We Asked the Experts How to Fight Work-From-Home Burnout

Romaissaa Benzizoune
·6 min read

COVID has changed our outlook on a lot of things: countries with universal health care, dates, acne of the non-mask variety. It has also shaken up many industries, as architect and social entrepreneur Matt Finn points out during our interview, for the better. And in some ways, people, as well. “I think it’s kind of cool that it’s okay now to admit that you’re struggling with things,” Matt says. “People are really asking, ‘How are you doing?’”

Although Matt does not think that working from home will forever be “the new normal”—he warns architects against applying permanent fixes to a temporary need for physical distance—he acknowledges the role it will continue to play in the near future. During our conversation about work, play, and holistic health (the latter of which is the primary focus of his firm Cognitive Design), we put together some work from home tips that will help inspire even the most burned-out among us.

Put up some barriers

As humans and not automatons—not yet, at least—it can be hard to tell the people we love to leave us alone. Majd Gharib, a consultant at Cognitive Design who joined us for the interview, described the work from home experience very aptly: “It’s very difficult, to be honest. Because you need to set boundaries with people that you love.” So how does one do that?

In the absence of a formal home office, it can take a little creativity. When Matt worked from home, he found a solution in the form of a blanket and a few command hooks. “We had a small nook off of our kitchen and we literally put some 3M Command strips on the wall and hung a blanket across the opening and that was the door to daddy’s office,” Matt says. Although it wasn’t the best physical or acoustical barrier, the blanket was an effective psychological barrier—both Matt and his five-year-old daughter understood the signifier of the partitioned space. Also, having the blanket up made it easier to pack up and “leave” work when he was done with it.

Small measures like a partitioned space (curtains, blankets, or even tapestries may do the trick) help with the Herculean feat that is achieving focus at home. As do acoustic barriers. Majd remarks the voices of our family members may actually be “significantly more intrusive” than a chorus of office chatter because their voices carry meaning to us. To drown out the lovely meanings, or perhaps just the morning dishes, Matt likes using the white-noise feature of Bose Sleepbuds.

Invest in something new

If you’re spending an unprecedented amount of time in your space, investing in the right plants, lights, or air filters can help shake things up. Changing the view from your workspace can also help: “Gazing at the sky helps relax your eyes after an extended focus on a computer screen or a book. Looking at natural elements provides mental health benefits such as increased relaxation and stress recovery,” Madj says. This extends to lighting.

If you do not have the luxury of a naturally well-lit area, you should replicate the effect. Matt is a fan of Philips Warm Glow Dimmable LED bulbs, which start off at white brightness to imitate sunlight, but get warmer as you dim them. This emulation of nature may help promote sleep and enhance your circadian rhythms—think of it like the “night shift” mode you may have on your laptop. In general, it is a good idea to keep color temperature and color rendering index in mind when choosing lighting. Ketra, a personal favorite of Matt’s, focuses on the latter.

Work productivity can be an added bonus of making small but deliberate changes to your environment. During our interview, Matt notes that “different sensory inputs” can either “facilitate or interrupt” focus work. Personally, I’ve noticed that lighting certain candle scents lull me into relaxation mode, while bright piney or citrusy scents help me focus.

Get whimsical

The boundaries you should perhaps be most concerned with are the ones you set for yourself. “One of the big risks of working from home,” Matt says, “is that you’re always at work. So really trying to prioritize the period of time when you’re doing work, and the period of time when you’re not doing work is important.” In so many words: Don’t forget to pencil in time for fun.

My advice is to get whimsical—not only with how you use your downtime but also how you use your space. “The more common American suburban lifestyle is...you get a dining room only for meals. That’s not a good use of space.” Matt notes. “That lack of variety can be very stagnating.” Thinking outside of the box might save you from experiencing the same vantage points on a loop. Get in touch with your inner child, and throw the rules of disciplined space use out the window. Want to clear away the dining room table and set up a pumpkin carving station on the weekend? Go for it!

A recent CD report on working from home has some more good ideas: “Turn the sofa into a fort for movie night, make messy art in the bathtub, eat dinner in the living room, exercise together outside.”

Don’t forget to socialize

“Many people, myself included, rely on their workplace as a large part of their socialization. Having this either be gone due to a change in employment or simply relegated to being virtual-only can be isolating,” Majd says. Matt thinks that the need for socialization in the time of corona—socialization meant to replace our water cooler gossip sessions and work wife lunch breaks—is just as important as the other needs this virus has created. Of socialization, he says: “It’s really important to take it as seriously as your vitamin D levels, wearing your mask, and washing your hands.” (If you’re curious about the links between social isolation and architectural design, click into this report.) So, while taking the precautions you deem necessary, talk to your friends. As we socially distance ourselves from most of the world, perhaps we can also get closer to the people we love. Or the person most consistently bagging our Lysol at CVS.

On the bright side, we may see an increased focus on social space in the architecture’s future. “We’re going to see businesses really acknowledge the importance of socialization and social space. I don’t think we’ll see a wasteland of single-person offices.” So don’t let your small-talk skills get too weak; you may back at the water cooler sooner than you think. 

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest