Are you one of the millions of Americans who began working from home when the pandemic began in 2020 – and continue to do so as it eases? Or perhaps you’re working part-time from home, or pursuing an advanced degree while you commute to a job. Or maybe you’ve always worked from home, possibly running your own business. In any of these scenarios, having a space that is optimized for health, functionality and security will make your work life better. Four experts share insights on how to set yours up.
Creating a Healthier Workspace
Jasmine Marcus , a physical therapist in Ithaca, New York, works with patients on orthopedic issues that include workplace well-being. She’s seeing more complain of ailments related to their home-based workstations since the pandemic began, she says. “I’ve also read research backing this up. It tends to be more low back and neck pain,” she adds. Marcus attributes this to not having setups designed for full days of work. “People don’t have chairs or desks that are sized correctly, and some don’t even have a desk at all. They’re working from the dining room table.” (Probably even worse are those working from stools at the kitchen counter.)
Acknowledging that a quality desk chair is going to be the right choice for your body, Marcus offers these tips on selecting one: “You want it to be comfortable and supportive of your spine, as well as adjustable in height. You also want adjustable arm rests so your shoulders can be relaxed while your arms are supported. If you’re shorter and your feet can’t reach the ground, you should add a footrest.”
Even the best desk chair in the world is not a panacea, the physical therapist points out. “Sitting all day is hard on the body, no matter how great your setup is. I think a standup desk is key for being able to change position frequently. Also, a headset for your phone if you’re making a lot of calls.” There are desks and risers that elevate for standing as an alternative.
Many workers choose laptops for portability, but they present some ergonomic issues, Marcus notes. “Using a laptop is hard on the body. because you have to hunch over them. It’s usually better to add a separate keyboard and monitor. Also, many people don’t set up their computers correctly. A computer monitor should be about an arm’s length away. The top of the screen should be at eye level, and it should be positioned directly behind the keyboard.” She also suggests an ergonomic keyboard and mouse.
Creating a Well-Designed Workspace
Daniel Ian Smith, a San Francisco and New York-based interior designer, says many professional clients are incorporating home offices in their renovation projects. “These new offices offer acoustical and visual privacy from the rest of the home, enough space to feel comfortable spending a full day working, and some of the best features of the modern-day corporate environment.” The benefit of setting up your workspace at home – other than eliminating your commute – is personalization. You can set up your home office to fit your style, space, work preferences and comfort.
Artwork is also a great workspace enhancement, he says. “When you’re not staring at a screen, you should be looking at something inspiring. I love expansive landscape photography for this, especially if there’s not a large window with a view.” Connecting with nature offers wellness design benefits and is a big work from home trend, he adds. “Get a desk that has beautiful texture or natural wood grain.” He also suggests plants and personalization. “Get the office chair in a bright color instead of black.” Textiles like custom lumbar supports covers can also be colorful and interesting, he adds.
If you’re creating a separate work from home space without adding onto your home or finishing an attic or basement, you may be repurposing an existing area, like a dressing room, guest bedroom, outgrown child’s room or ADU. In smaller homes, you might be adding a new function to an existing room. Smith suggests designing a work from home corner in one of the larger living spaces, an alcove in the main bedroom, or even that under-used built-in kitchen desk. He’s not a fan of dining room areas, as the work tends to take over the dining purpose. Quieter rooms, like a lightly used formal living room, could be a better choice.
The good news is that they can be quite compact. “The home office does not require much storage,” Smith observes, since digital resources reduce or even eliminate the need for file cabinets. “I’m from New York and still do a bunch of work there. New Yorkers know the value of hybrid furniture when you have to make a small space serve multiple functions!”
One big change in working from home that the designer sees is Zoom. “In the ‘before times,’ a phone call was sufficient for so many interactions. Now, the default is often a video meeting, and for many home office users pre-pandemic, their space was not set up to maintain an air of professionalism on camera.” In addition to good lighting and a well-positioned webcam, “You need a background that doesn’t undermine your professional authority.”
Creating a Smarter Workspace
Many home-based professionals are now handling more private client data and transactions on home networks that lack an IT professional’s management. Smart home technology consultant, Connected Design contributing editor and Origin Acoustics executive Joe Whitaker has been addressing these issues for years. “When your home network is secure, your entire home is secure,” he declares. He recommends having a private network dedicated to work-related communications, ideally hard-wired to the network when possible.
Beyond security, Whitaker says a home office should have good lighting, audio and acoustical features and, as Smith noted, video capability. When it comes to lighting, he comments that home offices – even dedicated, enclosed spaces – are often multi-functional. “It’s a conference room, research lab, and even a place to possibly unwind after a grueling day of work. Each use case requires a different color temperature when you consider task-based lighting,” he comments. Having a smart lighting system that you can adjust as needed is a smart, healthy approach.
Acoustics can be challenging in a home environment, even when noise from open, adjacent rooms is not a consideration. Acoustical panels can correct for sound issues, the technologist notes. So can features that absorb noise and vibration like rugs and even plants.
When it comes to video, Whitaker suggests a wide, curved monitor and blue light filtering for reducing eye strain. “Watching someone utilize a curved ultra-wide format monitor can be a game change for those of us that need to be on video, look at spreadsheets, and be able to fire out an email or IM at the same time.”
Creating a Functional Workspace
Irene Williams, a digital wellness educator, speaker and long-time work from home professional adopted the Japanese concept of Kaizen, meaning continuous improvement, into shaping her space and schedule. “I keep my processes streamlined and work areas organized,” she shares. What this looks like for Williams is “making sure outlets, phone chargers, and basic supplies are available and easy to reach anywhere I might be working; I move around to different spaces throughout the day, including out on the patio. I have batteries for my headset microphone right by the station where I conduct virtual meetings.” She also has lumbar pillows, footrests, and other items positioned so she can work ergonomically and comfortably, she adds.
Like many couples today, Williams is half of a work-from-home couple. With dogs. In a townhouse. “It’s all about planning, setting boundaries, and being considerate,” she shares. Planning means coordinating schedules to accommodate calls, virtual meetings and recording needs to avoid disruptions. Boundaries mean “we set and respect physical and time-related parameters to minimize interruptions. When I’m working upstairs, my husband will settle in downstairs or vice versa. If I want to come down to the kitchen, I’ll text my husband first to make sure that won’t break his vibe,” she says. Being considerate means using earbuds or headphones, adjusting the temperature so it’s comfortable for both and keeping the pups from interrupting meetings and recording sessions.
Williams shifted from a desktop to a laptop and added a Wi-Fi hotspot to give herself portability. She wants even more! “In our next house, I want to have a cart set up to accommodate my virtual meetings and Zoom recordings. It will have the lighting attached and all the accoutrements on board so all I have to add is my laptop to be ready to go. But, because this will all be on a cart, I can roll it around to different spots and, most importantly, roll it into a closet when not in use. Right now, an entire corner of our pretty study stays set up for Zoom meetings because it’d be too cumbersome to disassemble after every use. That’s not the aesthetic I prefer, but it is the best option for now.” Many of us are dealing with our current best options, and collecting ideas for improvement.
“I want to emphasize how incredibly important a home office now is in valuating your home,” declares interior designer Smith. “If you’re considering any type of renovation, that is the perfect time to start asking where a dedicated home office space will fit. Even if you’re not planning to sell for a while, be sure to make the home office an integral part of your construction planning, because I think this trend may be here for a while.” I do too!’
Contributors Marcus, Smith, Whitaker and Williams will be sharing work from home insights in an hour-long Clubhouse conversation tomorrow afternoon (August 17, 2022) at 4 pm Eastern/1 pm Pacific. You can join this WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS discussion here. If you’re unable to attend, you can catch the recording via Clubhouse Replays here or the Gold Notes design blog here next Wednesday.