Working from home isn’t a new trend, but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many office and knowledge workers to do so on the spur of the moment. Even after the coronavirus outbreak has passed, many companies will have realized that they don’t need big office buildings, and many employees will have realized that they don’t need to be in the office every day or commute for long periods of time.
However, many people have set up temporary home offices to deal with the pandemic, which will not work in the long run. Aside from having the correct tools, the physical setup — the ergonomics of the workspace — is crucial, especially when it comes to avoiding repetitive strain injuries that can be caused by a poor setup.
The best working environment at home
A long-term home office should ideally be a dedicated workspace in your house. Do as much of the following as you can to create a long-term functional and safe workstation.
A designated area
Ideally, you’d utilize a modest room with enough space for a desk and computer equipment, as well as a door that can be closed to keep work and home life distinct.
Most people don’t have extra space, but many people can turn a guest room into a dual-purpose area that can be used as an office during the day and as a guest room when visitors come. (If your space and money allow, a Murphy bed is a terrific method to do this.) An enclosed porch, a spacious laundry room (or, for Europeans, a drying room), or even a garden shed can double as a storage space.
If you can’t acquire a dedicated room that you can separate from the rest of your life, try to find a specialized space that is as far away from the rest of the home — and them — as feasible.
Work at the proper height
A work-height desk or table is required in your environment. From the floor to the top of the work surface, the industry standard is 29 inches. Tall individuals benefit from being taller, and short ones benefit from being shorter. Many desks and tables are height-adjustable, usually via the feet.
However, that industry standard is built on utilizing a pen and paper rather than a computer and mouse. That’s why keyboard trays normally pull out from beneath the work area and are an inch or two lower than the desk or table height. Get a keyboard-and-mouse tray if you have the space (it must be wide enough for both!). If not, consider lowering your desk to tray height; if you write on paper as well, a writing surface (such as a thin cutting board) can be purchased for pen-and-paper work.
If your forearms are parallel to the ground when you sit up straight and your wrist is not curved up or down while you type or mouse, your work surface is at the proper height. With your fingers dangling slightly down to the keyboard, the top surface of your wrist should be on the same plane as the top of your forearm. It’s simple to injure the wrists by bending them for long durations of time.
Monitor height that is appropriate
Get a huge monitor (perhaps two) for your home office, exactly like you would at work. I’ve had good luck with Asus and Acer 25- to 27-inch displays, but any major manufacturer will have high-quality monitors. Simply avoid the cheapest displays if at all possible, as their lower resolution and consequently increased fuzziness might cause eyestrain over time.
Display resolutions are described in a variety of ways, but seek any of the following to achieve the appropriate sharpness: QWXGA, QHD, WQHD, or 4K UHD are all options. Also, keep in mind that the screen resolution may be limited by the display connector; on many computers, the video subsystem limits HDMI 1x resolution to 1920 x 1200 pixels regardless of monitor size, which can make panels on 25-inch or bigger monitors look a little fuzzy. In general, look at your computer’s video specifications and get a monitor with a display resolution that matches its maximum potential. You’ll need PCs and displays that support HDMI 2.x, DisplayPort, or USB-C ports for the best video quality. Because you’re likely already using a computer, such as a business laptop, concentrate on finding a display with specs that match or surpass those of your computer.
Your monitor should be set up such that when you sit straight and stare straight ahead, your eyes are 25 percent to 30% below the top of the screen. That way, you don’t hunch your back and maintain your shoulders level – two easy ways to injure yourself.
You’ll probably need a monitor riser to attain the right height – I use two, which also offer me some useful shelving. A height-adjustable monitor is a plus, but you may still require a riser.
Tip: Measure the intended monitor height from the work surface so you know how much of a rise between the work surface and the monitor stand you’ll need to achieve the “top is 25% to 30% above eye level” goal.
A comfortable chair
There are several poor chairs on the market that might cause injury if used for lengthy periods of time. Dining chairs and deck chairs, for example, are rarely at the proper height and do not usually promote the required upright posture.
If you can afford it, invest in a professional office chair like the Aeron, which allows you to customize the fit to your body and workspace. However, such normally cost $600 or more; there are other far less expensive office chairs — between $150 and $250 — that will suffice. If at all feasible, try them on in person because you can’t tell if they’ll fit from a photo on a website.
Make sure it’s adjustable in height, rolling, and has lumbar support for your lower back. It should also have adjustable seat pan tilt, arm height, and lateral arm position. It is ideal to utilize an armrest, but only if you use it correctly: That is, your forearm should rest lightly on the armrest, with no pressure exerted by your arm against the armrest. The arm rest’s main purpose is to remind you to keep your arm in the proper posture, not to support its weight as a seat does for your buttocks.
It’s all too easy to overlook the impact of your working environment on your productivity. Lighting is an issue that many people overlook. You should have enough indirect light to illuminate your workspace so that you can read papers and view physical objects readily. The optimum illumination is usually above lighting, such as a ceiling lamp.
Lights that are not in your direct field of view or that reflect off your monitor are referred to as indirect lighting. When the sun shines, an exterior window behind or to the side of your desk, for example, can cause glare on your monitor screen. Natural light is pleasant, but it should be diffused with shades or drapes to avoid glare.
Avoid placing a lamp next to a monitor, since this will result in conflicting light sources and possibly glare. You may require additional illumination, but try to position them so that they don’t generate glare on the monitor screen and aren’t in your direct line of vision while working on the computer.
Similarly, check that your monitor’s brightness isn’t too low or too high, as both might induce eyestrain. Of course, “too dim” and “too bright” are subjective, but a fair rule of thumb is that the monitor’s illumination intensity should be just a bit brighter than your ambient lighting and that ambient lighting should be enough to read paper documents without additional light.
Excellent internet service
Most cities and suburbs have at least one high-speed internet provider; 50Mbps is the minimum speed to aim for, and the more people using the internet at the same time, the faster the service should be.
Your home’s bandwidth is also important. If feasible, connect your computer to your network via an Ethernet cable; this is especially crucial if you conduct video or other bandwidth-intensive activities. If you can’t wire your computer to your router, Wi-Fi is fine for basic office work.
In all circumstances, make sure you have contemporary equipment capable of wired connections of at least 100Mbps (1Gbps has been standard for years) and wireless connections of at least 802.11n (802.11ac is much preferred). Almost every Wi-Fi router is dual-band, supporting both newer protocols such as 802.11ac and 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) and older standards such as 802.11b/g/n, which some of your devices may still use (such as older phones and some home-automation devices).
Of course, you’ll need a keyboard and a mouse or touchpad: If you’re using an external monitor, your laptop is probably folded closed or off to the side, making it difficult to reach the built-in keyboard and trackpad. Any keyboard, mouse, or touchpad/trackpad will suffice as long as they are responsive to touch and are not the improper size or height for your posture. Wireless ones eliminate the need for cables, although they do require recharging or battery replacement.
If you work in a shared area, get a headset so you may participate in online conference calls with less noise leaking into your house, where other people are working, sleeping, taking lessons, and so on. Working is more difficult due to the conflicting noises.
Do not cradle a desk phone or a cell phone around your neck! That’s a surefire method to sever a nerve or strain a muscle. If you use a standard desk phone, purchase a headset for it as well as a 3.5mm-to-2.5mm converter so you can plug the 2.5mm phone headset into your computer’s 3.5mm audio jack. Make sure your computer, monitor, and/or dock all support two-way audio (mic and headset) rather than just audio-out.
Instead of a headset, you could use wired or wireless earbuds, although many people find the in-ear kind to be uncomfortable, if not painful, over time. (A headset, on the other hand, lies on a cushioned pad over your ear.) Furthermore, wireless earbuds’ microphones often have lower audio quality, making you more difficult to understand in meetings. In a pitch, earbuds are OK, but if you’re in meetings all day, use a headset or the computer’s audio instead.
If you use a laptop, a docking station is a must-have since it allows you to plug the computer into the dock while leaving all other connections alone, then effortlessly remove the laptop when you need to work somewhere else, such as on business vacation or for an in-office visit. Most business-class Windows laptops come with a docking station; MacBook owners might consider purchasing one of OWC’s docks.
Many people no longer use paper, therefore you might not need a printer. Even while my own use of a multifunction printer/copier/scanner has decreased with time, I strongly advocate having one for your home office. An excellent laser printer from Brother or HP will set you back a few hundred dollars, and you’ll be able to print, copy, and scan whenever you want. (Laser versions are far less expensive to operate than inkjet equivalents, and they endure for years without the dried-ink issues that plague inkjet devices that are infrequently used.)
I route my desk phone line through my multifunction printer, which has a fax connector for sending and receiving faxes. (Faxes are detected by the printer, and other calls are forwarded to the phone.) I can’t recall the last time I needed to send or receive a fax, but if you do, invest in a multifunction printer that includes fax capabilities.
If you’re not using a laptop, you might want to consider a surge protector or an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Computer equipment is normally unaffected when the power goes off, but if you live in a stormy area, there’s a chance you’ll have a power surge that could damage your computer equipment. A surge protector-equipped power strip is a low-cost insurance policy in case of that unlikely occurrence.
A UPS is more difficult to justify. If you have a laptop, it comes with its own battery backup, so you won’t need a UPS. A tiny UPS can provide you enough time to safely shut down your computer and complete any saves if you have a desktop PC. A huge UPS can keep you working for one hour or more, but since you won’t have internet access if your power goes out, the need is minimal.
I strongly advise you to have a computer backup. Backup and recovery in Windows 10, like Time Machine in macOS, make backup simple, so acquire an external drive and start using it. However, storing all of your work on a cloud service like OneDrive or iCloud is an even better backup strategy because it ensures that if your computer is destroyed or lost, all of your work is immediately accessible from another computer. By default, Macs and Windows PCs preserve a local copy of cloud-stored work, so you can still work on your files if the internet goes down; they will sync once the internet connection is restored. The best assurance that you have your files is to combine cloud storage with a physical backup.
Note: If you’re using OneDrive, make sure you don’t use the Files on Demand option, which keeps a full set of files on your computer but retrieves them from the cloud as needed. (Some IT firms make it mandatory to activate Files on Demand, in which case working locally can be preferable.)
The portable office of the traveler
You can’t bring your home office with you when you travel for work, as I do frequently. However, you may optimize your workstation so that you can work with your laptop more productively and safely.
Tip: If you can add a larger monitor to the mix, the portable-office setup can also work well when working in a temporary home space, such as your kitchen table. It also works if you don’t have access to a huge monitor and must work from home on your laptop screen.
A foldable monitor stand is an essential piece of equipment for an ergonomic setup on the road. (Foldable bed tables are also useful.) Make sure it’s not too thick when folded so it can fit in your luggage.
You normally can’t choose your desk, table, or chair while you’re at a hotel desk or in someone’s workplace. You’re also unlikely to receive an external monitor. A foldable monitor stand, on the other hand, allows you to alter the height of your laptop screen. Depending on the table or desk height and the sort of chair you have, you may need to supplement that stand with books or something else. You can acquire a better height even if you can’t get a perfect height – and that’s what you should aim for.
Of course, you’ll need a travel keyboard and mouse to make this arrangement work. Thinner ones are easier to pack in a suitcase. Just keep in mind that if your input devices are wireless, you’ll need to remove the batteries before checking them in. You must pack your devices’ batteries in your carry-on luggage if they are not removable.
When I travel, I also bring a little bag of adapters with me. They come with video adapters, allowing me to connect to almost any monitor or conference display. (Because my USB-C MacBook works well with a video hub, I just have to carry one adapter instead of several.) I also bring USB-C to USB 2.0 converters with me in case I need to use a thumb drive, someone else’s keyboard and mouse, or any other unforeseen external device while I’m there. Because I travel internationally on occasion, I also pack a multi-country power adaptor with two USB ports so that I can charge both my phone and tablet from the same outlet.