Working from Home During COVID-19: What Our Research Taught Us

By Casey Lindberg, PhD

The most complicated thing in the known universe is in that space between our ears. Our brains connect with the rest our bodies to process and react to vast amounts of information every minute. Media, other people, and our physical environment are all major sources that shape our behavior, our health, and our well-being. Yet under a pandemic wave of contagion, each of those spheres of influence has turned upside down while our brains and bodies remain the same while looking to cope, survive, and thrive.

We consume media differently than ever before. We interact in person with fewer people than before. Our environments have become, in total, our homes. The variety of life that we humans thrive on has been squeezed, squished and scrambled into our bedrooms, our kitchens, our living rooms and even our garages. And from what we can tell, these set-ups will not be temporary.

Our Home Is Our Office, Our School, Our Coffee House

As designers and thinkers at HKS, this period has provided us with an unexpected opportunity. Because our homes are now being used for work, school, exercise, virtual socialization and all of life’s other flavors, we need to learn now how to best use these spaces.

Importantly, these lessons need to inform not only how we can adapt in the near term, but how we create future design strategies. Because we expect to see an ebb and flow of COVID-19 cases over the next year or more, these ideas are intrinsically long-term.

When we first were advised to work from home, many saw this as a small hurdle in time before returning to office normalcy. Naturally, stopgap measures ensued like propping up laptop monitors and using couches for office chairs.

But we know now that this is a kind of new normal, and so an investment in our workspace at home needs to be made while balancing it with the rest of our space.

There Is No Going Back…at Least to the Way We Were

Even before the threat of this pandemic subsides, we know that the workplace has changed forever. Many real estate developers and companies of all sizes now understand the possibilities of working outside the office. Fundamental principles of large open offices are being questioned. Cost savings, not only in square footage but related to increases in performance and well-being, are now on the table in a flexible work arrangement world. Doing that successfully is the challenge.

If work comes home, then homes must adapt.

One particularly difficult issue is managing our minds within our spaces. Our bodies may physically need to move from one space to be in another, but our minds can be in multiple places while in the same physical space. Teleworking research tells us that there is a greater risk of our work-life interfering with our home life than the other way around, so protecting those mental states with physical thresholds may be key. Doors are easy when we have them, but other strategies can also help such as using material changes for different zones.

So how do we take advantage of all the potential benefits of working outside the office while mitigating the risks?

So how do we take advantage of all the potential benefits of working outside the office while mitigating the risks?

Taking the Living Lab Home

While existing teleworking research helps, we are largely in uncharted territory, especially understanding how to design and behave in spaces under pandemic threat. For decades, the workplace world has toyed with various ratios of flexible work arrangements, yet most industries have not tackled how to flex back and forth between the office and the home when advantageous.

In order to gather data, we have launched a firm-wide survey that employees take each week while in the confines of their own homes. This weekly data not only helps us track mental and physical health trends week to week but offers key insights into the physical and ambient characteristics of their workspaces and other spaces in their homes.

Our data has shown that while connecting virtually with others socially is related to increased happiness, having more than 15 hours of virtual work meetings per week damages work-life balance. We also learned that our own employees want to work away from the office in a non-pandemic world much more frequently than they have wanted to in the past. Perhaps this means that employees realize that many tasks can be completed at least as well at home, but also that management trusts work is being completed without being able to see people in their seats.

Because not all types of work are conducive to virtual platforms, we are also using our myriad work processes and platforms to better understand just how flexible different technologies and communication methods are in order to be able to be thought leaders for our clients’ operations.

These efforts tie directly into our HKS Living Lab initiative, where we have developed ecosystems in our own offices committed to a culture of testing, evaluating and evolving to meet the changing needs of all stakeholders. In the last few weeks, we have brought the living lab home.

On the Other Side

In a previous story, we talked about how today’s designer is, unofficially, a type of public health official. This could not be more apparent than it is now, with the entire world longing for solid information about everything from the density and distancing of people to the quality of the air we breathe and the things we touch. Yet it also signals an opportunity to ride this wave of information-seeking beyond avoiding a threat, toward embracing a world where we design to promote wellness and performance not as a perk but as a foundation.

Our scrambled lives will eventually be released, and the walls of our homes will break apart into a version of the world we once knew. This may come in fits and starts, but we will again ride up a crowded elevator without masks or fear, see our teammate across the office and go to shake their hand. When that day comes, wouldn’t it be nice to look back on this time and know that we learned something valuable?

What We’ve Learned

Stay tuned to this page to learn more about our remote work findings and how they might help you.

Casey Lindberg, PhD

Dr. Casey Lindberg is a Senior Design Researcher at HKS. With a PhD in experimental psychology and a Master of Architecture, his expertise positions him to study and communicate how the environment affects the health, well-being and behavior of people. He has extensive experience using wearable technology and IEQ measures in his research.