Work, Life, and School: Will Our Makeshift Spatial Alchemy Inspire New Ideas?

by PlaceLabApr 15th, 2020

Until the novel COVID-19 virus shut Seattle down, Amy Baker, General Manager at the US Bank Centre building, enjoyed the convenience of sending her two daughters, one 3 years old and the other 10 months, to Pacific First Montessori, a daycare preschool located in the building. Like many schools across the country, the preschool is now closed, and Baker is now working from home while homeschooling her older daughter.

Baker has made herself a home office, and she’s tried to recreate the environment her older daughter is used to, by turning an area of the living room into her daughter’s favorite school reading nook. Tensions and interruptions are difficult to avoid, though.  

“It's hard to explain to a 3-year-old: ‘I'm talking on the phone and I need to listen to this,’” she says. “So, I pretty much have to let her say hello — or lock the door.”

This is an experience that most working parents can relate to in the “new normal” of social distancing. And it’s all creating an unprecedented rethinking of the spatial boundaries that many of us face as we try to work at home. With virtual school added to the spatial mix, the extreme proximity of all areas of our lives is making us all feel, at best, that none of the different areas of our lives is getting the focus it deserves. At worst, we’re living in total chaos, which is putting undue pressure on everything from marital relations to virtual-office politics.

Amy Baker turned an area of the living room into her daughter’s favorite school reading nook.

In the old days, many of us lived above our shops, or farms were our places of work,” says Kirsten Murray, owner of the architecture firm Olson Kundig. “Now, we’re seeing those lines between home and work blur again — in some ways, they may stay blurry.

Next week is “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work” Day. Yes, we know this is now a laughable concept, because so many of us have been taking our kids to work every day for the last month — at home! Just in case you need some inspiration, there’s new emphasis out there on the importance of physical spatial design boundaries. This can help us to manage the extreme proximity that many of us now face, now that our workplace and our home life have suddenly and unexpectedly been forced together.

It’s important to cut yourself some slack, and to acknowledge that this is not a time for creating hard-and-fast rules around the new lack of boundaries. Instead, there’s a real need for both co-workers and parents to be patient. Introduce more flexibility and humanity — mindfully — into your newly blended home and work lives. Our kids (aka our newest co-workers) will inevitably interrupt meetings, so why not take the opportunity to introduce them, and to let them learn about your job? Alternatively, invite your co-workers to ask your children questions about what interests them.

While physical structures remain important, try to focus on what brings us all together now, even if you do have a sneaking feeling there’s too much “together time.” This experience is encouraging us to pay greater attention both to communication and to flexibility. The merging of the separate spaces and experiences in our lives can be difficult to navigate, but it’s an opportunity to integrate our home and our work worlds creatively. It also provides a chance for our kids to learn about adults’ work, and for us, as parents and colleagues, to learn from kids how to increase our effectiveness on the job — and our empathy. Who knows what collaboration and creativity, and what innovations, these interactions will inspire?

“What I’ve learned to do is embrace the suck,” says Lisa Picard, CEO of EQ Office, in a refreshingly candid take on the whole situation. Meanwhile, she doesn’t shy away from exploring the benefits we may uncover in our new experiment with modern life. “We can certainly participate in these challenges and changes in many positive and proactive ways,” she says. “Look at the old patterns, and decide on what no longer serves you well. Let’s proactively respond to these dramatic personal and professional transitions.”

Physical Boundaries Help Maintain Concentration, Collaboration and Sanity

One of the keys for managing this complete spatial invasion successfully is to create proper physical boundaries in our homes. That will help working families maintain a sense of concentration, collaboration and community. In addition to establishing new boundaries, it’s important to consider a new set of social agreements for navigating them. 

This could mean transforming a favorite room or nook into a home office. It could also mean designating a special place for your child’s homeschooling, or creating a sign to tell your kids not to interrupt you while you’re on a Zoom video call. Adding physical boundaries will help you create the mental and emotional space that all of us need to get work done in our home offices. 

Visual cues are key, said Amy Cirbus, Director of Clinical Content for Talk Space, a virtual therapy company. In a recent national TV interview on the “Today Show,” she recommended that parents enlist their kids for ideas to help create these new boundaries. For example, you could make a fun sign for the door that says that it’s not the time to interrupt, or you could ask them what they will say to introduce themselves politely during a Zoom meeting in progress.

Adjust Your Space to Create a Home School and Home Office

The merging of work, home and school has meant that many of us have needed to change the layout of our homes to accommodate our kids’ “school offices” and our home offices.

In addition to recreating her daughter’s school reading nook, Amy Baker and her husband set up makeshift home office spaces. “We have a space in the basement that my husband and I are using as our home offices,” she said. “I'm also using our bedroom upstairs. I've moved the nightstand over by a chair and made a little impromptu desk, so that I can actually close the door whenever I'm on a call, and the girls don't sneak in or interrupt me.”

Many of these necessary design adjustments are turning leisure spaces into workspaces, which have historically been deeply interconnected, according to Kirsten Murray, Principal of Olson Kundig. “In the old days, many of us lived above our shops, or farms were our places of work. Now, we’re seeing those lines between home and work blur again — in some ways, they may stay blurry,” she says. 

Murray recommends making simple changes to repurpose your space. For example, she suggests pulling the sofa away from the wall and rotating it, to mark out the room in a different way. Then, you can create a secondary seating area behind the sofa, or shift your desk there to create a workspace. Plants or taller objects on a table can effectively divide a room to create smaller, more intimate zones. Hanging fabric or drapery, or taking the door off the closet, can also create a room divider. “Try something completely new — swap your living and dining rooms,” she says. “See how it feels to occupy familiar spaces in new ways.”

Kirsten Ekdahl Hull, the VP of Development at EQ Office, says her family’s kitchen counter is now transformed into her husband’s “standing-desk station.” Their kids now float between their rooms and the kitchen table, what she describes as “our new family classroom.” 

In addition to reworking your space, Murray recommends moving around in your home and changing your environment throughout the day. “Think about how your tasks change during your workday, and ways your physical space can echo that variety,” she says. “Arrange your workspace around fresh air and daylight when possible. If you’re working from home with your children, you can create different spaces for them that parallel yours, where they can be near you, but occupied with their own activities — a craft table, a tent or a fort beside your work area.” 

Courtney Rossi’s new makeshift home office

Could New Home Layouts Influence the Future of Office Design? 

All this extreme proximity could result in changes in office design when we go back into the office, with a greater emphasis on concentration, flexibility and collaboration. “Now that we’re getting accustomed to working at home, where we have less personal space, I think we’ll see a return to wanting more personal space in our offices,” said Murray. “It’s important to strike a balance between the two.”

Katie Aweida, an architect with SkB Architects, says she believes that in the future, offices will become smaller, with fewer desks, in a shift toward spaces focused on collaboration. “These will be necessary for client meetings, team coordination and working on deadlines, but technologies like Zoom have made it easy to communicate face to face virtually with anyone for the day-to-day of business, wherever you are,” she said. Offices would become more about collaboration time, and less about individual work at your desk — because now, “We’ve all got the ability to keep our personal desks at home and work remotely from anywhere with an internet connection.”

Kids in the Mix Call for More Flexibility and Creativity

"I think if we all approached our calls and Zoom meetings with that same purpose, we could squeeze out a little more time and bring the ‘joy of recess’ back into our lives,” says Kirsten Hull.

These temporary, makeshift spaces may inspire office designers in the future, but right now, parents also need to focus on the emotional alchemy that these new physical structures require. That means a new level of flexibility, communication and balance in order to maintain sanity and hopefully new ways to discover heightened levels of creativity and effectiveness in your job — while parenting!

The close quarters require a lot more communication, understanding and rolling with the punches in the moment. “Our kids have always known ‘structure’ in their lives to a certain extent,” said Kirsten Hull. “But, in this new world, structure for our kids means flexibility for us. We work together with the kids to have as few interruptions as possible. They’re learning our signs about when not to interrupt, and my daughter has rediscovered her love of Post-it notes, which she uses whenever she needs to prompt my attention to approve access to a new learning app from my phone.”

There is a silver lining in this arrangement. For some people, the merging of home and work worlds is giving kids an inside look at their parents' professions, and parents a closer look at how their kids learn. Maybe this time can spur creativity and new ways of looking at the way we work.

Courtney Rossi, a Director of Strategy and Experience with EQ Office, says her life working from home has had a beneficial effect both for her and for the attitude of her two elementary school kids’ toward her work. “They both told me that they’d really like to have jobs at home when they grow up, where they can spend more time with their family — even if it means making less money,” she said. “They feel like while they wish they still had their time with friends and teachers, it has been nice to have us around more to help them.”

For some people, the merging of home and work worlds is giving kids an inside look at their parents' professions, and parents a closer look at how their kids learn. Maybe this period can spur creativity and new ways of looking at the way we work.

Adam Rolston, a Partner and Creative Director at INC Architecture & Design, points out that  studies show that the chaos and interrupted attention associated with raising children boosts what psychologists call “contingent thinking.” This is the ability to navigate what-ifs and complex contingencies. “Being around kids makes us more responsive, adaptive, flexible and empathetic — all of which are hallmarks of good creative thinking and leadership,” he said. ”I can imagine a world in which kids are more integrated into our daily lives now.”

Not only does having the kids around enhance creativity, but it may very well increase empathy and humility. That could prove useful for office design and practice when we go back to our office spaces.

“The ability to relate to others and understand their experiences definitely makes me a better designer,” said Ellen Malmon, a senior technical architect at SkB Architects. “The best thing to come out of this crisis is the recognition that so many of us today are juggling work, family and aging parents. I hope this helps to remove the bias against women who may ask for more work flexibility and are assumed to be ‘not committed’ and, just as important, that it removes the stigma for men who want to take the time to better balance their work and family obligations.” 

 Kirsten Hull says the blending of her work and school worlds has reintroduced her, and her husband, too, to the joys of school recess. “Following our kids’ homeschool schedule, we’re seeing the  incredible value — both mentally and physically — of embracing a schedule that includes breaks throughout the day for exercise, fresh air, and sitting together over a meal.”

Even if that translates into longer workdays, she said it’s helping her to be more focused and purpose-driven. When she knows she has only 20 more minutes until it’s time to grab the bikes and get outside for the morning’s brief adventure with the kids, she’s that much more motivated to get through her work. “I think if we all approached our calls and Zoom meetings with that same purpose, we could squeeze out a little more time and bring the ‘joy of recess’ back into our lives.” In the end, it’s all about more humanity and balance in our home and work lives, and that means absorbing the lessons of this challenging time. Let’s not take this time for granted, because, after all is said and done, and we return to our lives, we’ll probably miss this unprecedented time with our children. If we focus on the positive lessons of the experience, we may be able to integrate our kids into the workplace in future without feeling that it’s an interruption.

A few practical tips for integrating your kids into your work life:

  • Host a “Bring Your Child to Work” virtual social hour.

  • Have your child interview you about your profession.

  • Invite your kids to a Zoom meeting and take a few minutes for one person in the meeting to tell them a little about their job or the current project. 

  • While you finish your meeting, encourage your kids to draw a picture based on the answers they’ve heard. 

Cover Photo Credit: Courtesy of INC Architecture Image and Design