our home represents us

As we look hopefully towards an easing of restrictions, we carry a new understanding for the connection between our space, our wellbeing, our relationships and our work-life balance. With intentional use, our home can be so much more than we thought. Considered design can transform the home experience for us and for our housemates. I asked Smarties how this pandemic has changed their perception of home, and one said it best, “This situation we are in has made me appreciate my home so much more than before – especially the people I live and work with.” I couldn’t agree more.

Let’s design a smarter world together