Balancing Your Home Workspace for Well-Being and Productivity

Working from home is hard. Behavioral science can help.

Posted May 06, 2020

Going into the third calendar month of working from home (WFH) for many Americans, the novelty has started to wear thin. But behavioral science insights can help us improve our home workspaces and habits.

Last month I shared the first part of my Balanced Checklist: a behavioral-science-based tool you can use to craft a home workspace supporting well-being and productivity. Having covered Biophilia, Atmospheric conditions, Layout, and Amenities, we’ll now move on to look at Noise, Cohesion, Energy, and Design.

Noise. Moderating noise levels and content is essential to successful WFH. But the ideal conditions will depend on the type of work you’re doing, and may even vary throughout the day. While this is a multifaceted topic, the gist is that silence is most productive for higher cognitive processing and complex verbal processes (e.g. data analysis or report writing). But music or other moderate, continuous background noise may be more motivating, both for creative work (brainstorming or visual design), and routine, monotonous tasks (invoicing or drafting mundane emails).

 Lily Bernheimer
Essential WFH noise moderation tools.
Source: Lily Bernheimer

While I know most people in the 21st century have moved on to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, I believe there’s something about live, non-commercial, music radio that keeps you feeling connected to the world outside. (My favorites are KALX and BBC Radio 6, both providing digitally accessible and commercial-free tunes, curated by real humans.) Turn the volume up for creative or mindless tasks, and down to a barely audible hum for more focused work.

Finally, irrelevant but intelligible speech—such as family members chatting or children playing close by—is highly disruptive. A mere three-second interruption can double the number of mistakes you make. So noise-canceling headphones may be a good investment for those plagued by noisy ninjas.

 Jack Sparrow via Pexels
Redefine when and where work happens . . . preferably away from the breakfast table.
Source: Jack Sparrow via Pexels

Cohesion. Our living and working environments don’t just impact us physically. The spaces we inhabit shape our sense of identity, efficacy, and control—all critical to well-being and productivity. People typically say their jobs are less enjoyable than other activities they engage in, like spending time with friends or going out for a meal. But they also tend to rank work as one of the most rewarding activities. So it’s important to craft a space that supports your identity as a productive and capable worker.

First, redefine when and where work happens—make agreements with your household, your co-workers, and, often hardest, yourself. Having worked from home for many years, I find a strict no-working-on-weekends policy is a psychological lifesaver. Knowing certain days are off-limits for work kicks that nagging feeling that you could always be working and have never gotten enough done. Second, keep your work zone (whatever time-space continuum it may exist in) shipshape. The simple act of tidying will heighten your sense of efficacy and control.

Energy. Taking small steps to lessen your negative environmental impact may actually enhance your personal sense of well-being. Engaging in environmentally responsible behavior has been linked to higher rates of subjective well-being. So give yourself some carbon credit, you’ve probably already saved oodles of energy by working from home during this time.

Vlada Karpovich via Pexels
High ceilings can enhance creativity.
Source: Vlada Karpovich via Pexels

Design. Architectural and interior design factors like ceiling height, curvature, and ornamentation impact how we think, heal, and create. Higher ceilings, for instance, have been found to be more conducive to creativity. Curved forms—such as rounded divans or arched entryways—make us feel calmer than angular ones. Some of the frustration many home workers are currently feeling comes from a disconnect between the psychological state fostered by our home decor and the demands of the workday. That curvy sofa is calling you to get cozy, but your boss is calling you about a looming deadline!

I’m not suggesting you start any dramatic domestic remodeling at this moment. But clever use of contrasting colors, bookshelves, decorative screens, and plants can help both to carve out specified working zones within the home, and to make those zones support the appropriate psychological state for effective work.

States like California and New York may be close to easing the most stringent phase of social distancing. But many are predicting that large segments of the workforce will be working from home at least part-time for the foreseeable future. So take stock of how well your home workspace is working in each area on the BALANCED checklist, and how you can better balance the demands of home and work life in the same space.

The first part of the checklist can be found in this post.

References

Mehta, R., Zhu, R., and Cheema, A. (2012). Is noise always bad? Exploring the effects of ambient noise on creative cognition. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), 784-799.

Haapakangas A., Helenius R., Keskinen E., and Hongisto V. (2008). Perceived Acoustic Environment, Work Performance and Wellbeing Survey Results from Finnish Offices. 9th International Congress on Noise as a Public Health Problem (ICBEN) 21-25 July 2008, Mashantucket, Connecticut, USA.

Altmann, E.M., Trafton, J., G., and Hambrick, D.Z. (2014). Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 215–226. 

White, M. P., and Dolan, P. (2009). Accounting for the richness of daily activities. Psychological Science, 20(8), 1000-1008.

Brown, K. W., and Kasser, T. (2005). Is psychological and ecological wellbeing compatible? The role of values, mindfulness, and lifestyle. Social Indicators Research, 74, 349-368.

Meyers‐Levy, J. and Zhu, R. (2007). The influence of ceiling height: The effect of priming on the type of processing that people use. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(2),174-186.

Dazkir, S. S., and Read, M. A. Furniture forms and their influence on our emotional responses toward interior environments. Environment and Behavior, 44(5), 725.