January 24, 2022

What Working From Home Taught Us About Our Office Setups

Gabe Marans, an executive managing director at the real-estate company

Savills,

is back in his office on Park Avenue in New York City—but he’s not yet off Zoom. He and his in-person colleagues still use video calls to talk with clients. Mr. Marans says he looks better than ever on these calls, thanks to the ring light and Lume Cube, another portable lighting device, that he bought to improve his at-home video calls during the pandemic last spring.

He has a second set of the exact same lighting devices at his home office in Tenafly, N.J., where he still works one or two days a week. “Two pairs of everything” is his motto today. Another pandemic-era work habit that stuck with him is switching from old-school pen and paper to an iPad app called GoodNotes. It got hard to keep track of notebooks in his house, since he used to break up his workday to spend time with his 3-year-old son.

“I’d say my workflow is way better and more streamlined now,” he says.

Across the country, workers are re-evaluating their work-from-home setups as conventional offices slowly reopen. Some, like Mr. Marans, are bringing elements of the home offices that they perfected during the pandemic back with them. Others are paring down their domestic workspaces now that remote work is more quotidian instead of the special occasion it became last spring.

Carole Ingber, a New York City talent agent, says that the pandemic inspired her to deal with a chaotic pileup of paperwork that had taken over her professional life. Last spring, when she schlepped all those materials home to continue her job remotely, she became overwhelmed and hired a professional organizer. She then invested in hanging folders, a filing drawer, a dedicated spot to drop mail and a stationery container.

“The new filing system is coming with me to the office whenever we get back to in-person work this year,” she says.

Many workers invested heavily in their home offices after the initial wave of pandemic lockdowns last March, says Asher Lipman, a renovation coach based in New York. “As the pandemic progressed, people got grander and grander in their plans as they realized it wouldn’t be for just two weeks or a month,” he says. “There was a definite transition from asking for help setting up a workstation at their kitchen tables to converting closets, basements or whole rooms.”

But the vaccine rollout in the U.S. and many companies’ interest in restarting in-person work this summer means that some home offices aren’t as permanent as many workers once thought.

Robert David, executive director of a human-resources nonprofit, still works from his home in Half Moon Bay, Calif., but he has pared down his home-office setup over the course of the pandemic. Last March, when video calls became a big part of his workday, he felt self-conscious about the guest bedroom where he worked. He bought a greenscreen so he could use virtual backdrops to obscure the king-size bed behind him—like a spin on the Hollywood sign that said “Silicon Valley.”

Robert David is streamlining his home office by donating the greenscreen that he bought earlier in the pandemic.



Photo:

Robert David

“I eventually abandoned it about two months ago and thought, enough is enough, just show the bedroom,” he says. Once afraid that his surroundings were less impressive than the fancy kitchens and bookshelves that showed up behind his colleagues and work contacts, he found that regularly putting up the backdrop was too much of a hassle. He now plans to donate the screen, which he says cost about $100, to Goodwill.

Not all workers are dismantling their home offices just yet. There are fewer used desks and office chairs for sale now than at the same time last year, says Reham Fagiri, CEO of AptDeco, an online marketplace for used furniture. “The demand for desks at home is still high, so it seems like people want to keep the products that they already have,” she says.

Many workers who furnished their home offices later in the pandemic say the key to avoiding buyer’s remorse is going slow.

Cassandra Rivera, a Detroit-based career coach for young people who works remotely, started furnishing her current space only after moving into a new home with her husband in October. “I wanted to be very mindful of what I was buying,” she says. She had time to envision exactly what she wanted after spending the spring and summer working on a laptop in her parents’ basement. She started with just the basics—a desk and office chair from

Wayfair,

and a lamp from

Home Depot

—and hasn’t added much else beyond a DIY paint job in subsequent months.

Share Your Thoughts

Would you prefer working from home or someplace else? Why? Join the conversation below.

A common mistake that leads to home-office clutter is failing to think about what your specific job actually entails, says Stephanie Shalofsky, a professional organizer based in New York who helped Ms. Ingber with her home office last spring.

“Last spring I worked with a guy who had two large monitors, an iPad and a laptop at home, and he had no space left to actually work,” she says. It turns out what he really needed was a standing desk, since it mirrored his pre-pandemic office setup and it helped him stay focused, and just one monitor.

Greg Laurence, a management professor at the University of Michigan-Flint who studies home offices, says that the initial desire of many workers to personalize their work environments has dropped off as the pandemic and remote work both dragged on. “At first, we didn’t have any real norms of what you can and can’t have behind you,” he says, which prompted some workers to purchase decorations for the parts of their home that they worked in.

But as some degree of remote work has become a more permanent fixture in many workers’ lives, he has observed a trend toward less personalization and more institutionalization. For example, more companies will likely send their employees materials with their logo to display in their home-office backgrounds, he says. “I think that the whole Zoom bookshelf phenomenon will fade.”

Write to Krithika Varagur at krithika.varagur@wsj.com

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