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COVID-19 Explainer: Experts say separating home office from living areas is important


Canadians have been scrambling to set up temporary home offices for weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts in interior design want to remind them to keep those work spaces separate from living areas.

That means no to using your laptop on the couch, and no to transforming your dining room table into a makeshift desk.

Toronto-based interior designer Laura Stein says a proper office area — if you have room for it — can not only keep things organized, it can also help maintain a proper work-life balance.

"I think there's a bit of a novelty to working from home," Stein said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. "Everybody gets really excited like: 'Yay, I don't have to see my boss and I can wear my PJs all day. I can have this phone call with a really important client while I haven't had a shower,' and those things are great, but they wear off really quickly.

"So keeping that separation is really important. Physically separating yourself and having this space that's not in front of the TV or not where you're eating your meals ... it lets you compartmentalize the different parts of your life and not become overwhelmed."

Stein, who has owned and operated Laura Stein Interiors since 2006, typically works with clients on permanent design solutions, turning spare bedrooms or other enclosed areas into home office spaces.

But with the coronavirus outbreak quickly forcing people to work from home across the country, most are looking for temporary solutions now. And not everyone has the space for an elaborate setup.

Still, Stein says privacy is key when working from home. If a closet or a cove at the bottom of a staircase can be converted into a niche space for a desk, that could be a solution. When the dining table is the only option, Stein suggests annexing one corner of it for work and keeping the other side for eating.

"I would say pick a side, you know, make that your work space," she said. "The rest of it can be your actual dining table."

Light — preferably natural light from windows — is another must-have to avoid eye strain. But it can have other benefits, too.

"If you're in a dull, dark room for hours on end, it's depressing," Stein said. "So having a bright, sunlit space, if it's at all possible, is always better than putting a desk in that unused dark room with no windows in your basement."

Ashley Vancardo, an instructor at the Interior Design Institute of Canada, also listed light as No. 1 on her top-five must haves for a home office.

"You want to be productive and atmosphere has a lot to do with that," Vancardo said in a phone interview from her Alliston, Ont., home. "Of course you have to be able to read your computer, your notes, your phone, but natural light is also just so uplifting."

As social distancing and self-isolation practices continue into the future, Vancardo said Canadians may have to consider upgrading their current home office equipment. That could include ditching the dining room chair in your temporary setup for an ergonomic option.

But with in-person shopping limited now by store closures, buying online without being able to test for comfort could be a problem. Vancardo said to make sure you're searching for ergonomic options, but to also think about how it will work in your space.

"You need to consider, depending on the surface that you're using for your desk, whether the chair should have arms," she said. "You need to be able to tuck yourself in properly to sit upright."

Keeping your work surface clean can also help productivity by limiting distraction. Vancardo said using baskets or bins can reduce clutter while Stein suggested getting a cord-management system that can be attached to the back of a table or desk.

Another tip is to bring some personality into your work space, whether that's in the form of a plant, a family photo or some other decorative item.

"Add an accessory that brings you genuine joy," Vancardo said.

Stein offered the same advice. While she typically gets requests from clients to decorate their living and dining rooms — the places most seen by guests — she thinks private areas shouldn't be ignored.

"The place where you spend the most amount of time should be the most beautiful," Stein said. "Make sure you create a space that you are happy to be in. Treat it like your living room — put up wallpaper, get a really great light fixture that has an impact, make the room feel special.

"If you're going to be there for hours on end day after day, that's really important."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2020.

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press