We've all seen the photos: women glammed up for a Zoom call and looking completely pulled together on-screen while everything just off-screen is jury-rigged and chaotic.
We're not here to shame. Working from home can be tricky, especially if you share your home or apartment with children, pets, or a partner who is also trying to work from home — or all three. Often the challenge is space, which during the pandemic became a pretty big deal for many women who had to juggle working from home with kids who needed somewhere to do virtual school and, often, a partner who was also needing a spot to work.
Sure, a "room of one's own" would be great, but sometimes you need to settle for a closet, hallway, or corner of one's own. But don't fret. Even if you have limited space to dedicate to a home office, there are ways to set up a designated work-from-home space or office nook that can help limit distractions, keep you organized and maybe even boost your productivity.
Here are five tips for creating a functional space that will enable you to function better.
1. Identify what kind of space you need
Maybe you need a private, quiet area where you can close the door. Or perhaps you need to keep an eye on things going on at home — hello, Zoom school — as you work. Either way, think through your work preferences, so you can determine whether a secluded corner of the bedroom suits you or a set-up closer to the heart of your home (maybe in the kitchen or a hallway) would be better.
If space is limited, but you'd still crave a little separation, demarcate your office with a shelving unit, which creates privacy and adds storage. Open cube configurations, such as the Ikea Kallax, are great for this because the cubes can be filled with work materials, books, or even fabric storage bins, which reduce noise, notes Kerri Hansen, an interior designer and founder of Little Nest Design in North Vancouver, British Columbia.
"You can personalize the cubes with plants or photos," says Hansen, "which helps them serve their function of dividing a space but also keeps it pretty." Shoji screens (made out of rice paper panels) are another great way to divide up space while letting light filter through.
Or go for broke and transform an unconventional space into a work zone, which is precisely what New York City-based journalist Patty Adams Martinez had to do once her husband's job and her 8-year-old son's schooling both went remote in 2020. Sick of cobbling together a laptop stand in her bedroom every time she needed a quiet space for a video call, Martinez overhauled a closet she used for off-season clothes and other items into a dedicated quiet space that could be used by either her or her husband for calls.
She did this by donating all underused shoes, clothes, and handbags and hiding away remaining items behind a table skirt or in clear plastic boxes that she covered with art printouts. The result: a space that's nice to be in and feels purposeful. "It really doesn't feel very closet-y anymore at all," says Martinez.
2. Invest in good basics
You need to set yourself up for success, and it's your tools that do just that. A solid worktop, a supportive chair, easy-to-access storage for all your work gear — this is the infrastructure you need in place right out of the gate.
Start by figuring out how much worktop space you need. If all you require is a laptop, a small desk can do the job. But if you need to spread out documents or materials, then a table might serve you better.
Next, choose a chair. Dining room chairs aren't made for long stints at a desk, so this is one place you might want to invest. "When it comes to what you're going to be sitting in for hours on end, my recommendation is function over fashion," says Hansen. "You can focus on making other things in your workspace look nice, but go for functionality and ergonomics when choosing your chair."
Storage is also key, so if your desk doesn't have any built-ins, consider a free-standing bank of drawers or putting vertical space to work for you. "Open shelving above your desk is a great place to add storage and put some of your favorite items like photos or books," Hansen says.
Other worthwhile bare necessities: A good pair of headphones, a laptop stand, and a ring light (which attaches to your computer and brightens up your face) for video calls. And throw in a few extra phone chargers, so you're not running around searching every time you need one. "The idea is to keep all the important things within reach," which can help limit distractions and time wasted, says Christine Tuttle, a Boston-based interior designer. She also served as the designer on the Emmy-award-winning television show This Old House.
3. Light it up
If you can set up near a window, do it. Natural light reduces eye strain and headaches and contributes to overall productivity. Don't fret, however, if your office nook isn't bathed in sunshine. Instead, layer your lighting.
"Take advantage of any natural light you might have, and then add in task lights," like a desk lamp or a standing floor lamp placed near your workspace, says Tuttle.
Or consider LED lights because they cut glare and create soft, diffused illumination. If your space feels particularly gloomy, a SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) light can be a great item to have in your space.
4. Room to move or stretch
With no break room to meander over to a few times a day or mad dashes outside to grab lunch, working from home can mean longer stints sitting at a desk, which can negatively affect your physical and mental health. If space permits, create a stretching zone near your WFH set-up where you can do some basic forward folds, overhead reaches, and neck circles without bumping into anything.
Better still, create a space where you can roll out a yoga mat and lie flat on your back for a few minutes a day to give it a supported rest. Another helpful accessory: a 26-inch (65cm) yoga ball, which can serve as a chair or a stretching aid to help with spinal mobility and tension release.
5. Make it your own
Maybe you like the energy plants bring into a space. Or perhaps having a mood board covered with inspirational quotes helps with your focus. It could be that even having a pitcher of filtered water nearby keeps you humming along. Whatever it is, bring some of those comforts into your space to make it someplace you want to be. "Make it a space that you look forward to spending time in," says Hansen.