Working Well From Home: How to Set Up a Healthy Home Workspace (during a pandemic or any other time)
Updated: May 5
Are you working from home for the first time? Perhaps you are a veteran telecommuter. Either way, there is no better time than now to employ strategies that help you work smart and stay well. From commandeering extra bedrooms or simply carving out space at the dining table to maintaining work-life balance to sharing nice with others, here are some of my favorite work-from-home design tips to boost productivity and maintain wellbeing... no matter what is going on in the world around you.
Designate your Space
Start with your needs in mind. Do you require quiet for video conferencing or concentration? Are you isolating from the people with whom you live or navigating crowded quarters? Would you rather sit at a table or desk, or are you more comfy working from the sofa? What are your storage needs? Which time slots in your daily schedule are flexible? The point is to think creatively about defining space and time for work and non-work alike.
Let's start with a few inspirational spaces:
Set up a table or desk near the window of your acoustically-separate bedroom (especially if you are lucky to have one this big). Close the laptop and clear the papers when it is time to stop working.
A corner of your living room might be the work space for you.
Even the landing at the top of the stairs (especially one with a calming million dollar view like this one, ha) might do the trick.
Inspiration is supposed to be, well, just that - inspiring. Now is not the time to strive for perfection. Focus on ensuring your space meets your needs. The inspiration will come.
Support your Body, Support your Computer
Set up your work environment to support your posture. Adapt seating with a lumbar pillow or folded throw if needed to properly support your back. Be sure the surface height of your computer or sketchbook is low enough to avoid strain on your wrists as you type or draw (or doodle).
Just say no to slouching over (or under) your work.
DON'T DO THIS...
OR THIS. Photo by Annie Spratt
Just say no to slouching over (or under) your work. The good news is that you can still be really cozy. If you want to work in bed, break out the old bed tray. My favorite comfy-while-working approach? I have mastered the art of working from the sofa. I place my computer or sketchbook on a c-table (which is shaped like a "c" to conveniently tuck its foot under furniture to get its surface closer to your body, shown below). A pillow on my lap comfortably supports my arms at just the right height for drawing or typing... as I am doing right now. ;)
Bink Laptop Table
Yep, a c-table lets you sit swanky and still support your back as you work.
By the way, have you noticed? Manufacturers stopped calling them "laptops" for a reason. These computing marvels should not actually rest on your body. They emit heat, particularly the higher powered models (there is such a thing as "toasted leg syndrome" — don't ask me how I know this, lol), and electromagnetic fields (EMFs). So, put your computer on a hard surface. Its battery will thank you. So will your reproductive organs.
Lisa Tharp | Photo by Curtis Killian
Consider tucking your desktop inside a secretary, in a room that otherwise welcomes daily relaxation. We custom-designed our Secretaire to hold the largest iMac possible (its pull-down writing surface is in foreground above). The computer hides away when the writing surface is closed. Meanwhile, the accompanying supremely comfortable shelter sofa by John Saladino in rich velvet just beckons you to step away from the screen for those all-important lounging breaks.
Photo by Jacqueline Kelly
Increase Natural Light and Fresh Air
With the possibility of Covid-19 lockdowns in your neighborhood's future — potentially limiting even solo walks outside — be sure to structure your work day to maximize natural light. We humans thrive with sunlight. Set up your work surface at a window, if possible. Not only will it cheer your mood, it saves energy without need for artificial lighting and provides better illumination for videoconferencing (position yourself facing the window, or to its side, rather than with the light source behind you). Beware of sun glare to avoid eye strain. Use a good task lamp at night.
While you can, get those outdoor walks in whenever possible (practicing safe distancing of at least 6 feet, of course). Pop a daily Vitamin D. Even in cold weather, crack the windows for a ventilating cross-breeze a few minutes each day.
Photo by Icons8 Team
Separate Work Time from Personal Time
Even if it is simply the act of closing your laptop and putting it on a shelf, structure your day to block off working vs. non-working hours. It is important to ensure that working from home does not mean that work overtakes your home life. Balance is healthy and actually keeps us more productive too.
You might find that, without a commute or need to match your co-workers' schedule every hour of the day, you can become more creative with your own schedule. Weave non-work breaks throughout your day, rather than only at the ends. I used to go to the gym before work. Now I get early work done first thing while my brain is fresh, then walk outside before that 10:30 am design team meeting, or even catch a noon workout online.
Bedroom closet converted to credenza with shelves | Lisa Tharp | Photo by Michael J. Lee
Repurpose Existing Furnishings for New Uses
Think creatively about setting up a space that works for you. Remove the closet doors in an extra bedroom, hang some shelves and squeeze in a cabinet for an instant credenza set up.
Improvise desk surfaces, from dining tables to dressing vanities to console tables to your grandmother's sewing table stored in the basement. Hang a plank of wood with L-brackets below a window for an instant "office with a view." An old door stored in the garage might sit nicely on a pair of sawhorses or side tables. Even the pull-down ironing board might do in a pinch.
Keep DIY Projects Safe
A lockdown might be just the right time for your home office or studio DIY project. Just be sure you are using safe protocols (no extra trips to the hospitals right now, please) and safe materials. Order non-toxic paints, stains and varnishes, including floor paint and clear coatings, by mail from ECOS Organics. Born in the UK and now made in the USA, there is no off-gassing or fumes to smell while you are sheltering-in-place. ECOS will color match any major brand of paint and the "hide" is excellent and durable. Their clear varnish is a real non-toxic substitute for polyurethane floor finish. They even sell non-toxic chalkboard paint for planning big work strategies on the wall or doodling with the kids. $10 will ship any quantity to your home via UPS.
Express Your Personal Style
Even under strained circumstances, your work space can still be a welcoming place to spend time. Add a green plant, grab a stylish lamp, stack a few favorite books or display precious photos, art and keepsakes. Make your work space a happy place, no matter how simple it may be.
Photo by Annie Spratt
Call in New Technology
Its time to learn those new tricks you might have been putting off. Here are just a few of our interior design team's favorite technologies for staying connected:
Videoconferencing: Our firm began using Zoom videoconferencing well before the pandemic to stay in touch with far-flung clients and industry partners. It also enables flexible work-from-home benefits for team members, so that they too can maintain a healthy work-life balance. You can share your screen with others to present your ideas, and even draw on the screen... all while still seeing conference participants via the Gallery View. Tape a small piece of paper over your computer's built-in camera for those times you might be conferencing off-camera in your pajamas, just in case the old video decides to reengage unexpectedly (said from experience). That said, do stay visible on camera whenever you can. It helps others feel connected to you and the positive energy that you bring during this disconnected time.
File Sharing: Google Drive offers free sharing of documents and files, and empowers multiple editors on a document at once. It includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentation templates, photo and video storage, and more. Low cost upgrades provide greater storage capacity in the cloud.
Collaborative Task Management: Our beloved Wunderlist is sunsetting May 6, so we are migrating over to Microsoft To Do. (UPDATE: Microsoft To Do disappoints. We have since moved to Zenkit To Do. Much better!) These shared lists let you create to-do lists with sublists, assign tasks to others, set reminders, attach files and images and more. We use task management software every day to run our design firm smoothly.
Screen Time: Limit your overall screen time (which is likely to increase these days). For leisure reading, turn to actual books instead. Use functions like Apple's NightShift to automatically adjust screen color from blue to warm for off-hours on all of your devices. It will help your brain prepare for a good night's sleep.
Photo by Hannah Tasker
Quality time can be a truly positive side effect of a pandemic.
Share Space Well with Others
If you are not self-isolating, and other adults are also working from home, explore space rotation. Variety and change of scenery during your cloistered day are good things. Pay extra attention to acoustic separation for those phone and video conferences. Use earbuds as a last resort to give your head a break.
What about sharing space with children? Working full-time with kids at home will challenge even the most seasoned parent. Here is where we can take a page or two from homeschooling to turn that reality into an exciting opportunity:
A core homeschooling principle is that life IS education. Some of my greatest work-life lessons were learned during childhood, helping out with my parents' start-up. If your child is curious about what you do (or even if, at first, they are not), involve them in your work as their time allows. Assume they are more capable than you ever imagined. They will surprise you. Assign them real, meaningful tasks. Let them earn an hourly wage. Engage them in setting up their own healthy work space and habits.
Another core belief is that anyone can be a teacher. Ask older children to help with younger ones. Set up a cooperative of parents and teens willing to take turns for 30-45 minutes leading online sessions, such as story time, fitness, art, crafts, wacky science projects, cooking, math puzzles, brain teasers or more. Look for tutors online in all sorts of categories who will really appreciate the work during this difficult time. Subscribe your kids to BrainPop (fun and funny animated educational shorts), which is generously offering free access during school closures. Engage a cheerful productivity success coach, like BluBeryl. Even the local gym teacher might be on the case, bench-pressing cans of black beans.
Then again, sometimes the best learning happens without a teacher at all. For more, check out John Holt's groundbreaking book, Teach Your Own. Chapters entitled "Learning in the World," "Serious Play" and "Living and Working Spaces" feel particularly relevant right now. Sir Ken Robinson is a favorite (and funny!) speaker on reimagining education. Once we reorient our thinking and remember that humans are born naturally wanting to learn and achieve mastery, we can tap into our children's innate desire to grow in entirely new ways.
Any activity in life can be an opportunity to learn. The old "home economics" subject offers valuable experience for every kid. Create a family task plan to keep indoor spaces organized and clean. Budget the grocery shopping list. Share the simple joy of making a meal together with the whole family. Most importantly, time shift your own work to spend the best of your children's waking hours together. I am designing in the wee morning hours so that I can spend later time with our college-aged night owl. Quality time can be a truly positive side effect of a pandemic.
Work smarter, not harder.
Use the Pomodoro Technique to "Work Smarter, Not Harder"
"Do more and have fun with time management," explains efficiency consultant Francesco Cirillo. His Pomodoro Technique teaches us to work with time, instead of struggling against it. The system is "at once deceptively simple to learn and life-changing to use." It recommends focused 25 minute work blocks with rests in between. It's like interval training for the mind.
Photo by Bruno Martins
Receive Mail and Shipments Safely
The coronavirus can live on surfaces for days, even on cardboard and paper. Alas, some of those least able to afford sick days (because they are often unpaid) are those who ensure shipments and deliveries keep moving in this country. Tip them well. Then, open envelopes and packages outside if possible, wearing gloves that are ideally washable and reusable (we must do our part to spare disposables for health care workers). Take photos of paper contents and then recycle them. Wash down goods that need to be kept. If not washable, set aside for several days to allow the virus to die off. Here is a helpful procedures video that demonstrates safe handling of groceries, take-out food and mail alike.
Photo by Lum3n
Brainstorm ways your own gifts might be put to new and beneficial uses during these changing times.
Above All, Keep an Open Mind to Positive Possibilities
These are disrupted times. The first step in coping is acceptance. If you have checked all of the boxes regarding the health and safety of you and your loved ones, take a moment to JUST BREATHE. Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge the important steps you are taking within your control. Accept that which you cannot control. Then, remember the goodness that exists in this world, despite the news headlines (which are best checked no more than once a day... and preferably not right before bed). Give thanks for the unexpected gifts arising from this new normal. Think of others. Ask yourself how you might reach out safely to help them. Brainstorm ways your own talents and skills might be adapted in beneficial new ways during these changing times. You never know what exciting ideas might ignite a spark and catch on.