Return on Art
December 20, 2020
April 30, 2021
When I moved into my current home some ten years ago, Virginia Woolf’s words rang loud in my ears: “A woman must have a room of one’s own if she is to write.” I’d tried writing in the kitchen, it didn’t work. Quite aside from the dangerous proximity to snacks and the incongruity of a desktop computer in the space in which I ate, it was asking an already hard-working space to further multi-task in a way it was ill-equipped to do. Insufficient book storage. No layout space. And crucially, no way to shut the door on it all at the end of the day.
Thus, a former TV snug was earmarked as my study-to-be, despite still commuting daily to a job in London. Regardless, or perhaps because of this, a dedicated and quiet space at home in which to gather my thoughts, and be alone, was my idea of heaven. And so, through lockdowns 1-3, I probably fared better than most. However, now that a degree of WFH is looking set to become standard practice, it’s time for those of us without a room-of-their-own to bid farewell to the ironing board as impromptu standing desk and come out from seeking solace in the loo.
Because the truth is, with little time to prepare, for many remote working caused a storm of conflicting interest in the very place that’s supposed to proffer respite from the maddening world beyond our thresholds. Living and working under one roof for almost a year tests any space to the limit, forcing a reappraisal of every previous design decision, from knocked-down walls to the size of the dining table. After all, most homes, are simply not designed for work.
Indeed, my priority pandemic update was the re-instatement of a door.
Although my study is a separate room, it sits within a largely open plan ground floor. As I’d always been home alone before when writing, shutting myself away wasn’t necessary. I preferred the free flow of air. But once the schools closed, it became essential as a requirement for quiet became a major issue.
It’s not so much a complete absence of sound, as no additional artificial noise like a radio, TV or Nintendo buzzing in the background. Birdsong, clocks and traffic are fine. And this isn’t just a personal foible. Various medical studies have shown that silence encourages new brain cells to grow, specifically in the hippocampus, the region of our grey matter devoted to memory, emotion and learning. It also relates to the thorny (aka intensely irritating) issue of being interrupted, a real bugbear of most regular workplaces. According to Gloria Mark, professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, it takes some 23 minutes and 15 seconds precisely to return to full focus after being distracted.
As she puts it, “Attention distraction can lead to higher stress, bad mood and lower productivity.” Quite.
As such, in my opinion, video conferencing was more blunt tool of change than revolutionary enabler as carefully constructed boundaries between the personal and professional were dismantled without our permission. We generally draw a line here for a reason. It permits the dropping in private of the metaphorical masks we wear to preserve our public fronts. Not to forget that scheduled, virtual interactions lack the nuance, social cues and spontaneity that generally facilitate fulfilling, and therefore constructive, conversation.
Do we not become more relatable to each other for dropping our guard, literally letting more people into the reality of our lives? Just as sombre news reporters were revealed to be like us, infallible, human, and real, when upstaged by nonchalant toddlers ambling past in the background. In this way the great home/work merge could present an opportunity to more harmoniously weave together the varied threads of our interests and occupations.
Unfortunately, though, if you don’t have a room of your own, an over-sized shed or a fancy garden study pod to retreat to, then the home/work experiment could feel less exploration of the intricate tapestry of life than imminently unravelling disaster. For while noise cancelling headphones and virtual backdrops may be temporary solutions, they are a reaction to the situation rather than a considered sustainable response.
Rather, we need to realign our domestic expectations and create a new home working paradigm wherein pockets of quiet space are factored in from the beginning as a priority. After all, pushing our homes to be more flexible and supportive with spaces that segue easily from one task to the next, pushes us too to be more adaptable and efficient in the way that we use them. It’s something that’s even prompted a new architectural incentive, The Davidson Prize, founded last year to reward imaginative re-thinking of the contemporary home. The 2021 theme? Home/Work — A New Future.
And I say this based on a belief that most people don’t need more space at home, they need less stuff and a reappraisal of the space that they do have. On average we wear one third of our clothes and regularly use even less of our belongings. Clear out some of this clutter and you might be surprised at the room you release. Then, a small desk can tuck into a bay window or be pushed against the wall, sideboard style, to be pulled out during the day. Hallways, even landings can be creatively commandeered, or box rooms finally put to proper use.
Caveat: wherever you choose to settle, do not sit yourself facing a blank wall. It’s as if you’ve put yourself into detention. You’ll also likely be leaving your back exposed which triggers the primitive fight or flight response, sending unhelpful hormones soaring by default, and scuppering focus in one. Likewise sitting up in bed. Nice to begin with, but over time it’ll destroy the sanctity of your bedroom for sleep.
It permits the taking of a visual breath, without breaking the flow that fosters the holy trinity of WFH: staying productive, motivated and sane. Failing that, a picture, whether painting or postcard tacked to the wall, will do. It needs to be enough to capture your attention, but not so much as to distract. Crucially, a view, whether real or replica, benefits your mental health, subtly connecting you to the outside world and gently reminding you that you do not toil alone.
Nonetheless, there’s no point having something lovely to look at, if your desk and seat height are incorrect. Whatever your height, the optimum working posture sees your feet placed firmly flat on the floor with your forearms at 90 degrees to your body such that your hands hover lightly above your keypad while your shoulders remain freely dropped, not hunched in a posture of tense rigidity. This is why desks are commonly 8-10 cm higher than dining tables; and adjustable chairs are a must.
Monitors should also be set such that the top of your screen is roughly at eye level. As for laptops? We seem to have forgotten that they were originally intended as temporary aids to working on the move, not for permanent usage. Do your neck and spine a favour and invest in a proper ethernet cable connected desktop computer asap. Certainly osteopaths, should there be any still in business when they’re allowed to touch us again, are going to have a field day unknotting legions of laptop junkies.
Relying on overheads alone equals eye strain and headaches. You need dedicated task lamps. And this doesn’t mean ring lights for making you look dewy when Zooming. Or a pretty table lamp replete with attractive pleated shade. These are the equivalent of lacy lingerie when what’s needed is a sports bra, ergo a solid adjustable Anglepoise or similar. Choose one with a weighty base so it won’t fall over when you twist it and be sure it’s tall enough to be angled above your monitor to illuminate the surface of your desk, not your screen.
Finally, it’s imperative to define your working day — have a ritual to mark its start and most importantly its end. I use scent. A few drops of rosemary or bergamot oil in a tealight-powered oil burner (plant-based wax only please, no toxic paraffin wax indoors) is my olfactory nudge to step it up a gear. Conversely, lavender signals time to slow down. Other than that, stay social. Eat lunch. Stand up every hour. Get outside daily.
Companies that offer employees flexibility will have a competitive advantage; a study co-authored by Stanford University suggests that people value it as highly as an 8 percent pay rise. Smart businesses therefore will adopt this hybrid model with downsized offices used primarily as 3 day/week hub points for shared learning, innovation and collaboration. Arguably people are innately social animals. We need to come together to get things done.
But, having the right basic kit at home will allow you to appreciate the benefits of WFH as well and adjusting our homes to accommodate such a basic functionality as being able to work, was overdue. Finally, this could be the brave new dawn of the hitherto elusive live/work balance. And that can only be applauded. Key to remember though as we swing enthusiastically towards the home office, is that home is also where we unplug, power down and switch off too. As the inimitable Dolly Parton once said, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
This feature was first published in the Financial Times’ How To Spend It magazine. The Design issue. 17 April.
Michelle Ogundehin is internationally renowned as an authority on interiors, trends and style. She is an influencer with expertise and the multi award-winning former Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Decoration UK.