When shelter-in-place orders made working from home the norm, you probably surveyed your home for the least problematic spot and camped out there. Ergonomics and your work style were probably the last things you had in mind when you picked out the couch or dining table you’re working from these days.
Yet as more companies consider the possibility of having an at least partially distributed workforce model, making do with what you have won’t cut it. Working out of a space that wasn’t designed for it won’t help you produce your best work. And, with an ever-increasing lack of separation between work and life, it definitely won’t improve your mental health.
It’s time to bring some intentionality to your not-so-new office. But what does it mean to have a workspace that actually works for you?
Not work 2.0
First things first: Building a truly intentional WFH space isn’t about recreating your office experience at your kitchen counter or in a spare bedroom. It can’t be done—your office space didn’t have to contend with the realities of remote learning, childcare, parenting, and your partner’s own schedule and needs.
You have to think about yourself and your space “from a holistic standpoint,” says Nicole Schmidt, CEO and founder of commercial design platform Source.
“In the design world, we call it ‘the programming,’” Schmidt explains. “It’s essentially a list of what does this space need to do [and] what do I want out of this space.”
Ask yourself what your needs are in regard to:
- Office placement
- Room temperature
- Work tools (do you need a white board or a wifi repeater)
- Body placement
- Aesthetic needs
Do you need a view of the outdoors? How does light come into your space and move throughout the work day? Do you need total silence or do you appreciate some background noise? Do you want to be able to stand? Do you respond better to bright, dark, or neutral colors?
“Really get into ‘How do my surroundings need to be and how does my body like to be as I’m working?’” Schmidt advises. “It’s important to slow down, take a minute, and really create a space that you’re going to love working and being in.”
“Really get into ‘How do my surroundings need to be and how does my body like to be as I’m working?’” Schmidt advises.
Once you have those data points, you can start making aesthetic, product, and cognitive choices to support them. But whatever you land on, make sure your two most-used office tools are ready to support you.
The two work horses of any office
Without a comfortable chair or desk, you’ll find it difficult to get any work done.
“I don’t know about you, but if I’m not comfortable at my desk, I fidget. A lot,” Kara Froula, founder and creator of orthopedic posture support BackEmbrace said in an email. “I stretch, bend, reposition, and ultimately get up from my chair because I’m just not comfortable.”
That’s because our bodies are giving us clear signals that the way we’re working isn’t working for them.
“The ideal workstation set up is one that keeps the body in an optimal biomechanical position,” says Dr. Chad Henriksen, a chiropractor and the director of WorkSiteRight at Northwestern Health Sciences University. “This means that you are transferring the forces and load bearing from soft tissues to the skeletal structure. Proper positioning allows the spine and body frame to absorb gravity, while allowing the least amount of stress on your muscles, ligaments, and tendons.”
An ergonomic chair is “where everything at the workstation starts,” Brooke Fenn and Will Heath, associate ergonomists at Humanscale explained via email.
“When we do an assessment, the first thing we do is make sure the chair is set correctly and comfortably, and then fit all of the work tools around the user.”
Fenn and Heath recommend getting a chair with a firm cushion that has recline tension and lumbar support, as well as the ability to adjust the seat height, seat pan (the part you actually sit on) depth, and armrests. You can even see if your company will reimburse you for the investment.
“We always prefer a chair where the seat pan and the back are two pieces and not connected in an ‘L,’” they wrote. “This allows for the back rest to adjust without moving the lower body.”
If you’re making do with what you have at home, just be more mindful of how you’re sitting. Your eyes should be in line with the screen—any gazing up or down can cause the type of strain that leads to, best-case scenario, fidgeting to chronic back and neck pain.
“Sit in a chair that will allow you to keep your spine aligned and not cause strain on your neck and shoulders,” Dr. Henricksen said. “Imagine a vertical line running through your ear, shoulder, and hip. Lean back into your chair and take advantage of the backrest. Add a pillow for extra comfort and support.”
Your desk is a crucial part of that alignment, too. Your desk—or the surface you’re using as a desk—should be at a height that allows you to follow the 90-degree rule.
“While sitting at a table and in a chair, ensure your arms and legs are parallel to the floor, as close to a 90-degree angle at the elbow and the knee as possible,” Dr. Henriksen says. Doing so allows “for the least amount of physical strain in a sitting position.”
Transitioning between sitting and standing can help avoid aches and strains by encouraging movement. Create that flexibility by using a stack of books, an ironing board, or a standing desk (or standing desk converter).
Once you have your desk and chair figured out, you can add in work tools that support you in getting your best work done (e.g. a wireless keyboard, an ergonomic mouse, and monitor mounts for LED/LCD monitors).
Solutions for common work-from-home complaints
Unfortunately, creating an intentional home office suited for your unique work style doesn’t mean you’re immune to common workplace issues. Distractions, noise and lighting concerns, and feelings of confinement can strike no matter how ergonomic your chair is. Thankfully there are ways to address these issues.
As long as the mind wanders, there will never really be a distraction-free workplace. It’s better to embrace the eventuality and “schedule your distractions,” Sarah Lowe of workplace well-being platform Better Spaces advised via email.
“Encourage employees to put health-related activities on their work calendars. Block off time for lunch, a walk, exercise, or meditation,” Lowe wrote. “Not only do these activities increase creativity and improve productivity and focus, they help make the physical work of sitting more comfortable. Knowing a break is coming can help keep people stay focused on the task at hand.”
“I recommend that my clients keep only what they need to do their work in their workspace—even standard office supplies may not be necessary depending on the type of work you do.”—Lucy Wahl
Curb the number of unscheduled breaks you’ll take through the day by clearing your workspace of work and life detritus. (It’ll help keep the “Let me just move this out of the way, and while I’m at its…” at bay.)
“Clutter raises the cortisol levels that cause stress, and stress is not only, well, stressful, but also makes us more susceptible to distraction,” Lucy Wahl, founder of LMW Edits, a San Francisco-based home organizing service, shared via email. “I recommend that my clients keep only what they need to do their work in their workspace—even standard office supplies may not be necessary depending on the type of work you do.”
Another source of distraction is foot traffic. This usually happens if your home office is in a multi-use space for other members of your family or home—for example, if the kids’ art supplies are in the spare bedroom with you.
“It's so much harder to be productive when you're distracted, and it's a lot easier to get distracted when personal life and work are leaking into each other at every hour of the day,” Wahl said.
Make sure interested parties get the things they need out of the room you’re in before you get to work. If you’re working out of the kitchen, take a lunch break when everyone else streams in for their meal.
Perhaps you’ve traded in your loud desk mate for upstairs neighbors, homeschooled kids sick of screentime, and/or a new chatty coworker (a.k.a. your partner). You can slip on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, or stop the sounds from reaching you all together with the help of PET Felt.
“[It’s] one of the best acoustic absorbing materials on the market,” says Cristina Miguelez, a remodeling specialist at Fixr. “Line the walls of your home office, put it on your ceiling, use it as a movable privacy screen… It will absorb all your household sounds, creating a quiet oasis for working.”
Freestanding privacy panels from companies like BuzziTripl or Crouton also provide noise reducing screens that you can set up at your desk or table to reduce both visual and auditory distractions.
For those who hated working under the fluorescent lighting synonymous with corporate buildings, now is a great opportunity to seek out natural light.
“If you can’t put your desk under a window,” says Miguelez, “invest in daylight/full-spectrum light bulbs. These mimic natural light and don’t cause as much eye strain so you can work longer without needing to look away from your screen.
“You should also get a strip of green LED lights and hang them behind your computer,” Miguelez continues. “The green light counters the blue light from your screen, and makes it easier to work longer.”
Let’s say you’ve realized your productivity and focus actually improves in a dark, cave-like setting. Window treatments such as blackout curtains and light-filtering shades can bring some much-needed lighting flexibility to your space. Throw back the curtains when it’s time for a Zoom meeting, and draw them tight when it’s time to focus and shut out the rest of the world.
Does the prospect of sitting in one place all day make you antsy? It makes sense if the answer is yes—sitting in one place for a set time is the stuff of childhood punishments. It’s no wonder that office design was trending toward increasing the variety of spaces people could work in before coronavirus.
“In an office that has a good balance of spaces, you’re able to move around through the day,” says Michael Chappell, a principal and director of strategy and design at architecture firm Gensler. “You’re moving from a desk to a meeting room to a focus room back to your desk, to a quiet area to the work cafe… all that movement is good for your body.”
Despite not having a phone booth or cafe in your home, you can create the same movement and variety, Chappell says. Designate specific areas of your home for different types of work and move between them throughout the day as you would in your office. The movement can spark creativity and motivation, he says. (Chappell knows from personal experience—though he works mostly from his “ergonomically correct” kitchen table, the rest of his home serves as his office, too.)
“If I need a change of pace or I need to focus on something different, I might go sit down on the living room couch,” he says. “Or if I know I’ve been sitting too long, I might go stand in the bedroom where I’ve got a dresser. I can put my laptop at a height that works and I’ve got a different view from there. It’s just about having those choices.”
But there’s one space you shouldn’t work from, “no matter how tempting it is,” says Wahl—your bed.
“Sleep is an absolutely essential aspect of our health and well-being,” she explains. “Research shows that we don't sleep as well or feel as rested when we associate our beds with activities other than sleep and intimacy. And of course, you need to feel rested to do your best work. So teach your brain to work in your workspace and sleep in your sleeping space!”
Part of teaching your brain to work better from home means making the physical changes outlined above. But changing the way you think about your home office is also necessary to improve how you function within it.
The separation between work and life used to be physical. You walked out your door and commuted to an office (work) and at the end of the day, you went home (life). There used to be miles between the two; now they’re a few feet away. That separation can be recreated through setting boundaries and sticking to a routine.
Always-on work cultures are enabled through smartphones and technology. Creating boundaries will require conversations with your company and your new coworkers (e.g. your partner, kids, and/or roommates). Broach the idea of testing out asynchronous communication—that is, correspondences that aren’t expected to happen in real-time or be answered immediately—with your team or as a company-wide practice. If you get the all-clear, you can let your workmates know the hours you plan on responding to emails and messages, and hit the snooze button on notifications that fall outside that window. (Parents who are crisis schooling or without access to childcare should talk to their companies about having a more flexible schedule in general to better meet this difficult reality.)
Once you have clarity about your work hours, make sure the people at home know what’s up, too. Establish agreed-upon rules for how they can interact with you during those time periods. You can share your calendar to let your partner know when you have meetings or put up a “Do not disturb” sign to help reinforce those boundaries. These conversations go a long way in supporting your ability to actually get work done at home—and make the borders between work and life a little more impenetrable.
“When you can't totally demarcate a separate space, you have to be even more thoughtful and disciplined about demarcating work hours,” says Wahl.
Having a routine for starting and ending your work day establishes those boundaries between work and life for yourself and your new coworkers.
“You need to get up. You need to get dressed. You need to feel like you’re going to work,” says Chappell. “There’s something about, ‘Hey, I’m going to work, even though I’m going to sit at the kitchen table.’”
Whether that’s mimicking a commute or simply stating “I’m in the office,” making that distinction helps get you into work mode.
“One option to consider is a workspace you set up at the beginning of every work day, and break down at the end,” Wahl says. “It provides the physical trigger you need to start being productive each morning and the feeling of closure you need to transition out of your workday each evening.” You can make this transition easy by putting your laptop, notepad, and other work tools in an easy-to-access box or storage tray.
“Restaging your environment for your current activity does a lot,” says Schmidt.
People are very adaptable creatures, and this switch to working from home is the latest example of it. By taking a holistic, honest look at the way you work, you’re setting yourself up to work better through these unprecedented—and ongoing—times.