Home Workspace Makeover: How Physical Workspace Can Increase Your Productivity

Order In

November 18, 2020

Picture this: you’ve been thrust into remote work due to the pandemic, and you’ve resorted to doing all your work sitting cross-legged on your favorite corner of your living room couch. You’ve read plenty of listicles suggesting all sorts of WFH tips and tricks that simply aren’t a possibility for you. How can you close the door to your home office when you’re not working, if there is no door to your workspace? And where are you going to put a standing desk and an ergonomic chair when there’s no more space in your small apartment? 


Hitting too close to home? Probably because that’s the real-life experience of so many of us, including Order In founder JJ Caffey. While there’s tons of home office advice out there currently, it often seems designed for easy clicks and assumes that everyone’s circumstances are the same. But the problem is, most of these interior fixes aren’t realistic for the majority of people. 

Our Home Workspace Makeover series will share advice on how to optimize your workspace, within the confines of whatever your circumstances might be. From feng shui to behavioral economics research, and productivity gurus to designers, we’ll be offering a number of different perspectives on the ideal workspace, starting with our very own perspective here at Order In. 

We originally covered this topic as a hands-on workshop for Order In members, demonstrating the relationship between physical space and productive work results. After a deep dive on the existing research and hundreds of interviews with people working from home, we’ve developed a process to help you make realistic, but impactful improvements to your own space, no matter the resources or circumstances you might be dealing with.

It’s already made a tremendous improvement for many of us, so we’ve compiled our simple, research-backed suggestions here so that you can do it at home too. Let’s dive in!


There’s a relationship between your physical workspace, your productivity, and your wellbeing.

First things first: it’s important to establish exactly how your productivity and wellbeing can be improved by having a healthy workspace. 

When you’re able to create a space that feels welcoming, calm, and creative, it’s no wonder that your productivity and overall wellbeing will increase. Think of it this way: in a traditional office, you might get to bring in a few photos or decorations, but you’re likely not going to be able to reposition the orientation of your desk or change out the lightbulbs to make the light quality easier on your eyes.

If you’ve been working remotely for a while, you might have visited some coworking spaces or coffee shops to get things done. Part of the appeal of these spaces is that we can often choose an environment that satisfies all of our needs visually, mentally, and emotionally in order to churn out our best work. Some people might work just fine in a bustling Starbucks, while others do better in a more laid back, hole in the wall coffee boutique. These preferences are directly informed by the natural environmental requirements we have internally to accomplish our work.

The good news is, we believe that one of the benefits of remote work is getting to decide exactly what your workspace looks like! While you may be limited in your options, at the very least you’re not stuck in a cubicle or a standard, windowless office. With remote work, you will always have some degree of control to create a space that makes you happier and more productive. 

In fact, research has shown that employees who have some control over their office spaces feel more comfortable physically at work and more positive about their jobs in general. And we’ve got some really solid data below about how to capture just what you need to create a productive and safe workspace, right in your home.


The Diagnosis: Assessing Your Space

Before you do anything, it’s important that you take a step back and assess your space and circumstances. While it is not exhaustive, this list of questions will help you get a baseline for what kinds of elements you might need for a successful makeover. 

  • What kind of work do you do? What do you need to accomplish it? 
  • Do you need a lot of space to spread out physical work (ie. creative supplies, reference materials, etc.)?
  • Do you need to be on camera or calls a lot of the day?
  • Who do you have to share space with/negotiate with around your space? Will they support you? 
  • How do you want to feel in your space?
  • What are your biggest pet peeves? 

And after asking yourself these questions, take a minute and make a three column list to assess the following:

  1. What do you like best about your space currently?
  2. What do you wish was different? 
  3. What are your MUST haves to be able to execute your work? 


The Execution: Implementing the Key Features of a Healthy Workspace

Now that you’ve identified what you’d like to improve about your current home workspace, evaluate where it fits in with these key features of a healthy workspace and make the improvements that are accessible and realistic for you. 


As you evaluate and make changes, refer back to step one and prioritize the changes that will support what you actually use your space to achieve. 

Clean Desk

The first key feature of a healthy workspace is simple, and a bit obvious... a clean desk! We know you’ve heard this before, but there’s no avoiding it. Research shows us that tidiness directly impacts cognitive resources, and clearing clutter boosts focus and productivity. 

Think about it: when your workspace is cluttered, your brainspace is too. Your thoughts are constantly pulled towards all the stuff around you,  or you may even become stressed and overwhelmed by the mess that’s the way of the real work in front of you.

Stephanie McMains and Sabine Kastner break the science down like this. When you have multiple stimuli present in the visual field, they have to compete for neutral representation in order for your brain to process everything it is seeing at once. McMains and Kastner suggest counteracting this process by creating a “top-down, goal-oriented” approach to the way you lay out what’s in front of you. In other words, maybe it’s time for you to clear your workspace of nothing but your notebook, computer, and coffee (yes, that includes getting rid of your 17 sticky notes). 

Boiled down, McMain and Kastner's found a negative linear relationship between attention and visual stimuli. That is, when we have more visual stimuli competing for our attention, the more our attention jumps around and the less we're able to focus. The graph depicts the simple directional relationship between attention and visual stimuli, summarizing McMain and Kastner’s work.

It’s rare that almost every school of human thought can agree on something. Unfortunately for those of us who are prone to a little clutter, the importance of cleaning up is one of those things. From the old “clean desk, clean mind” cliche to superstars like Marie Kondo, and from Harvard Business Review to buddhist monks, pretty much everyone wants you to just clean off your desk already. 


Natural Light

The second key feature of a healthy workspace is finding ways to let natural light in. Research suggests that natural light can lead to an 19% productivity boost, with 70+% reporting that natural light increased their well-being and performance. 

This could lead to simple changes like making sure to open the blinds each morning as you get to work or changing your desk position to face the light coming in. Light naturally increases our energy and mood, allowing us to power through the work we have to complete. But beyond that, it can lead to a 51% drop in the incidence of headaches and leads to a 56% reduction in drowsiness, which are both all too common after a day of staring at screens.

Now depending on your situation, that might not be possible. Maybe your workspace doesn’t have any windows or you have some other barrier preventing you from implementing natural light. We recommend finding several sources of light that feel equally natural and soothing on the eyes, helping you avoid eye strain and a sense of artificiality. Even just getting outside for your lunch break could be a great way to help counteract the lack of light. And if you’re able to splurge a little, sunlight lamps can often go a long way in bringing natural light into your workspace.

Green Space & Natural Features

Next, you’ll want to figure out how to integrate some sort of green space or natural features into your space. This could be as simple as angling your desk towards a window and getting a succulent or two to “order” the outdoors, “in” to you. 

Puns aside, there’s tons of research that explains how important it is to implement something green to your workspace! The Cog FX Study has tons of resources explaining just why we should care about implementing green space into all of our architecture and buildings. But for your personal workspace, they emphasize that green spaces and natural features can have up to a 26% boost on your cognitive functions. 

In addition, these aspects can give you a 20% memory retention boost, a 15% productivity boost, and a 15% creativity boost. So give it a shot: Grab a couple of plants, get outdoors and work offline for a little bit, or go for a walk mid-day. And if you start to get some cute house plants, make sure to share them with us… We’re a bit obsessed!


Air Quality

We have to admit, one thing we love about remote work is that we’re not confined to breathing stale office air all day long. In a home workspace, you don’t have to worry about the germs being spread around or the insulated, windowless air floating for who knows how long. 

And while you can certainly feel a difference when you’re finally able to get outside for your lunch break, what you probably don’t realize is that air quality can have a 60-100% impact on cognitive abilities. The Environmental Health Perspectives found that when CO2 concentrations are increased to similar levels as indoor spaces, cognitive functional scores experience significant declines.

Just because you’re working from home doesn’t mean that you’re in the clear. We recommend that you try to open some windows when you can, or maybe consider investing in an air purifier to help keep the air nice and fresh. In COVID times, we’ve also been trying to get outside and take a walk in the middle of the workday to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. 


Comfortability

Here comes the big one: you’ve got to be comfortable in your workspace! And don’t worry, we aren’t going to be rounding up the best, super pricey ergonomic chairs that will supposedly revolutionize everything about your work. Feeling comfortable in your home workspace can be as simple as practicing good posture, switching up your position, and making sure you stretch throughout the day. 

No matter what comfort means to you, prioritizing it can lead directly to increased productivity and work speed. And if you’re working on the couch or the bed, maybe make sure to position some pillows properly to support your neck and back. For information workers, lower back injuries are one of the leading sources of worker’s compensation claims. Lower back pain is also one of the leading reasons for decreased efficiency.

Some other fixes might include examining the position of your neck, adjusting the text size on your computer to avoid eye strain, or making sure that the noise around you isn’t too distracting, if that’s within your control. Ultimately, it’s important for you to evaluate exactly what your body needs to feel comfortable and supported throughout the entire workday. 


Things that make you smile

Lastly, we can’t emphasize enough how important it is to add special touches to your workspace that will make you smile. While we all dream of that corner office with the amazing views (which actually does make employees more productive!), there are tons of ways that we can implement nice additions. 

Research suggests that people who decorate their work space are 17% more productive than those in bare workspaces. So get creative with this one! Whether it’s photos of loved ones, flowers or candles, holiday decorations, or any other small details that might bring a smile to your face throughout the day, make sure to identify what that might be and build it into your home workspace makeover process. Our team appreciates things like plants on our desk, favorite lip balms, our pets joining us throughout the day, candles, and more.


Step 3: Don’t Do it Alone

While you’ve likely heard these suggestions before, we prioritized the changes that would be achievable for the average person. You can make these recommendations as simple or complex as you want; the important part is that you take a chance to make these improvements. And unfortunately, there’s often a wide gulf between knowing we should do something straightforward like cleaning our desk off and actually doing it. That’s why we always encourage finding accountability and support to actually keep you focused on your goals.

As simple as it seems, the part of our hands-on workshop that made the biggest difference was setting a timer and working on our workspace improvements together. We were amazed at how big a difference we could make in only 15 minutes.

So, give it a shot! Set a 15 minute timer for yourself to spruce up your workspace, and see how much you can get done in that short amount of time. 

But even better, get others to do it with you. Getting someone you live with involved could be a great way to negotiate the space you share. Or, just inviting a friend to Facetime and work on the space with you to have an outside, objective eye to cheer you on could be super helpful. Maybe throw a remote party to makeover each other’s workspaces; at least it will be a Zoom event your friends probably haven’t tried yet!

Whatever that might look like, remember to set follow-up times before you consider it done, so that you can continue to check in on whether your space is working for you or not. 
And finally, if this topic is something that interests you, we’ll be hosting various experts for some ongoing Home Workspace Makeover workshops here at Order In. When you join, you’ll be part of an amazing community already working on things like Workspace Makeovers, Goal Setting, and more. If you’d rather not do this alone, we’re here for you. You can read our story here, or you can learn more about us here.