Career Let Your Senses Guide Your Home-Office Makeover

by Seth Putnam | May 19, 2020

Your home is a retreat from the outside world. It's the place where you rest and relax after a long day's work.

But what happens when you have to bring the outside workplace home?

Thanks to our interconnected world, remote work is on the rise. Telework increased by 159% between 2005 and 2017 with an estimated 4.7 million people working from home offices, according to research by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics.

When your workplace goes remote, it can be tempting to crash on the nearest sofa and hunch over a low coffee table for eight hours a day. But experts say this is a recipe for both emotional stress and physical injury.

When setting up a space, it's easy to focus first on the spartan basics. Desk? Got it. How about a chair? Check. But truly great design accounts for all five senses. What does your space look like? How does it feel? But don't overlook taste, touch and even smell — each plays an essential role.

Whether you're a permanent freelancer or just beginning to launch a business of your own, we've got budget-friendly tips for designing an office space that will help you tap into each of your five senses — and set you up for more comfortable, productive work.

Truly great design accounts for all five senses.
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Woman sending text messages while working in her kitchen

Feast your eyes

When taking professional life home, experts suggest picking a dedicated space where work gets done. That means avoiding beds, couches or anywhere you usually relax, but it should incorporate design elements to help you feel grounded and productive.

Katie Buchanan, design director at the integrated design and architecture firm Gensler, says that's good advice in theory, but it might pose a challenge for those who live in small spaces or for families where each member needs a place to work or learn. As a design professional trying to adapt her own workplace expertise to life at her home in Oakland, CA, Buchanan has had to implement what works for her personally, which can sometimes feel like treading entirely new territory compared to what she’s used to at her day job.

"One thing we've learned over the years is that the way people are working the best is through activity-based design," says Buchanan, who specializes in workplace design and has concepted corporate offices for movie studios, law firms and tech startups. It's important to consider the type of work you're doing (and when you're doing it) and choose a space that's visually appropriate for the task at hand.

If you're participating in group video chats throughout the day, Buchanan suggests setting up your laptop in a spot that's free of distractions. Pick an area of your home that's well lit, and position your camera at the right height with a neutral wall as a background.

For your focused workspace, pick a few objects — perhaps from your desk at your regular office — that get you in the mood to be productive. If you have inspiring pieces of art elsewhere in the house, consider relocating them to create a motivational scene for getting the job done. The same goes for houseplants, which have been shown to be natural mood enhancers.

Lighting plays a big role, too. Buchanan recommends against setting up your computer directly in front of a bright window, which can cause eye strain. Instead, consider setting the vibe with a floor or desk lamp. "Artwork, lighting: It's all a benefit to your psyche," she says. "Use anything that can get you in the mood, especially since there's no physical separation between work and home life."

Woman using a laptop and headphones while working from home

Turn it up

Music has the power to both motivate and distract, and everyone has different needs when it comes to aural stimuli. "You might perform better with an energetic soundtrack for some activities, while other times you need to block things out," Buchanan says.

Instead of thinking of your home office as a static, unalterable space, she recommends mapping out the parts of your day and designing a dynamic soundtrack based on your to-do list. If you're writing, music might be an obstacle to your productivity, but if you're tackling something like data entry, upbeat music might help you rise to the task. Consider a free white-noise generator app which can mimic everything from the weather to a busy coffee shop (in case you simply need the dull roar of a public space to do your best work).

Stretch it out

Most of us spend a third of our lives tethered to a desk. In modern American offices, ergonomics have taken center stage, but if you find yourself quickly transitioning to working from home, comfort can fall by the wayside. "If you work in a position that's causing increased stress to your soft tissue, those tissues shorten and become inflamed," explains Ellen Kolber, an occupational therapist who owns a consultancy called ErgonomicsNYC. "At that point, you can have cellular changes."

Proper computer configuration rules are pretty simple: monitors should be at eye-level, elbows should be at 90 degrees and wrists should be straight. Kolber says the best place to start is with a decent office chair that can be adjusted for height and back support. Though furniture can be pricey, she emphasizes that it's a worthwhile investment in long-term health and recommends looking for a brand that offers a lifetime warranty.

There are plenty of ways to save elsewhere. In a pinch, Kolber recommends using a few books to raise a laptop screen and utilizing an external keyboard and mouse to reduce strain on arms and wrists. Working from home offers the flexibility to get up and move around, whether that's to set up a temporary standing desk at counter height or to perform "computer stretches" before and after work.

Man stands leaning on table in the dining room holding cup and looking down at his laptop

Breathe in

In the same way aromas can trigger deep memories, how your space smells can relax, inspire and mentally prepare you to knock out your to-do list. "Rituals and routines are really important," Buchanan explains. "It's all part of personal wellness."

While smell may not seem directly related to productivity, taking the time to engage these habits can create much-needed structure in an environment. Consider starting your day by lighting a candle. Or, if you take a break to meditate in the middle of the day, you might use an essential oil diffuser to create some separation between work and your moment of calm.

Taste test

Setting up an electric kettle and an assortment of aromatic teas can be another opportunity to create a ritual to break up your day. While it may seem trivial to some, creating small moments for yourself can be pivotal in terms of breaking up your day.

When it comes to meals, it's important to stick to a schedule. It can be tempting to graze when you're home all day, but it's vital to create a routine so you don't glance up the clock, see it's 2:30 p.m. and realize you haven't eaten lunch. This is especially important if the family is home working together. "We have a strict rule of 'pencils down at noon,'" explains Buchanan, who preps lunch for her 5- and 8-year-old before enforcing an hour of chill-out time. "Not everyone thrives with a routine, but we find it helps us get through the day."

If you want to eat right, don't graze all day. Structure breaks throughout the day for eating complete meals — and try to make it to the table for dinner. If you snack, pass on the processed treats and turn instead to healthful, whole foods such as veggies and hummus, trail mix or apple slices with a dollop of peanut butter.

When it comes to meals, it's important to stick to a schedule.
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When the day is done

One of the biggest challenges facing the remote worker is knowing when to call it quits. "Shut off at the same time you would at work," Buchanan advises. She and her family make time for walks around their neighborhood, which both prepare them for the day ahead and help them unwind when it's over. "Work can bleed into your entire day and drain you. When it's all happening in the same place, you need to take more steps to ensure you have that separation," she adds.

By sticking to a schedule, designing a beautiful space and creating rituals that engage each of your five senses, you can set yourself up for a productive but relaxing workday — all from the comfort of home.

Seth Putnam

is a Chicago-based journalist, editor, print consultant and publisher of the newsletter Shelter. He got his start covering politics for the Kansas City Star in Missouri before moving to the Windy City to write for magazines.