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The fraught return of working at home

Dividing life from work has always been a challenge, especially if your home office doesn’t include walls

As a kid growing up in Hawai‘i, Megan Lehn would buzz her parents on their intercom system when she got home from school every day, to say hi and to tell them what she was eating for a snack. They’d reply from the third floor, where they shared an office. Working from home afforded Lehn’s parents the flexibility to take her to school and soccer practice, but they instituted clear boundaries when they were on the clock. As Lehn explains it: “Just because I’m home doesn’t mean you can bring up your Oreos and ask me a bunch of questions about Oreos.”

When Lehn bought a house in California a few years ago and started working for a company with an entirely remote staff, she found herself adopting her parents’ attitude toward separating work and life. One room became her work space, which she set up to look like “any other office”: dual screens, filing cabinets, wireless mouse, ergonomic everything. (She did take the liberty of painting one wall purple, filling the space with plants, and putting up photos from her travels to look at when she gets stressed.) Lehn’s husband knows not to disturb her when her door is closed, and when she’s done with work for the day, she leaves the room and doesn’t re-enter it until morning. “I really separate my personal stuff and my work stuff,” Lehn says.

Home offices take many forms, but what they almost universally offer is a threshold, a dividing line that tells the brain when it’s time to focus—and, just as importantly, when it’s time to stop working. While walls and a door create a powerful border, physically and mentally, they’re not necessary to this endeavor. Nonya Grenader, an architect and professor at Rice Architecture, once designed a narrow, elongated work space at the top of a staircase in a client’s house. Someone seated at the desk would have their back to the stairs, and a bookshelf extending several feet to their left provided a degree of separation from anyone going up or down the stairs. “It was a slice of space, but it was enough,” Grenader says. A demarcation as small as a desk reserved for work can help a person get in the zone.

A black and white photo of a man sitting at a small wooden desk with a typewriter in front of him. The desk is covered in a disarray of papers. In the foreground there is a simple floor lamp.
1942: Author Stephen Vincent Benet typing on a portable typewriter on a desk in his attic.
Conde Nast via Getty Images
A young black man smiles in an archival black and white photo. He is leaning over his desk that is covered in paper and books, with his hand on a journal.
1956: Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. relaxes at a desk in his home.
Getty Images

The history of the home office is, of course, a history of working from home. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, vast swaths of Americans are reckoning with what may be a very long time spent working from the couch or kitchen table. Some are confronting the burnout that comes with less precise boundaries between work and the rest of life; others, company policy allowing, may decide they’d rather not return to an office. But while many people are experiencing this lifestyle for the first time, it’s just about the oldest way to do business. “It would have been the most familiar thing for people throughout history,” says Sandy Isenstadt, a professor of architectural history at the University of Delaware. Artisans produced their wares at home, often in ground-floor workspaces below their living quarters, and sold them from home or at markets. In the United States, work only shifted out of the home in a major way during the Industrial Revolution, as factories began churning out those same goods.

As paid work moved out of the home in the 19th century, the domestic sphere also took on new meaning. The “cult of domesticity” that took root in middle- and upper-class life in the 19th century idealized women as submissive, virtuous keepers of the house. As Laura Turner writes for Pacific Standard, a division sprung up between “public and private, male and female, office and home.” While women’s industrious management of their homes earned a degree of valorization, theirs was not a money-making endeavor and was therefore not valued as highly.

“You get this aggrandisement of the work sphere as opposed to the domestic sphere,” says Isenstadt. “As we all know, there’s still a lot of labor going on in the home, even if it’s not generating income. Anything associated with women is drastically undervalued.”

The growing separation between paid work and home life was reinforced by nuisance laws and, subsequently, late 19th- and early 20th-century zoning regulations, says Isenstadt. Manufacturing and processing was seen as dirty and noisy, so various kinds of work were banned from residential areas, with the exception of professions like law and medicine. Tax law, too, started differentiating between the residential, commercial, and industrial.

Though paid work remained fixed outside the home throughout the 20th century, some professionals carried on working from their houses, particularly creatives and freelancers like artists, writers, and designers. “You look at Charles and Ray Eames’s house and studio in Pacific Palisades, and the Eames philosophy about how work and life were completely entwined. They could not separate one from the other,” says Grenader, who cites Donald Judd’s apartment in New York’s Soho neighborhood as a more urban example of the interplay between an artist’s home and work.

A floor to ceiling wood paneled room with two-built ins. One holds a fold out table and has a blue rounded, blue upholstered, mid-century chair tucked underneath. The other holds a fruit bowl with a pineapple center piece. There’s a free standing desk with a matching mid-century chair in the center of the room.
1963: A spare, modern home office with walnut walls and an ebony-trimmed rosewood desk on a cast aluminum swivel.
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A young man with a beard and slicked back dark hair sits at a desk with a large manila folder in his hands. In the foreground there is a corner of a couch with a checkered ikat pattern and a glass coffee table stacked with large books.
1974: Designer Karl Lagerfeld at his desk in the study of his apartment in Paris.
Conde Nast via Getty Images

In the same way that industrialization moved work out of the home, technological advancements in the late 20th century once again made it feasible for people to work from home. “It was only really in the ’80s, with personal computing, that people could do it,” says Richard Donkin, author of The History of Work. It started in an ad hoc way, Donkin says. After a century or so of office buildings dominating the work landscape, bosses and fellow workers could be suspicious of telecommuters. “Working from home became a euphemism for doing what you wanted to do, mowing the lawn or whatever,” says Donkin.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, remote work was already becoming increasingly common, particularly in sectors where work lives online. No surprise, then, that home offices are far more common than they used to be. “Almost every client asks for working space in their house,” says Grenader. “Everyone. That’s a real change. I can’t say that was often in the program in the ’80s, when I was a younger architect.” Grenader often works on smaller houses, and in homes that don’t have a spare room to designate as an office, she might create a guest room-slash-office with a daybed and a desk area.

Not only has technology enabled more people to work from home, but it has changed what home offices look like. When Amity Worrel started her career as an interior designer in New York in the ’90s, home offices required opening up walls, running cables, and building large cabinets to hide bulky machinery. “It was a clunkier endeavor,” recalls Worrel, who now runs a small interior design firm in Austin. But as computers and printers shrunk, increasingly lightweight laptops became the norm, paper documents disappeared into the cloud, and everything went wireless, home offices were no longer limited by the work paraphernalia they contained. Decorative elements that previously would have been overshadowed by boxy equipment, like a beautiful wallpaper, can come to the fore. “If you can hide the uglies, then the pretties can really shine,” says Worrel.

Summer Thornton, an interior designer in Chicago, incorporates more couches and soft seating into home offices than she did 15 years ago—most clients who work on laptops barely see the need for a proper desk, she says. This shift mirrors the increasingly lounge-like vibe of contemporary offices: an open-plan landscape dotted with sofas, beanbags, and cocoon-like pods. As offices and coworking spaces began to offer workers amenities like cold brew and beer on tap, Thornton also started getting more requests for home offices with custom elements like wine fridges and ventilation systems to filter cigar smoke.

Home offices may be getting more attractive, but that doesn’t mean computer equipment has disappeared entirely. Lance Thomas, an interior designer in Lake Charles, Louisiana, says that a client’s line of work influences the design of their home office. He works with plumbers and electricians who run their businesses from home and need printers and faxes for invoicing, for instance. “We want the space to be pretty, but they’re mom and pop,” Thomas says. “They’re working from home, and they’re never not working.”

The beauty of home offices is that while we can track general shifts in their use and appearance, they are ultimately a manifestation of what an individual does professionally and how their brain works, smushed or expanded into the space that they happen to have available. Often it’s not the stuff of an Architectural Digest photoshoot.

An ornate room scene that is filled with a variety of styles, colors and textures. In the foreground there is a tufted gold chair with a leopard print pillow on top. Behind is a white desk with a desk lamp and oversized pair sculpture. On the wall behind there are frames of different styles and sizes hung gallery style.
1988: In interior designer Albert Hadley’s Connecticut house, a large gourd from his native Tennessee sits on the desk.
Conde Nast via Getty Images

Donkin likes to have documents at his fingertips, and his space is brimming with papers and notebooks, with a wall of binders and mounted fish behind him. (His dogs usually sit at his feet.) Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and author who commutes several times a day between his home on the fourth floor of a Manhattan apartment building and his office on the seventh floor, has filled his office with “a few thousand books,” a desk that’s rarely neat, and a long table where he keeps his current projects stacked in manila folders. “Last night my wife came in and was so horrified,” Telushkin says.

Denise Trammel, an executive recruiter who has worked from home for 20 years, has been in her current home office for three years and has yet to put anything on the walls. She hired a decorator to help her pick out a nice rug and a desk and did a custom window treatment, but that was the extent of their work together. When Trammel is working, she often goes into a state of hyper-focus and appreciates a Spartan space that inhibits distraction. “I light a candle sometimes,” she allows.

People who work from home tend to think carefully about how they use space to separate work from the rest of life. When Telushkin’s children were small, he never had a rule about when they could come up and see him during the day, but he knows that if he’d worked from the family apartment, he wouldn’t have been able to get much done. To fight the urge to answer emails after hours, Trammel bought a second laptop last year. She keeps one in the living room for personal use and doesn’t let her work laptop leave her office.

Indeed, home offices speak to the often-fraught relationship many people have with work. On the one hand, Americans are attached to the idea of a strict division between work and the rest of life. Attitudes toward this division vary by culture, says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a behavioral scientist and a professor at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and the U.S. attitude tends to be that the way you dress, behave toward other people, and respond to conflict at work should be completely distinct from how you do the same at home. Sanchez-Burks traces this dynamic back to Calvinist Puritans, who believed that one should separate work from emotion. Though many Americans disagree with this binary, blending the professional and personal isn’t always rewarded, he says: One study he worked on showed that when interview candidates attempted to bond with their interviewer by complimenting them on a family photograph in the office, they were less likely to be asked back for a second round.

“With home offices, there’s a real emphasis on creating a work/nonwork divide, even at home,” Sanchez-Burks says. “The advice is to make it a work space that’s not another space.”

Yet American culture also rewards overwork, so much so that a home office can be something of a status symbol. When Thomas began his career as an interior designer 10 years ago, he noticed that many clients had home offices that they rarely used. These offices were often located near the entryway, as though to signal to guests, This is the house of someone successful, someone who works hard.

A white room with floor-to-ceiling built in book shelves. The shelves are filled with books, trinkets and encyclopedia sets. The room has a leather Eames recliner, a leather couch and a door that looks into a sunny room with a glass table.
1997: The library of a Chicago, Illinois, apartment designed by architecture firm Tigerman McCurry.
Conde Nast via Getty Images

In certain industries, the overlap of personal and professional identity is so total as to make it impossible to escape work at all, ever. In Uncanny Valley, a memoir about life in the Bay Area’s startup bubble, Anna Wiener writes, “Everyone was encouraged to work how, where, and when they worked best—whether that meant three in the morning in the San Francisco office, referred to as HQ, or from inside a hammock on Oahu. They were invited to bring their whole selves to work, and reminded to take their whole selves on vacation.”

Interior designers have different tactics for preventing work from taking over their clients’ lives. Stefani Stein, a designer in LA, cautions against installing a desk in the kitchen. It’s fine for paying bills and staying organized, she says, but it makes it much harder to walk away from more concentrated work. A home office should function differently from the other rooms in a house and serve a distinct purpose, says Thomas. If a client wants to put a TV or sofa in their office, he’ll suggest focusing their design efforts on creating a great living room or seating area instead, so that the office can remain a productivity zone. (A chaise longue or chair and ottoman are work-appropriate substitutes for a couch.)

Then again, some people like a living room. Karen Herbst, an independent college consultant in Colorado, tries to be strict about the hours that she works, but she happily co-opts different parts of her house for work. When she meets with students and their families, they often sit in the living room. The kitchen is a favorite space for meeting with students one-on-one; it’s cozy, Herbst says, and she’ll make them cookies, hot chocolate, and tea.

Herbst does have a home office—it houses the desk she inherited from her father, who practiced law in New Orleans—but she doesn’t use it to meet with clients as often as she did when her youngest, now a college student, was still living at home. Though the office was a necessity at first, Herbst has gotten the sense that families like seeing it. “When they come to my home, they have no idea what they are going to find,” she explains. A dedicated office has the unexpected effect of reassuring them that she’s running a legitimate business. One that just happens to be in her house.

Eliza Brooke is a freelance writer. She covers design, culture, and the like.

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