Let’s face it: working from home represents a great opportunity, a potentially new challenge, and a trend that might change how we work and live going forward. For the last 10 years I have had a job that required a daily commute from my home to an office. Now I wake up, walk a few feet to my desk and turn on my laptop. Just like that, I am online. And with that, my work day commences.
Many people will start working from home and learn the ropes the hard way: through frustration, aching backs, tired eyes, and days that blur together. This guide is filled with simple and practical advice that you can follow or learn from so that your working from home experience is filled with better days, less pain, and more productive work outcomes.
Embrace The Future of Work
Gone are the days of rising early, making coffee, checking the local traffic, and heading in to work – just to spend the next eight to ten hours at my desk surrounded by colleagues, meetings, client presentations, and snack breaks. Now I am not only a member of a distributed team and workforce, but more than ever I have a new title: my own boss. Like many people I now need to take even greater accountability for how I spend my time and allocate the hours in my day. With less oversights comes more chances to do well – and to be distracted.
It is easy to imagine a future in which working from home becomes more common for many workers. I believe that that future is upon us. According to the US Census, 5.2% of workers in the US worked at home in 2017—or 8 million people. The profound rise in working from home as a result of Covid 19 will likely leave an indelible mark on how and where people will work. The home will become the new office – or at least an extension of the old one. And we need to be prepared for this shift in order to capitalize on it.
Improve Your Work From Home Office
Many workers today are not well equipped to have good work from home offices or setups. That is because for many workers there has been a historic division between places of work and places of living. The spheres were separate. Today many people are experiencing new anxieties or hardships as a result of working and living in the same environment. Distractions abound. Yet I have found clever and affordable ways to reduce distractions – be it noise, work space limitations, and other pain points – to create a work from home office setup that is flexible, empowering, and enables me to work comfortably.
There are three facets of working from home that you must be aware of if you are to improve your home environment: you need the right physical space, the right schedule, and the right balance between work and personal time so as to prevent your days from blurring together. When working from home, you don’t want to replicate your office in your home. Clearly, the space, lighting, and environment are different. Your schedule is different. Your attire is likely less formal as well. Despite the differences you can still invest small amounts of energy to create highly comfortable and professional spaces to produce high quality work outputs.
To start, try visualizing a home work experience that makes you feel empowered and efficient. What does that space look like? What products or tools are at your fingertips? Are you sitting or standing while working? When you look out of the window do you see a garden, or a building, or a blue sky? While I can’t advise on how to change every aspect of your setup, I want to provide guidance on things you can control within your home office that make working from home as smooth as possible.
Aquire The Necessary Products For Working From Home
To turn your home into a better office, you will need some equipment and a dedicated space. Here are the tools that have most positively impacted my working from home experience and that I advise you use as well.
- Headphones reduce noise, enable your colleagues to hear you during calls, and help with focus
- A monitor so you can read content and not strain your eyes and obtain headaches
- A mouse so as to reduce wrist pain
- An ergonomic keyboard
- An electronic desk
- A chair for lumbar support so as to to avoid back pains
First let me provide a detailed analysis of the importance of good headphones. When working from home you will likely attend virtual meetings. Throughout these meetings you will want two things to happen: you will want your voice to be heard and you will want to hear what others are saying. Unfortunately, many noises exist which challenge these goals: few people enjoy a meeting with the sound of a barking dog or piercing sirens. A great pair of noise cancelling headphones can make you more pleasant to others and enable them to hear what you are saying without loud distractions.
Secondly, good headphones have the added benefit of increasing focus and productivity. By blocking out the side noises (like a spouse or roommate, a pet, or your neighbors) you can actually focus on the tasks at hand and complete what you need to do. I have been on many calls where people have low- grade low- quality headphones. It is telling. When your headphones pick up noise indiscriminately it’s painful for all present. Good quality headphones – that segregate intended noise from background noise – are not that expensive. And the Return on Investment is demonstrated after your first meeting with others.
Secondly, an excellent monitor can make the world of difference for work productivity, focus, headache reduction, and neck and shoulder pain avoidance. You might not realize it, but staring at a laptop screen all day every day comes with what I call a “body tax”. This body tax might be paid in small quantities at first, but just like with real taxes, the bill will eventually come. Shoulders that ache, eyebrows that are squinted, a head that pulses. Do these signs feel too familiar? A great monitor is hugely important to reducing these pains. Firstly, monitors are larger than laptop screens which makes it easier to read content and write memos, documents, emails, or code. Secondly, monitors usually come with a base or elongated legs. This makes them higher than laptops when placed on the same surface. Inevitably this will cause you to raise your head and lift your chin when looking at a monitor. This in turn will cause your eyes to open and your shoulders to extend outwards. Over time this will make you feel physically and mentally better.
Thirdly, you need a great mouse. The benefits of a mouse should seem obvious but recent studies in the workplace suggest that you likely click on your mouse roughly 5,000 per day, or 625 times per hour during an eight hour shift. In short, your finger is actively clicking and your wrist needs to support these motions. A good mouse is affordable and adds immediate value: it is comfortable, responsive, and easy to move around your work station. Ideally it is wireless to allow for a greater range of motion and easy to use, clean, and re-charge. A good mouse can make your life easier and a bad mouse, simply put, gets in the way of effective work.
After selecting good headphones, a monitor, and a mouse, you would be wise to get a good keyboard. The math is simple: the average typer is able to compose 40 words per minute. Over the course of a work week that translates roughly to the following:
40 words per minute x 60 minutes in an hour x 8 hours of work per day x 5 days per week = 96,000 words per week.
Having an ergonomic keyboard is key to successful posture, typing, and content creation. A good keyboard minimizes the need for you to over utilize your mouse and helps keep your arms perpendicular to your body. Given how important typing is to many work from home settings it is critical to have the best tools available. Excess typing (and bad keyboards) can lead to several health problems, including carpal tunnel syndrome and joint strain. A good keyboard is not only an investment in productivity it is an investment in health. And this combination will pay dividends over time.
Now that you have the basics – and can protect your ears, arms, wrists, and eyes – let us turn to additional imperative equipment that can make or break your body (and work results) when working from home. If you have very limited space (like I do in New York City) then getting a proper desk and work chair may prove to be difficult. This is because these items are larger, take up precious living space, and can be bulky. Yet if you have the room and space to accommodate a work desk and chair these tips are worth their weight in gold.
Google is famous for providing amazing perks to its staff, including free food, gyms, and…standing desks. Google is smart to offer this perk – but they don’t do it out of altruism. Google provides standing desks because they don’t want sick employees. Rather, they want fit and healthy workers who are better able to think critically, rapidly, and … on their feet. A standing desk not only helps with posture (because you likely roll your shoulders and hunch over when sitting) but because standing helps with blood flow throughout the body. Standing forces you to expand more calories and improves your cardiovascular abilities.
It is well documented that being sedentary behavior leads to a variety of health challenges; standing combats these. In addition to burning calories, a standing desk may also lead to a decrease in blood sugar levels and the risk of heart disease. Standing is also good for improving your energy and mood. The feeling after a long workout or run is referred to as a runner’s high – which embodies the feeling of pure elation, reduced stress, and a decreased ability to feel pain due to a flood of endorphins released by exercise. A “standing desk high” is the increased focus, output, joy, and positivity one feels from doing work while not sitting down.
Clearly standing has tremendous benefits. But one can’t stand all day, every day. This would likely lead to general fatigue or sore legs. And perhaps it is not appropriate to stand in certain meetings. That is where a good chair comes in. Humans like to sit – a lot. Home workers in particular spend a lot of time sitting. All too often I will sit in a chair that causes my back pain. I can feel it in my lower spine. A good chair not only enables you to work it enables you to be flexible.
Once you have products that turn your home into a comfortable working environment your work-life quality will improve tremendously. But there are additional things to consider when working from home besides the spatial setup.
Take Care Of Your Health
You need to take ample breaks, exercise, stretch it out, and give yourself built in pauses from work. This will not only make you better at work (and likely improve your creativity and problem solving abilities) but will make you happier. The whole purpose of working (from home, or anywhere) is to support you – and your needs. Why not intermesh this pursuit with joy?
I strongly advocate taking breaks at designated times and carving out space to move your body and mind in ways unrelated to work. Here are a few examples.
Start the Day by Moving
Jumpstart your day by using muscles not tied directly to work. Some suggestions include writing or doing yoga. Instead of going right from bed to your laptop, be intentional about spacing out discrete bodies of time. Starting work only a few minutes after waking up makes me feel groggy. After waking up, take time to do an activity that is neither snoozing nor working. Write and reflect. Stretch or exercise. Do yoga. Or meditation.
Schedule in Real Breaks
If you are working from a traditional office you will stand up and walk around frequently throughout the day. You will head to the proverbial water cooler for a joke or a catch up with colleagues. You might walk to lunch or take time to stroll around your office building or floor. When working from home many of these options are limited, especially during Covid19. Yet you can and should still enjoy activities that give you a break. Take time to call a friend, or colleague, to catch up. Listen to the radio or a podcast as if you were commuting. Make yourself a meal you can look forward to consuming or do a home chore you have been putting off.
Get Enough Sleep and Keep a Healthy Diet.
Long days indoors can lead to fatigue and burn-out. Make sure to eat well, and healthfully, while getting enough rest. An ironic part of working from home is that you might be taking meetings at divergent hours – and earlier or later in the day – than you would if you were in the office. Try to resist the “urge” to work all of the time. Also recognize that you are likely moving a lot less. This means you are burning fewer calories and therefore might want to consume less food.
Wrapping It All Up
Let me conclude by saying the following: as we work from home more frequently (as a society, and as workers) we need to adjust our physical, emotional, and mental spaces to the realities of home offices. Part of these changes are easy – you can buy products that literally make your life better overnight. Some of the changes are harder – how to stay focused on tasks or assignments when you face new distractions and pressures. This guide touches on those key elements that I believe have helped me, and, by extension, will be useful to you too. I have spent ample time researching tools, equipment, and resources to help make working from my apartment easier and better.
I humbly recognize that everyone has their own needs and interests and physical spaces to transform. But by investing in my mind and my body I have turned a small and unpleasant space into a place I am able to perform real work in – and live in. While your home is likely larger than my very small New York City apartment, you might have distractions or issues that I am not encumbered by. Doing great work is rewarding and can be enjoyable (including purposeful, lucrative, and necessary). A good environment is a helpful ingredient to doing good work; it is not imperative but it is a powerful nudge. While you can’t control certain aspects of your environment (like the weather or the crying baby) you can make small adjustments at relatively low economic costs that lead to magical new feelings of satisfaction.
Google wants its staff to stand while working because, at the end of the day, Google values healthy and happy workers. You don’t need to work for Google to want the same for yourself. A few small intentional changes and purchases will give working from home new meaning, and hopefully new outcomes for yourself and your employer.
It’s understandable if many of you are struggling to adjust to the new ways of working from home. Parents don’t get a break from juggling childcare and work. Some of us truly need in-person connection to thrive. Yet this guide has helped me – and hopefully you – understand the options out there that can lead to better environments. Working from home is a movement that is here to stay. Let us lean into it and make the experience as enjoyable as possible.