Adaptive Spaces

The Home Office – What Works for CBRE’s Design Practice

April 24, 2020 8 Minute Read

Image of books on desk

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Given the sudden need to perform our entire lives from our homes, many have found themselves in makeshift office spaces, sometimes shared with partners, family, pets or even housemates. You may be fortunate to have enough space in your home to dedicate a room for work, however many of those living in dense cities are struggling to create pleasant work areas in tight spaces, and even the best home offices can become dysfunctional when shared by multiple people. This is the time to reconsider how your space is used and whether it can meet your newly acquired work, live, and play needs.

Temporarily reorganizing rooms to allow for better workspaces is a useful exercise to increase focus, wellbeing, and give a sense of – much needed – control. We crowd-sourced the problem with CBRE’s Space Enablement Design and Engineering teams to understand their experiences with what works and what should change.

Our designers and engineers provided a glimpse into their work-from-home lives, with a variation of spaces. Here are their insights on what works for CBRE’s Design practice across the following office types:

  1. The Shared Office
  2. The ‘Outdoors In’ Office
  3. The Parent’s Office
  4. The Ergonomic Office
  5. The Compact Office

The Shared Office - Adrienne Harbarger, Project Design Lead

“Every Monday, our office is a podcast studio. On the weekends it’s a quilting studio. It serves as our home library, overflow storage, and for years the desk was a baby changing station. For a long time, our ‘office’ has needed to be a multi-functional space for both me and my husband. We started to tackle this need by making the biggest desk we could. A repurposed door on top of old filing cabinets provides a 9’ work surface. This gives us both plenty of room to have our own space and not feel like we are on top of one another. We each have our own work setups with chairs, keyboards, and monitors that suit our individual needs. We’ve capitalized on vertical wall space and the adjacent bookcase to store the supplies and gear that support our hobbies, leaving us with a clean space to focus on our work during the day. This helps with our constant struggle to keep the room tidy. We love that the room gets great natural light and is large enough to accommodate so many uses. These days, our dog is usually found lounging behind us as we plug in to take simultaneous virtual calls.”

Suggestions for a Shared Office:

  • Face the same direction to avoid being in one another’s line of sight.
  • Create visual boundaries with household items, like stacking heavy books, small plants, lamps, etc.
  • Create plenty of storage nooks to keep the work area clean from clutter.
  • Pick out your own individual chairs and equipment, even if they don’t match, making the space comfortable for both users.
  • Use headphones for tasks that require focus or audio.
  • Use a whiteboard to understand conference call conflicts.

Illustration of office desk

The ‘Outdoors In’ Office - Kelly Nelson, Interior Designer

“After downsizing and moving to Atlanta, I wanted to make sure I could find a great spot for my favorite desk, as it gets a lot of use and now, even more than ever. The only logical place was directly in front of large windows. This doesn’t give much legroom and opening the windows can be difficult, but it’s a wonderful view and is great lighting for video conferencing. My sister, a self-proclaimed ‘plant lady’, helped us move in, and insisted that we buy a bunch of plants for our new place. I was hesitant, after leaving behind a graveyard of succulents at our old place but decided to try a few new species. The snake plant and zz plant have been very easy to care for and my fiddle-leaf fig has grown 18” since the move. After spending the past few weeks at the desk working from home, my appreciation for the workspace has grown immensely. My mood is directly affected by the amount of daylight I have throughout the day. The blinds are a big help to prevent too much light coming in on the desk. The plants give me another connection to the outdoors and are a nice backdrop for video calls.”

Suggestions to Bring the Outdoors in:

  • Provide views of the outdoors and ample natural light - recognized in CBRE’s How Workplace Experience Can Boost Employee Engagement Report as the two most valued office perks or amenities
  • Know where your light source(s) are. Make sure light is not behind you. Lighting from the front or to the side is optimal.
  • Consider supplemental light sources such as task light, but also blinds to have ultimate light controls throughout the day.
  • Your coworkers will not know if your plants are real or fake. If you have low light levels, consider a combination of real and faux.
  • Try to locate your workspace near natural light to create a ‘desk with a view’ preferably looking at nature. Or switch-up spots throughout the day if your main workspace does not have a desirable view.

Illustration of office desk

The Parent's Office - Tina Lamkey, Senior Director

“With two kids at home (3.5 year old and 1 year old) there has been no rest for the weary. One year ago, we moved to a suburb outside of Chicago where I now, finally, have my own private office with doors that I can close, but not lock (which might have been nice to have). We have created ‘invitations to play’ throughout the office and house, such as art supplies that are accessible, reams of paper spread out on the floor, and a small table and chair for my toddler to sit and watch ‘educational’ programs’ while I get out one last email. After week one we lowered our expectations, cutting our normal to-do list in half. My husband and I also take shifts and block our calendars appropriately throughout the day - and well into the night. ‘Work-life integration’ has never been more true.”

Suggestions for a Parent’s Office:

  • Create privacy, if you don’t have doors, you might consider hanging drapery or using a screening/room dividing element. DIY this if needed.
  • When children are in your space, create invitations to play such as a coloring table and/or a sensory table.
  • Alternate work shifts with your partner if you can and block your work calendar appropriately so you’re not pulling double duty.
  • Take conference calls while walking with your children (strapped onto you, by your side, or in a stroller).
  • Check your outlets to make sure they are child-proof, along with your bookcases.
  • Provide snacks, lots of snacks!

CBRE’s Workplace practice shared some tips for Balancing Family Dynamics While Working Remotely

Illustration of office desk

The Ergonomic Office - Josh Wagner, Staff Designer

“I signed the lease for a new apartment in Atlanta a little over a month before mandated work-from-home started. I knew I needed to set up an ergonomic workplace for myself so I could get into my work in a comfortable and efficient way. I already had 3 monitors but investing in articulating arms to position each one properly and take advantage of my large desk area was a must. A large cushy chair and footrest beneath the desk allow me to keep in a relaxed and comfortable position as I work, which allows me to focus on my day-to-day tasks. My biggest struggle with space is cable management, especially when I have my personal computer and work laptop hooked up to the same mouse, keyboard, and monitors. Every piece of tech is carefully chosen and placed to maximize desk efficiency and functionality. I’ve still got a lot of work to do to flesh out the room, but I’ve got plenty of space to add whatever I need.”

Josh’s ergonomic suggestions:

  • Consider a second, larger monitor, in addition to your laptop.
  • Adjust the monitor height so that the top of the screen is at—or slightly below—eye level, consider propping your screens with books or boxes if need be.
  • If you are propping up your laptop, consider an extra keyboard/mouse set so that your arms can remain at a 90-degree angle.
  • The ideal chair will have a backrest and allow legs and arms to rest comfortably at a 90-degree angle.
  • Your head should rest on top of your spine to avoid stressing neck and shoulder muscles.
  • It is best to keep eyesight parallel to the desk.

Illustration of office desk

The Compact Office – Sally Unger, Senior Designer

“Before the pandemic, my husband worked from home every day and I worked from home only on Fridays. We needed our own ‘private offices’ to get our work done and not disrupt each other, especially since my days are very meeting-heavy and I am loud when I’m on the phone (as I’ve been told). My husband’s office is set up in our basement level, mine in our guest bedroom, which doubles as a vanity when we have guests in town. My desk is very compact but has everything I need. When I’m at my office, I can focus while sitting on my pink upholstered ergonomic task chair. Sitting on a pink chair all day makes me feel more creative for some reason. I ordered a tan leather piece of fabric that I cut to the size of my small 3’ work surface. The leather serves as a great backdrop for my work area and doubles as a mouse pad. I always keep fresh greenery in my little vase on my desk to keep me happy. I have a small glass board on the left of my computer where each week I write my weekly to-do’s and am so satisfied on Friday when I can cross them out and wipe the slate clean for what is coming next week.”

Suggestions for a Compact Space:

  • Create a space that inspires you, no matter how small the space. Surround yourself with objects that spark joy.
  • Repurpose furniture. A dining table, bookshelf, or vanity all make great home desks.
  • Buy or make a lap desk – the most flexible office of all. Everyone needs a change of scenery from time-to-time.
  • It’s important to have an environmental trigger that tells us when it's time to work, and when it’s time to sleep. So, avoid setting up shop in your bed. Have a designated space for work and one for relaxation, even if they have to be in the same room.

Illustration of office desk

The Design and Engineering practice is working remotely, in compliance with state and local government protocols. While the team is not available for non-essential in-person meetings, we are available by phone, video, and email and are ready to be creative in keeping projects moving forward.

About the authors and contributors:

Crister Cantrell is a Chicago-based Senior Technical Architect for CBRE’s Design practice. He focuses on detailing and delivering project outcomes to align with the design vision.

Karen Miller is a New York City-based Senior Project Architect for CBRE’s Design practice. She oversees project planning, design, and production of construction documentation. She is passionate about understanding and informing the impact architecture, art, and design has on the planet and its inhabitants.

All office images are from the team’s work-from-home spaces, illustrated by Daniel Robinson. Special thanks to Adrienne Harbarger, Sally Unger, Kelly Nelson, Josh Wagner, and Tina Lamkey for contributing their offices and insights.