April 02, 2019

Time for an Office Makeover?

Joan M. Burda


We spend a significant amount of time in our offices. For some of us, it’s a home office, but most lawyers retain the traditional office venue. This article is geared to giving you tips about how to make your office more bearable.

A call went out for suggestions on doing this, and several of my fellow Editorial Board members responded. I’ll get to their suggestions in a moment. Because I’m writing this piece, I get to talk about what I do first.

My home office bears no resemblance to the photos you see in books or magazines. It is neither contemporary nor traditional. My office is the third bedroom on the second floor; nothing fancy, just functional. I live in Lakewood, Ohio, where the houses are separated by driveways. The neighbor sneezes and I say, “Gesundheit.”

My biggest problem is keeping the desk clear. I know, we’re all supposed to be headed toward a paperless office—easier said than done. I’m not there yet, and doubt I ever will be. There is something about the tactile nature of paper that I have difficulty giving up. Still, the resulting clutter is disconcerting.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with my office. So, I looked into feng shui, the Chinese system of aesthetics and energy flow. Feng shui is all about how to maximize the positive energy and minimize the negative. I figured, I’d give it a shot. Let’s walk through the process together.

You’re supposed to sit in a commanding position, but not in line with the door—that’s the path of negative energy. (And here I thought the negative energy came from unreasonable clients, lawyers, and judges.)

Oh, and don’t turn your back on the door if you conduct business from home. It’s symbolic—if you want business to come to you, you must face the door, just don’t sit in line with it. You also don’t want to face anything negative: corridors, closets, elevators, toilets, etc. But, what do you do if the door faces out onto a corridor?

Put the computer on the west or north wall to enhance creativity. Unless you want to generate income—then put the computer in the southeast corner. But don’t forget not to face the door. This means you’ll make money, but not in a creative way.

Okay, you have the desk and computer in the proper place. Now, you need a fish tank or tabletop fountain.

These go in the east, north, or southeast part of the office. If your desk is there, I suppose it must be a small tank—a goldfish should do. Name him “Harold.”

If your tank is in the north part of the office, you must have blue or black fish—so much for Harold. These fish will help you succeed. Caveat: Ignore the preceding if you have a glass or metal tank. Then you need to go with guppies or just one arowana (that’s a fish). Got that? Good.

If you want to be financially successful, in that feng shui way, you need a metal safe in either the west or northwest wall of the office.

Now that we’ve got the place set up, we head onto colors. You need to balance your yin and yang. That means light and dark, soft and hard, smooth and rough.

Oh, before I forget, ditch the office mirrors. They will reflect all the client’s negative energy onto everyone else—that’s you. Without mirrors, you can control the office energy. Nice to know we can control something.

Don’t forget to treat your files with respect. Say hello to them, offer them refreshments; your files are your past, present, and future.

Finally, hide all the electrical cords. You’ll eliminate clutter, and chi (vital energy) will flow freely. Funny, though: Of all the clutter I have in my office, the cords have never been the problem.

Well, so much for feng shui and my home office.

Let’s get onto some other suggestions I’ve received.

First up: music. I have an iPod that I only use in the office. It sits in a round, inconspicuous JBL On Stage speaker. Several years ago I loaded all my classical CDs onto it. It’s an old iPod, with few bells and whistles. But it works, and that’s most important. I like classical music. It’s soothing and easy to work to . . . there is no temptation to sing along. It’s on the north wall.

Classical not to your liking? Try Mannheim Steamroller’s Fresh Aire V or Mike Rowland’s The Brighter Side. That’s more New Age, but it’s amazing. I’m listening to the latter as I write this—and bouncing a bit in my chair.

One of my favorite suggestions I’ve received is to wear a tiara in the office—preferably when you are not expecting clients. Or your kids. It is supposed to be empowering. If nothing else, it will make you laugh. Of course, you won’t see what you look like because there are no mirrors in the office. Just don’t walk out the door with it on your head.

I do not have a tiara, but I do keep an exact replica of a Roman centurion helmet in my office. So, I’m ready for next time Ben-Hur is on—or for an attack by those naked, blue guys from north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Some people suggested keeping flowers or plants—something alive—in your office. Of course, then you need to remember to take care of it, or you’re left with a dry, brown, dead thing in the corner. Would dried flowers work? I guess, unless you have allergies. Then, don’t forget to dust them. Maybe a picture of flowers?

But, if plants are your thing, why not a bonsai tree? I understand it is mesmerizing to tend a bonsai. If stress is a problem, try this avenue. It may be cheaper than therapy.

If you share your office, take some time to sing college fight songs. I graduated from Bowling Green State University. We have a great song: “Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Zoomba, Ay Ziggy Zoomba Zoomba Ze. . . .” It’s catchy.

Some people may prefer Scottish drinking songs. Especially appropriate late on a Friday after a grueling week.

I am a particular fan of bringing your pet to work. If you work from home, that’s not a problem. Your dogs or cats will come in even if uninvited. It is their house, after all. I think a pet-friendly work environment is more humane. Having a pet in close proximity does make us appreciate what really matters in life. There is significant scientific evidence that pets help maintain lower blood pressure and are psychologically beneficial.

Remember that the next time the cat walks over the keyboard while you stepped out of the office for “just a minute.”

And, before I forget, if you have a dog, take him for a walk. He’ll love it and so will you. Besides, people who have dogs are approachable. Consider it an alternative marketing strategy. But don’t forget to take a bag. You know, just in case.

Too often we get bogged down in the minutiae of our practices. We need to stop and consider the rest of the world. So, celebrate something. One of my favorites is May 20, which is Eliza Doolittle Day. The nice thing about this is you can make it anything you want.

Some years ago, I introduced random celebrations to my staff. The favorite was National Pie Day. This year it’s scheduled for January 23, 2011, which is a Sunday, but there is no one to say you can’t celebrate on Monday. When celebrating National Pie Day at my old office, we broke into teams of 15 people, and everyone brought in a pie. By 2:30, we were more than ready to share the pies with everyone else. Great eating. It’s something to think about.

Standard paraphernalia that helps make an office bearable includes an espresso machine. My favorite: the Nespresso machine. You can make coffee in dozens of different strengths. It is compact and easy to use . . . no barista license is necessary.

Buy yourself a really nice chair. We spend so much time in one; we should consider it a primary purchase. Poorly designed chairs make sitting in the office an uncomfortable experience.

Guys: Take off the tie. When you’re in the office, there is no reason to wear a tie. None, nada. Roll up your sleeves and make yourself comfortable. I have yet to hear of anyone not hiring a lawyer because he didn’t wear a tie. I once knew a lawyer who never wore a tie. He kept one in the clerk’s offices around the county. When he showed up for a hearing, he picked it up, put it on, and put it back before he left. The ties did not always match his suit, but the strategy worked for him.

To my sisters: You don’t need to wear heels in the office. Does anyone really like wearing them? Find something more comfortable. There was a federal judge in Cleveland who never wore shoes in the office. She was a good judge.

Get out of the office—at least once in a while for something other than practice-related reasons. If you aren’t taking the dog for a walk, go out to lunch. And eat in the restaurant. Don’t just pick it up and bring it back. For a real treat, call up someone you haven’t seen in ages and invite her to join you.

Another way to make the office bearable is to take your laptop and go someplace else to work. With WiFi, we can be mobile, even if we believe we’re tethered to our offices. Cut that umbilical cord and head to the nearest public library or coffee shop or public park. You don’t need to do anything confidential on your laptop. Still, if you’re worried about hackers and snoops, find a tech person who can alleviate those concerns.

If you have an iPhone, download the Skee-Ball app. I love Skee-Ball—played it at Euclid Beach Park as a kid. My top score is 2,240. Can you top it? I play when I’m waiting for a client or have some down time. It’s relaxing and fun.

Back in the office? What’s on your walls? Any artwork? Or are your walls loaded with diplomas and admission certificates to various courts? All of mine are somewhere in the attic. If people ask, and no one ever does, I give them the information. Need more? Direct them to the official attorney registration directory. After all, anyone can get a diploma.

Change those boring lawyer credential hangings with something more entertaining: movie posters, outdoor scenes, your favorite photos. This also brings your personality into your office—makes it less institutional and more, dare I say it, bearable. Put up something that makes you smile. Sure, some people will say, “That’s unprofessional,” but do you really care what they think? And, what does that mean, anyway?

Set aside a toy drawer in your desk. Load it with Silly Putty, jacks, or a bottle of bubble solution. There is nothing quite so relaxing as sitting in a chair and blowing bubbles. You remember that corridor outside the door? The one you aren’t supposed to face? Get some masking tape and lay down a hopscotch field. Use paperclips if you don’t have stones. You may be surprised to see who wants to play with you.

Got a spare table in the office? Is there room for one? Pick up a jigsaw puzzle. When the day is making you crazy, take a few minutes and put together part of the puzzle. You may find that it opens up other options to that problem you’ve been mulling over.

Or, follow the lead of one government lawyer and create your own Lego version of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Right now, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are chasing Draco Malfoy through the halls. A little lightheartedness never hurt anyone . . . even a lawyer.

I know, many of you are thinking: “This is not what lawyers do.” Well, maybe it should be. Perhaps we have the highest incidence of depression because we refuse to reconsider the way we take care of ourselves. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot reconsider the way we do things.

Being silly or having fun is not, or should not be, anathema to lawyers. None of us were born boring, but many of us have become so because of our chosen profession. Perhaps it is time to look at our world from a different perspective.

If you get a chance, read the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, written by Gordon MacKenzie. He worked for Hallmark for 30 years and created his own title there: “Creative Paradox.” His job was to be loyally subversive. Gordon believed there is nothing wrong with being a fool: “Creativity is not just about succeeding. It’s about experimenting and discovering.” What is better than experimenting and discovering ourselves and our place in the world? This is a short book—and it is only in hardcover. It has never been published in paperback. Gordon MacKenzie is dead now, but his ideas live on. Isn’t that something we’d all like to achieve?

Making our office bearable is more than furnishings and plants and wall hangings. We need to look at how our “office” defines our lives. So, let’s start small. Let’s look at the paint color on the walls and whether our desk faces north or south. Let’s start with the physical and move into the emotional.

Perhaps you can develop an office space that reflects you rather than your profession. Putting a bit of you into the mix can make you more approachable and less distant. Maybe you can stop cloaking yourself with the “I am a lawyer” mantle and admit there is more to you than a law degree.

Being a lawyer does not mean any of us must stop being a person. What we do is not who we are.

I started this article thinking about how I could make my office space more bearable. As I went through the process, I realized I needed to figure out a way to make my office reflect more of who I am and less of what I do.

I need to spend less time worrying about which direction the computer is facing and more time on the direction in which I am headed.

Frankly, I hate the way my office looks. I am uncomfortable in it. So, I am dismantling it. I am looking at a different way of setting it up. And I have no idea how it will turn out.

I still face south with my back to the door . . . and the corridor. It is still the third bedroom on the second floor. I continue to spend my time working on my files. But I have yet to figure out how to show them respect.

There is neither fish nor plant in my office. The walls are papered, as is the ceiling. The desk is cluttered and there is no table fountain. However, I am becoming more bearable. And, in time, so shall my office.

There are no mirrors, so the energy remains in my control. 


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