Remember when homebuyers and builders wrote off living rooms as useless formalities a decade or two ago? Apparently, rumors of their death were greatly exaggerated. Or, more likely, a deadly pandemic forcing millions of Americans to rethink their space needs created an opportunity for their revival.
A recent study by Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery, a global building and remodeling products retailer, revealed that the room people spent the most time in last year was the much-maligned living room (50%), with a third of them working from home there.
Aesthetics took a back seat to functionality in these revived rooms, with lighting improvements for easier work and better video calls taking priority over chic decorative-only chandeliers. Homeowners created workstations that let them telecommute, and some worked out new dual work from home arrangements as their partners got sent home from the office too. (Many homes today have a dedicated home office. Not many have two.)
Repurposing the Living Room
“We are seeing people modify their surroundings to embrace a work-from-home balance in their living spaces by changing the furniture, adding storage, curating their Zoom backgrounds, and more,” observes Brittney Herrera, co-founder of Wildwood House, a new online and Portland, Oregon home products retailer. “It can be liberating to consider a new use for an old space.”
Herrera found herself in that unexpected work from home situation and learned some lessons from it. “Remove distractions if at all possible. At one point we moved our TV to the den and our living room was free for work, board games, and art activities. Not having a TV helped us to establish the space as a creative zone rather than one to zone out,” she recalls.
Herrera also stressed the need for ergonomic seating – no, your dining chair is probably not going to work well long-term – and effective task lighting. Many living rooms are designed with ambient and accent lighting for atmosphere, but not the directed lighting needed for office paperwork. To avoid eyestrain and headaches from a full schedule, consider adding a desk lamp to your temporary or permanent work from home space.
You’re also going to need to have storage nearby for supplies and files, and a way to hide your computer out of sight to transition from work to play at the end of a busy day. There are updated versions of the traditional roll-top desk that conceal office elements from the living area for those without a dedicated room.
Northern New Jersey-based interior designer Sharon Sherman has helped numerous clients design work from home spaces. “I feel that privacy and a separation from the home environment is paramount when creating a multi-functional space,” she advises. That is especially challenging in a living room, she notes, as they are typically front and center to a home and may need to revert to family needs at the end of a workday.
The Dual WFH Challenge
One of the many difficulties many couples experienced last year was finding space for both individuals to find a place to work from home, sometimes in the same room, often at the same time. That added stress to an already stressful time.
Separation is key, declares Sherman. “I have designed many home-based work areas for couples. Each having their own workspace is really important, even if one party just works from a laptop. You need a space to sit, use your computer and put down your coffee cup or water bottle. People need personal space, even if in a personal relationship.” (Perhaps especially then!)
If two adults need to share a work from home space, Herrera suggests, “Adding a table to the room is critical to function and to each person having their own sense of space. Whether across from each other or side by side, a two-person work from home scenario in a living space can be a challenge, although it’s not so different from the challenges we face in open plan office spaces. Utilizing headphones during virtual meetings helps to keep the peace.”
Screens, tall furniture and other dividers can also be helpful in creating visual separation and harmony. Sherman divided her husband’s work zone from the rest of the living room with tall plants. She also had to rearrange his work area so that his computer screen wasn’t getting glare from the living room’s large windows.
Personalizing Your Space
What makes workspaces more inspiring and enjoyable are personalized elements, as anyone who has ever decorated a cubicle can attest. A work from home setup should also be a joyful place to spend your 9 to 5, Herrera comments. Organizers and accessories in your favorite colors and materials can add delight in using them. Photos, collectibles and art can evoke smiles between tasks. “It’s those things that connect us to a lifetime of memories that make a meaningful and soulful space to thrive and be productive in,” Herrera comments.
“I brought in some photos of us like those he had at work, and added some plants to help with the air quality and a bit of biophilia,” Sherman says about her husband’s living room workspace. “If you are going to work from home for an extended time period and don’t have a dedicated space, you want to feel like you have settled into a routine. Personalizing a space allows for that comfort level of having a ‘place that is yours,’ not just using a space to work from.”
As anyone who works long hours can attest, sitting in even the most ergonomic desk chair for hours isn’t healthy. Office environments encourage workers to stretch their legs for water cooler breaks or walk down the hall to a colleague’s workspace. That doesn’t necessarily happen in a work from home setting, but it can. While you’re unlikely to add a treadmill desk to a living room, it’s easy to add a sit-to-stand desk or desk risers to elevate your computer to standing height.
You can also plan your office area to be in range of open floor space for burpees between video meetings, taking your calls pacing, or even dancing between drafts.
We may all go back to office suites post-pandemic when the kids return to school full time, and our living rooms may slip back into disuse, but it’s unlikely. Covid showed us the links between our homes, health, safety and functionality – and many fell woefully short. The current surge in remodeling activity correlates to millions of homeowners looking to improve the livability and functionality of their homes, even those rooms they might have spent the last decades mostly ignoring.
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