More and more Americans are working from home—and not just because they’re all in quarantine. With video chat technology, the rise of the gig economy, and increasingly flexible company policies, the world is your office. But few of us have actually sat down and thought about the kind of space we need to work optimally.
Anja Jamrozik is a cognitive scientist who studies physical and digital environments. She says there are five basic things everyone needs to work well: access to natural light, a comfortable temperature, good air quality, comfortable furniture, and a strategy for minimizing distractions.
Most of these are pretty easy to arrange. Place your desk near a window, open the window, and invest in an actual monitor, keyboard, and mouse—no hunching over a laptop allowed. But work-life balance can feel even more out of reach when you’re living and working in the same few hundred square feet.
“Successful remote workers set up a dedicated office space in their home and used a physical boundary, like a door, to carve out space,” Jamrozik told me via email. “They also set temporal boundaries by replicating the schedule of a workday they would have if going into an office.” And they talk about those boundaries with the people they live with—that way, no one’s running around in their underwear during a video conference.
Few of us have a separate studio or spare bedroom where we can shut out the rest of the world. But that may not be strictly necessary, says Donald Rattner, an architect and the author of My Creative Space, a how-to guide for carving out space for inspiration no matter how you live.
“Creativity can take place anywhere,” Rattner says. “What I think is important is that you designate a space for this creativity.” Instead of shutting a door, people can create a “regimen of space”—something as simple as setting out selected objects on their kitchen table, like a special placemat or a few framed photos, that tell their brain it’s time to get to work.
Wherever they get down to business, the little details matter. “What we see can literally change how we think,” Rattner says. Studies show the color blue boosts creativity, while red encourages attention to detail. A pop of green can also put people in an imaginative mood—and there are other ways to go green besides paint. “You can try to bring nature inside,” Rattner says, with (hardy!) houseplants, botanic prints, and nature photography.
The more open a space, the more open-minded people will feel, Rattner says. But sweeping vistas and super-tall ceilings don’t come cheap. Good thing there are countless ways to create the sensation of limitless space between four thin walls. Putting your desk near a window helps. “Even if you’re looking at an air shaft—as I did in one of my early apartments—natural light can still make a huge difference,” Rattner says. A strategically placed mirror, which bounces light around the space, can also help. And though it may go against impulse, My Creative Space also recommends turning your desk to the room instead of a wall. That way, your eyes (and, hopefully, your imagination) can bounce around instead of staring at a bland patch of paint a few inches away from your face.
Your line of sight is important, but telecommuters can’t neglect other senses, especially sound. If the room is too quiet or too loud, work will be difficult. “Seventy decibels seems to be a sweet spot when it comes to creative work,” Rattner says. That’s about as loud as a vacuum cleaner, but rather than run a Dyson all day, Rattner suggests queuing up some instrumental music. It doesn’t have to be Beethoven—the Phantom Thread soundtrack works, too.
Designing the perfect home office requires art, science, and self-reflection. But crafting a healthy work environment can help you and your work reach new heights—like that split-leaf philodendron on your now revamped windowsill in your WFH space.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest