Remote & Async Work 6 min

Creating your home office with mental health in mind

July 14, 2020
Preston Wickersham


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Home offices are homes first and offices second, and the best work-life balances reflect this dynamic. Even our CEO, Job, who has a highly optimized home office setup, fills his space with things like LEGO creations, guitars, and beds for his dogs.

When you spend significant amounts of time in an environment, that environment shapes you in unexpected ways. If you work from home, you must take deliberate steps to ensure your home office benefits your mental health instead of adding to your anxieties.

Your home office and mental health

You can only work with the situation you have, which isn’t always the one you want. Sometimes, you must share a space with a roommate or significant other. Other times, you may find yourself squeezing between boxes in the basement, like Milton in Office Space.

Milton from Office Space sitting with his stapler

As remote work has reshaped the world, many newly remote workers have created their home offices piece by piece without any overarching strategy. While understandable in the circumstances, this approach usually leads to suboptimal spaces and unnecessary stress.

No matter where you work, you deserve to operate in a space that makes you feel comfortable and safe. Some psychologists believe that we build our spaces to help communicate aspects of our personalities. This phenomenon partially explains why some people have trouble throwing away old and unused items in their homes. To them, throwing out an old lava lamp might feel like throwing out a part of themselves.

No one sees your home office more than you do, though. If you build your space to communicate something, and you are your own main audience, then the question becomes:

What do you want your home office to tell you about yourself?

Your home office exists to serve you. Not your friends, and not even your boss. You live and work there, and it’s up to you to make sure it feels right.

Many sites advertise the benefits of houseplants and decluttering your desk, but not everyone thrives in a minimalist aesthetic. You may prefer to spend your days surrounded by books or under the watchful eye of your Quentin Tarantino movie poster collection. Instead of building a home office fit for public consumption, ignore what the critics say and build something that helps you feel the way you want to feel while you work.

Understanding your home office needs

Are you one of those people who built a “temporary” home office several months ago? Maybe you put a space together when you moved and never got around to unpacking? However you ended up with your home office, you have the power to change it — and if you’re feeling anxious, depressed, burned out, or just plain unhappy, you should change it.

Don’t just surround yourself with things you think are cool. Instead, surround yourself with items and workflow facilitators that help you feel like the kind of person you want to be.

Some people like motivational quotes on their walls. Others go with a minimalist approach, clearing their desks and providing themselves with space to think. Green thumbs fill their offices with leafy life, bringing pieces of the outdoors inside to help them stay connected to the natural world.

pink and green houseplant in a pot

Or maybe they just like flowers. That’s fine, too.

No matter how you design your home office, keep in mind that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for how you choose to use your space. You spend 40 hours a week in your office at minimum, likely even more. You deserve a home office that facilitates the life you want to live, not the life you imagine others expect of you.

Building out your space

Before you attempt to treat your work-from-home woes with a home office redesign, take a deep breath. Remote work may empower people from all over the world to work together, but if you prefer to work in a traditional office and struggle with work-from-home isolation, that doesn’t make you wrong or invalidate your feelings. On the contrary, the more self-aware you are, the better you can build a space to accommodate your needs.

Carve out some time on a weekend or tell your boss that you’re booking an all-afternoon meeting with yourself. I like to recommend the Marie Kondo approach for this process. It may sound drastic, but by taking everything out of your office and examining items one by one, you can make sure that nothing enters your workspace without your explicit approval.

Start your home office mental health redesign by thinking about your best workdays. Do you love the days where you talk often with your colleagues, or do you prefer the times when you get lost in your headphones and fuse with your keyboard for eight hours?

You don’t have to be one or the other. Humans are complex creatures. Give yourself space to understand your needs and acknowledge that those needs may change.

Once you have a basic idea of your priorities, look at your office possessions and think about how they can help you meet those goals. Want more light in your space? Replace that half-empty bookshelf with a cool lamp. Enjoy feeling the presence of your coworkers and friends? Set up your webcam to use your TV instead of your monitor to make the room feel fuller. When you’re not in a meeting, you can play your favorite shows quietly in the background to create a more “populated” environment.

If you can’t control your whole space (for instance, if you share the room with a roommate or spouse also working from home), do what you can with your limited physical area and spend the rest of your energy on controlling your perceptions of the space.

You can get a decent pair of noise-canceling headphones and a Spotify subscription without breaking the bank. To enclose your space and feel more in control of your niche, put a couple of leafy plants on the side of your desk. If you miss your coworkers and friends from real-life meetings, buy some cheap picture frames and fill your walls with happy memories. Your ability to change your space is limited only by your creativity.

And, if you’re running low on creativity these days, consult the internet. Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit, and Google Images are filled with thousands of pieces of inspiration. Remember, though, you don’t have to develop an Instagram-worthy aesthetic to create a home office that feels like home.

One piece of a bigger puzzle

Once you have your home office just the way you like it, don’t despair if you still feel a bit off while working from home. Use this opportunity to think about other areas in your life where you might be able to make positive changes.

You can redo your home office to suit your needs, so why not a bedroom or the kitchen, too? If you miss the sun, schedule a few short outdoor walks to break up your days. You can even see a counselor or therapist from home if you want.

In the year 2020, you are allowed to make yourself and your mental health a priority. Start with your home office, then go wherever your inspiration takes you next.

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