Following the global lockdown orders to halt the spread of COVID-19, millions of us are now working from home.
However, even before the coronavirus pandemic, working from home was on the rise across the world. The UK saw a 74% leap in homeworking between 2008 and 2018, taking total homeworker numbers to over 1.5 million.
In the US, census data shows just under 10 million workers, accounting for 7% of the civilian workforce, had access to a “flexible workplace” in 2019. This is up on 5.2% in 2017.
In Australia, the numbers are even higher. The 3.5 million workers who reported regularly working at home in 2016 accounted for 30% of the workforce. In 2001, the equivalent figure was 20%.
The pandemic has sped up the pace of this change, with social distancing measures driving huge swathes of the workforce to home offices. With doubts over technical capabilities and productivity seemingly being dispelled, commentators speculate this many engender a long-term shift towards homeworking. (Those doubts may well have already been dispelled by a number of studies).
If this is to become a long-term state of affairs, due to shifted norms or continuing health imperatives, good home office setups will be key.
Here are some easy tips you can follow to get your home office setup just right.
The ideal home office space is abundant in natural light, separate from your normal living space, comfortable, spacious, and tastefully decorated. If such a space exists in your home, then congratulations, you have the perfect home office space.
More likely you will be forced to compromise on a couple of things. Many of us will also be looking for space for more than one person to work from home. There will be competition for prime home office real estate.
Think about which aspects are most important to you, and where in your home you could possibly find them. Spare bedrooms and garages can be repurposed into home offices, if you’re lucky enough to have them. The latter may offer lighting and heating challenges, but a radiator and a “daylight” bulb can make it workable.
Perhaps those used to working remotely in public spaces will prefer to move around their homes with a laptop. For office workers used to remaining at a single workstation, however, it may be better to establish a set place. This can help you maintain work-life balance if you’re unaccustomed to working at home.
If you’re sharing, then assess your different working styles and requirements to find the best compromise. Qualities like quiet, light, or space are prized by some more than others in home offices.
If you’re tight on space, then think about how to set up a home office in corners of bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens. It may be that you need to take turns with the best home office space. Or you could share – though be wary of the strain to which this could lead.
A key part of your home office setup is making sure that you invest in the necessary equipment.
Start with office furniture – chiefly, a properly adjustable office chair. Sitting for long periods of the day without proper support can lead to discomfort or even injury. Equally, a work desk set up at a comfortable height should also be a priority. This can help provide a storage solution if your work requires physical equipment or hard copies.
In the US it has been estimated that 1 in 2 adults suffer from musculoskeletal conditions. In the UK, 6.9 million working days were lost due to musculoskeletal disorders over 2018/19. Inadequate office furniture will be responsible for a percentage of these. Don’t add to these statistics. Changing office chairs has been found to have an instant impact.
Remember to get up and move around. If all your meetings have shifted to Zoom or Skype, you may end up glued to your chair all day. Just getting up and stretching can be valuable. You could try a sit-stand desk setup if you like to work standing for parts of the day, though the jury is out on the benefits of these.
The other benefit of having office furniture is that it will allow you to separate work from home. Dining tables and sofas can remain areas of relaxation.
A good desk setup will also help prevent unnecessary discomfort and help you to work at home effectively.
A laptop docking station is an affordable way to convert a smaller run-around laptop into an ergonomic everyday workstation.
This will allow you to customise your desk setup to your liking. You can attach larger and multiple monitors to lessen eyestrain and work more efficiently. If your work involves a lot of typing, then a proper ergonomic keyboard may be a worthwhile investment. Working for long stretches at a laptop can be bad for your wrists and hands. Wrist support could also be a useful addition to your desk setup.
If you need to take or make a lot of calls, you could get a comfortable headset. Though with most modern phones and computers equipped with decent microphones and speakers, this is perhaps somewhat less necessary. That is, unless you need to share a workspace with someone (who also shares a home with you).
If you’re going to be speaking to clients using video call apps, make sure your camera is up to the job. Good webcams are not hard to find if your laptop’s offering is lower spec.
With homeworking becoming more common, it may be that your workplace is willing to contribute to home office equipment. Certainly, you’ll be of more use to them at your well-setup desk, then in bed suffering from a bad back and RSI.
When thinking about how to set up a home office, remember that you’re going to spend eight hours a day there. Home office design is key to ensuring you have a pleasant place to work.
Perhaps repainting an entire room to a more inspiring colour is a stretch – unless your home office becomes a long-term fixture. More realistically, you could put up some pictures, get some house plants, and arrange a few small desk decorations.
As well as home office design, think about a few little things that could improve your day-to-day life. A coffee machine or a mini-fridge for drinks, perhaps. Or if you like to listen to music, a small speaker or good headphones.
For inspiration, you can look at home office designs on places like Pinterest or Instagram.
One particularly modern imperative of setting up a home office is ensuring compliance with data security protocols. If you are working in the EU or with EU nationals, then this will mean GDPR compliance.
Hopefully, your employer will have given you some guidelines regarding the handling of personal data. If not, part of setting up your home office should be to have a conversation about this. If you are responsible for junior workers, make sure they are up to speed.
Many employers already fall short of requirements. It is therefore doubly important to ensure we’re up to scratch when we find ourselves working at home. Read up on what you can legally store, in what form, and how for long. Maintaining good digital behaviour is more important than ever when it comes to staying on top of this.
If you’re still working with sensitive paper documents, ensure you are able to keep them under lock and key. You may need to invest in a shredder.
One of the arguments often raised in favour of working from home is that remote employees actually work more hours. One US survey set the figure at 1.4 extra days worked per month.
That may sound like a compelling argument in favour of working at home. In reality, however, it can have repercussions. A UK study carried out during the COVID-19 outbreak found that 50% of those now working at home were struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance, with 48% reporting working longer or irregular hours.
It can be challenging enough when you work in the same place you live. When that place becomes where you spend your leisure time as well, the difficulties are exacerbated.
Separating work and free time is very important. Put in place some house rules. Try to eat someplace where work devices are banned (at least during mealtimes). Don’t look at work emails outside of working hours unless strictly necessary. Perhaps while working at home you could un-sync work emails from mobile devices. Limit shoptalk to give yourself (and those with whom you live) a respite. Set a time to finish work, and shut down when it comes around.
At the same time, minimise distractions while you’re ‘at’ work. Chores, Netflix, and snacks have derailed many a well-intentioned workday.
Try as far as possible to support work-life balance with your home office setup. If you can designate one specific part of your home as a workspace, leave it at the end of the workday. Don’t go back. If this is not possible, put equipment away, or cover it up. It might even help to change clothes when you get ‘home’ after work.
Your office may be where you live, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re living in your office.
To learn more about healthy home working, explore Coventry University’s course on Work-Life Balance and the Impact of Remote Working.