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How to Work From Home, According to an Office Design Expert

We spoke with HOK office interior designer, Meg Buchanan, about her current work reimagining safe office spaces, as well as her insights into how to set up the best WFH routine and home office. 

Home Work Issue No. 2: Meg Buchanan, Office Interior Designer at HOK

Meg Buchanan works for world-renowned architecture firm, HOK. Over the past several months, she's been helping clients small and large develop strategies for managing COVID and reentering workspaces, as well as applying best principles to her own WFH routine.
Before we get started, can you tell us a little about yourself and your work?
I’m an office interior designer at HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm where I’ve worked for almost five years now. I actually didn’t start out going to school for design—I originally was studying communications but decided to pursue something more creative.
In terms of my work at HOK, a lot of our clients are big banks and financial institutions that are looking to bring a level of fun and warmth to their offices. They’re searching to create spaces that work for all employees’ needs, like breaks, lunches, and time spent collaborating. We’re currently doing a ton of office redesigns because of COVID!

On post-COVID office design & the return to work

Are clients actively reaching out to you to re-think their office spaces post-COVID, or do you find they are still in a wait-and-see period? What've been the most common concerns?
It’s a toss up! One of our biggest clients is still in the wait-and-see period, despite being a company that is typically quite decisive and agile. Overall, though, it’s the bigger institutions that are coming to us for help—smaller companies are either still waiting to see or are trying to figure things out for themselves.
A lot of our clients have come to us looking for consulting services, trying to make a few different potential plans and getting a sense of peoples’ appetite to come back. We’ve been drawing circles on floor maps to represent the six-foot bubble that will need to be maintained. There are some spaces that are just designed so tightly that we’ve had to completely redesign them.
Air quality has been a huge concern—landlords will have to do upgrades to air filtration. Having a consistent supply of fresh air is one of the most effective ways of keeping offices safe. This is unfortunately a big budget item, and in the past wasn’t very high priority. I’m curious to see if any mandates will be passed about that, since it's possible some firms may not be willing to take on the cost, even though it is really an investment.
Photo: HOK

"We’ve been drawing circles on floor maps to represent the six-foot bubble that will need to be maintained."

What are your thoughts on how office interior design will change to adapt to the pandemic? To put it more simply, what design trends are you anticipating as a result of COVID?
At the beginning, there was so much uncertainty in terms of what COVID meant for offices. Leases were expensive, but it wasn’t safe to be in the office. People were really anxious, but as things started to come around, and we settled into a “new normal,” everyone realized there needed to be a plan to come back.
My company ended up organizing a survey to gauge companies’ and employees’ interest in returning to the office. The general consensus was that people strongly wanted to come back, but that things would look different—coming in three days a week, for example. It was clear that we needed to make plans for both the short and long term. This has led us to consider temporary solutions, like plexiglass and panels, but we know that those won’t be long-lasting. We also are envisioning the new normal for the next two-to-five years: for example, how to keep a six-foot bubble around employees. It’s really all about working with the existing space.
We’ve also been creating schedules for staffing, to keep rotating shifts. It’s sad to see that at least in the short term, we’re going to have to close social spaces like the dining area at cafeterias. In terms of new projects, the key factor is flexibility and function. For example, utilizing things that can be pulled apart—replacing sofas with chairs, using freestanding panels like whiteboards, or acoustic panels. These pieces will help stop the spread of germs, but they also can be functional in other ways. So, it’s not just about “flexibility” in terms of mindset—we mean it quite literally.
We’re also putting a lot more consideration into surfaces—our clients are interested in things that are easy to clean. While COVID is an airborne disease that doesn’t live long on surfaces, these types of changes help make employees feel comfortable about their space. Ultimately, the goal is to create spaces that make employees feel excited to come back into the office.
That actually leads me to my next question: About a month ago, you contributed to an article that focused on the need for a “Return to Joy” through stylization. How do you think designers can incorporate this movement into offices, while also incorporating measures to promote social distancing and stop the spread of germs?
It’s funny, we’d been working on that piece for a while and it was set to be published in March. One of the things we'd always been focused on was how to use stylization in a way that stayed relevant to each client: it needs to tell a story about who the client is. I think a lot of that stuff is tactile, and can bring warmth, such as through fabrics. You can still tell a story in a space, however, without those tactile things—you can use objects like plants and artwork.
It will be interesting to see how companies bring personalization to the office without cluttering up desks. People love having the ability to bring their own things to their space (I’ve even seen an employee with a shot glass collection on their desk!). We need to think of how we can replace these personal items with digital options so that we aren’t losing that personal, customized environment. With all the uncertainty we’re dealing with, I think a lot of the ideas about stylization that we discussed can now be applied to creating a beautiful home office.

"In terms of new projects, the key factor is flexibility and function...utilizing things that can be pulled apart—replacing sofas with chairs, using freestanding panels like whiteboards, or acoustic panels."

On designing a home office that helps you work better

Tell us about your home office or wherever you’re getting most of your work done these days. How does your perspective as an office interior designer influence the way you set up your home office?
My situation is pretty fluid right now. My husband and I live in a condo in the city, but we went up north to stay with my parents for a while. My adult siblings also had the same idea, so now it's my dad, brother, husband and I all working and taking calls in the same place, which can sometimes be tough. I’ve mostly been working at the dining room table because I enjoy the social aspect. However, ergonomics have been a challenge! You really don’t understand how important that is until you don’t have it anymore. It impacts more than just back pain—ergonomics can influence mental health and productivity.
At work, we talk about “creating moments for collision”—corridors, places you can put your stuff down, anywhere you might pause and run into a colleague. It’s a way of having breaks and socialization naturally happen. When you’re working remotely, you don’t always have that, and I think it’s important to try to manufacture those moments. At home, you might say to yourself, “Oh, I’ve been sitting at my desk for four hours, I’ve gotten so much done!” However, you haven’t had those important moments of collaboration, and breaks that can lead to new ideas. Taking breaks and having conversations that aren’t related to work can be super inspirational, which is why I prefer to work in spaces where my family will be passing through.
Photo: HOK
Do you have any tips or common mistakes to avoid when it comes to setting up a home office that will promote productivity? How do you set up your space in a way that will keep you on task?
There are a few key things:
  • Having a second screen is a game-changer
  • In addition, having a proper task chair is key—though my mom won’t let me use one at the dining room table....
  • Always prepare for your day, and keep the things you’ll need with you: a water bottle, your headphones, a notebook, etc. Keeping them right next to you lets you focus and stay on track.
  • Having access to daylight is very important—sitting by a window lets you keep an innate sense of time passing. (Make sure to be adjacent to avoid screen glare.)
It’s not super related to your physical space, but another key tip is having a morning routine that will set you up for success. Personally, I like to get up early, so I have time before work starts. I’ll walk my puppy and get some fresh air, which really grounds me before I get into my work.

On how to get the most out of your work from home routine

How do you stay organized?
I live and die by my Outlook calendar, which is kind of dangerous sometimes. I put everything in there, from my personal life to work. When it comes to specific tasks I need to do, I use a Moleskin. I always use one that has graph paper, so I can make sketches for clients. I don’t use it for scheduling, but it’s great for to-do lists. I keep a running list of tasks and each morning I’ll review it—it’s how I have to start my day.
Has working from home impacted your work-life balance? Do you have any rituals that help you mark when your “workday” is over?
For me, it’s turning my computer off and going outside. A lot of my coworkers have kids and so operate on a different schedule than me, sending emails at 9pm after they’ve put the kids to bed. At first, I’d always try to respond immediately, but I’ve realized I need to set boundaries and put a defined end on my workday. It’s easy to make the excuse that, “Oh, my computer is right there!” but that’s a slippery slope. If I don’t have an immediate deadline, I need to make sure I’m setting boundaries so I can avoid burnout.
This is a weird time for everyone, and I’ve seen more of the human side of people. Seeing a typically impersonal, intimidating client’s little kids run past in the background of a Zoom call makes them feel more relatable. When it comes to work-life balance, I have to resist the urge to always be flexible.

"When it comes to work-life balance, I have to resist the urge to always be flexible."

How do you stay inspired when you’re stuck at home?
One of my biggest sources of inspiration has always been traveling, and it’s been really challenging to have to miss out on that. At the beginning of quarantine, I was feeling super stagnant and uninspired. Lately, I’ve been trying to mimic the way travel exposes me to the cross-pollination of things: learning about new ideas, from reading to listening to podcasts to cooking. Cooking helps me feel transported in a way that is surprisingly similar to travel. In addition, both from an inspiration and a well-being standpoint, getting outside has been super helpful.

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