Interior designer Rebecca Amir works in a variety of spaces, ranging from corporate lobbies to nurseries. In a typical year, her work is pretty uncomplicated — a home is comfort-forward and a workplace is function-forward. But in 2020, she’s found that residential clients are looking for womb-like sanctuaries — soft fabrics, plush seating, mood lighting — in lieu of traditional home office setups. "I wouldn't say desks are over,” she tells Bustle, but “people want to be cozy.”
This trend, while a boon for coziness, suggests the cementing of a broader issue with work-from-home life that doctors and therapists have warned about since the pandemic forced people from their offices; that their work-from-home set-up can blur the balance between work and life.
"While it can be very tempting to spend the workday in your pajamas working from your bed or couch, it’s also important to think about putting boundaries around your work time and your work space," clinical psychologist Jephtha Tausig, Ph.D., tells Bustle. If you're uncomfortable, it can be hard to focus. But if you're too comfortable, your brain is getting “chill” cues instead of “work” cues, she says.
The other issue is physiological: if you are able to train your brain to work from the embrace of an upholstered armchair, it puts you at risk of burnout, Tausig says. Working through the day without taking breaks to stretch or reset because you’re too comfy means you might be too mentally fatigued to put out quality work.
With many deeply set in their couch-sitting ways at this point in the pandemic, the effects of comfort-forward home office life might finally become noticeably problematic. Backs are hurting, performance is suffering, and screen time is high. And as cities gear up for a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, and WFH extends into another season, it’s time to reset any less-than-great habits in your work-from-home-life balance. In 2021, Amir predicts that laptop-height coffee tables and sofas with built-in charging outlets will become more popular (for those who can afford them, and afford to work from home). "People have gotten away with using a coffee table as a work table, or dining chair as a desk chair, but at this stage they're looking to upgrade and invest in pieces that are more suitable for sitting long hours," she adds.
Here's how to create boundaries that allow you to stay cozy without jeopardizing your work, spine, or mental health:
Plan Active Work Time
It’s almost too easy to let relaxation time blur into work time if you’re working from bed. If you have set work hours, honor them by doing something different when you clock out, like closing your computer, or going to a different room. If you make your own hours, Tausig suggests defining them ahead of time, instead of going with the flow. Set alarms and reminders to ensure that you have a hard start and stop to your work day.
It's just as important to plan breaks as it is to plan active work time. "In the current environment where so many of us are working remotely, we really have to schedule breaks intentionally," Tausig tells Bustle. So set an alarm for a pause, and force yourself to take it every day, even if you don't feel like you need it. According to Tausig, these breaks will actually increase your productivity and mood over time.
The physical way you work from home is equally as important as your mental boundaries.
According to Dr. Gbolahan Okubadejo, M.D., a spinal and orthopedic surgeon, sitting in any position for too long is bad for your back. One of the most common WFH positions — reclined, with your legs outstretched in front posture, creates a curve in the lumbar region of the spine. "This causes fluid to move to the posterior of the intervertebral discs, putting too much pressure on them — the muscles of the neck and shoulders then have to work twice as hard to keep the upright head, which eventually leads to discomfort and tension in those muscle groups," Okubadejo tells Bustle. Whether you achieve this position in bed or on the couch, Okubadejo says that it can cause tension headaches, stiff necks, muscle spasms, and back or leg pain.
But it's not just about temporary discomfort. "Sustaining this type of laid-back posture chronically will cause a weakening of the back and abdominal muscles, affecting your core and bringing about long-term back pain," he says, adding that at the very least, you should have a pillow supporting your back in this position.
While you might know that you’re supposed to be at eye level with your computer, have your feet planted firmly on the floor, and keep your elbows at 90 degrees, it can be hard to enforce this posture, especially at home, in loungewear. But the benefits of appropriate alignment are huge: less pain and a stronger core.To avoid obliterating the lines between relaxing and functioning, Okubadejo suggests investing in an ergonomic seat cushion and using a hard chair and a hard surface for as much of your work day as possible.
Taking a break from work doesn't mean minimizing your Zoom tab and enlarging your YouTube tab — it means getting up and stepping away from your screens. Tausig suggests legitimizing work breaks by stretching, preparing a meal, taking a walk, talking to a friend, or spending time with a pet or housemate.
"Bonus breaks for when you have more time to allot include working out, bathing, reading, listening to and playing music, journaling, meditating, and engaging in creative activities," Tausig says. "This is important in terms of self-care and regulating your day." She adds that ensuring your break is at a different pace and in a different position than your work can help to improve your focus and prevent burnout.
While there's no harm in setting up a comfortable work space at home, putting too much emphasis on the hygge element can work against you in the long-term. If you're having trouble knowing when to power down, making sure that you're at least upright during the work day will help to make that distinction more obvious.
Rebecca Amir, interior designer
Dr. Gbolahan Okubadejo, M.D., spinal and orthopedic surgeon
Jephtha Tausig, Ph.D, clinical psychologist