Back when The Simpsons was still regularly knocking out the hits (in an episode which is now somehow almost 30 years old), “And Maggie Makes Three” was a flashback episode which was built around one central question: Why are there no photos of Maggie in the family photo album? We discover that Homer quit his job at the power plant (literally burning his bridges as he did so) to take up his dream job, only to discover that Marge was pregnant with their third child, forcing him to return grovelling to Mr Burns to claim back his higher-paid role.

Mr Burns reinstates Homer, but by way of demotivating him, installs a large plaque on his workstation, which read: “DON’T FORGET: YOU’RE HERE FOREVER.” In the episode’s denouement, we discover that Homer has creatively put pictures of Maggie all over the sign, so that now the sign appears to read: “DO IT FOR HER”.

Make your space meaningful to you

Even without a hackneyed Mr Burns figure in your life, there may be times when your own workspace is fighting against you. Many of us found ourselves working in such an environment in 2020, when people without a dedicated home working space were suddenly forced to create one overnight. (Or multiple spaces, if they had partners or newly-homeschooled children.)

And sometimes we can be our own worst enemy, even if we have the best of intentions. For example, when I joined Postman last year, I invested in a custom-made world clock, allowing me to always see the timezones in the company’s two major headquarters, as well as my local time in the middle. (Ironically, in doing so, this visualised one of my biggest issues with the role - the fact that I was trying to bridge a working day which somehow spanned about 30 hours in the real world.)

The wall of my office, with world clock

After leaving Postman at the end of 2021, the clock remained in place. When the batteries failed, I couldn’t find the heart to replace them. Every time I entered my office, or took a break from my screen, I was greeted with the constant reminder of something that I’d tried, which hadn’t worked out. As is often the case, by making the initial extra effort, I’d compounded my sadness more than if I hadn’t bothered buying those damn clocks in the first place.

Last week, I finally - and emphatically - solved the problem, with Homer’s actions in my mind as I did so. I found an online retailer offering a sale on custom-sized canvases, and ordered a poignant print of a recent walking trip that I took with my son, up into the hills which are featured on the map underneath it. Now when I enter my workspace, I’m greeted with a reminder of what I’m doing this for - and I’m infused with both gratitude and focus. I’m doing it for him.

The wall of my office, with a canvas of my son

Make your space personal to others

Regardless of whether or not you have children, another thing that we all learned in 2020 (or longer ago, for those of us who’d been working remotely for years pre-pandemic) is that the wallspace opposite our laptops often becomes part of our identity. It’s why custom backdrops became an important part of Zoom, Teams et al (for those of us who didn’t want to show that we were working in the cupboard under the stairs, or working out of a kitchen which we hadn’t had a chance to clean since last night).

But when you’re working within a team with close bonds, dropping the custom backgrounds and showing your real working environment can help with team cohesion and opportunities for water-cooler conversations. For instance, it becomes obvious when someone isn’t working from their “normal location” for some reason (and may spawn conversations that can help with productivity: for instance, “I’m working in Starbucks because my home internet is down, let’s try to push meetings back to this afternoon”). And similarly, I’ve worked with people who use their wallspace to show off their nerdier passions. Displate, for example, offers metallic posters which fit onto interchangeable wall mounts, meaning that you might jump onto a call with a team-mate and discover they’ve switched out one of their pieces of art in favour of a new film they’ve seen, or a new city that they’ve visited. So customising your workplace doesn’t just benefit yourself - it ripples out and helps others to discover the “authentic you”.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Create a working environment which motivates you - or, at the very least, isn’t actively working to demotivate you.
  • Most of us aren’t working solely for the pleasure of working. Find something that truly matters to you, and keep it in your eyeline.
  • Our remote offices are part of who we are - try to shape your workspace so that your team can see the real you.