Designing a makeshift home office with mental health in mind

As the coronavirus pandemic forces increasing numbers of designers out of the studio, we ask interior design experts how to create an appropriate workspace in the home.

Using organisation to promote wellbeing is a practice that has been present in cultures the world over for millennia. In China Feng Shui is practiced; in India, Vastu Shastra; and the success of so-called “tidying consultants” like Marie Kondo has brought it to a wider Western audience in more recent years.

Now, as the coronavirus pandemic forces us inside, huge portions of the UK’s design industry will find themselves in spaces that were never designed for work, much less the creative work they’re employed to do. With this in mind, finding an appropriate place to work in the home can be crucial, and while adjusting these may come naturally to the spatial design types among you, to others it may not.

Niki Schafer says organisation can play a key role in home working environments

Do: aim for organisation and personality

“A space can inspire us, it can make us feel productive, it can calm us, and it can enliven us,” says Niki Schafer, founder of Niki Schafer Interior Design. “But poorly designed spaces will make us feel confined, breathless, they can bring about feelings of anxiety and disorder.”

Working from home, Schafer says, is already disorientating enough. But when designers are forced to do so in an inadequate workspace, in a time of already-heightened anxiety, the impact this can have on mental health is significant.

“Having too little space, insufficient technology, and potential family distractions can have impact on productivity and motivation,” she says. “In an ideal world, you’d have a room that is dedicated to work.”

According to Schafer, creating a workspace at home requires a twofold approach. She says an optimal space will promote both efficiency and meaning in its design.

“Organisation gives us structure and clarity, so that we feel certain in our environment,” she says. “And style solutions give us a sense of belonging. Both of these are crucial for good mental health.”

Dr Sally Augustin says now isn’t the time to be aiming for wall art like this.

Don’t: go out and buy new things

But as workers in lockdown and tenuous working situations across the globe can attest, this might not be time to shop for new things in a bid to redesign your home work space.

Rather, as the UK looks forward to a likely extension on social distancing measures, environmental design psychologist Dr Sally Augustin, principal at Design With Science consultancy, says designers should look to make use of what they’re already got.

“You don’t need to be trundling about buying inspirational art at a time like this,” she says. While biophilia – the idea that humans inherently are drawn to and destressed by nature and plants – is a common feature in interior design, this can be easily replaced by a nature-themed screensaver or photograph nearby, if needs be she says.

Similarly, while many offices are built from the outset to eliminate noise where possible, a white noise soundtrack, particular one with nature sounds, can be used to drown out common household noises and promote concentration.

And for spaces that lack sources of natural light, cooler-toned lightbulbs can help the brain distinguish between a space in the home that has been designated for work, while warmer light sources should be used for rest, she explains.

Dr Augustin also says too much clutter can make brains feel uncomfortable

Do: make your brain feel comfortable

The core of the mission, Dr Augustin says, lies in making your brain feel comfortable in its surroundings. The science of this has its roots in how we developed as a species thousands of years ago.

A feeling of closeness with nature promotes feelings of calm, she says, because this is what “proto-humans” would have found calming too; different light sources help connect our brains to the temporal changes of the day, and so on.

“We are always scanning the world around us, because this is how our brains developed when we were a young species,” she says. Because of this, designing a space that is minimal, but not bare, is key.

“When there are more things around, clutter on desks or in rooms for example, that scanning is more challenging and the science shows that this leads to stress and tension,” she adds.

So while working from home in your kitchen might be unavoidable, arranging your countertop or tabletop with fewer objects is likely to make an impact on how comfortable your brain feels in that space.

Less traditional work spaces can feel more “coherent” in the home, according to Sarah Barnard

Don’t: aim to create a traditional office

This is a suggestion echoed by Sarah Barnard, an interior designer who focuses her design practice on wellness.

“It’s common to see clients using their workspace surfaces as storage space and while it can be convenient to have documents and supplies close at hand, it can create visual disruption and can distract from whatever requires their immediate attention,” she says. “If items related to a looming task are in a person’s periphery, it can become challenging to give undivided attention to the task at hand.”

Barnard also suggests that the aim should not be to recreate a traditional office space verbatim.

“Dining and side tables can function as desks, and in some rooms, their sizing may better accommodate your spatial needs,” she says.

Using these pieces, rather than spending money on a new desk for example, give a better sense of “coherency” within the home, she says, and are “much easier to repurpose” as the need for a home office changes in the future.

“A small change is better than nothing”

These changes to a space can be particularly useful for designers who are faced with having to work in a home setting they aren’t used to being creative in, according to Dr Augustin.

“The science tells us that there are many channels through which your physical environment can influence mood – and we care about mood because positive moods can help you think more broadly, make you better at problem solving and improve creative thinking,” she says.

“These changes have important payoffs when it comes to mood, productivity and motivation and the key is really to think in terms of what you can do with things at your disposal now. A lot of the time, a small change is better than nothing.”

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