At its most luxurious, the home office is a subsidiary of leisure space: a sun-drenched room in a second home from which the boss can check in on everyone back at the office. In its more utilitarian form, it is, at least, personalized and private. There’s a chair, a desk and, ideally, a door. There’s probably other stuff in there too, like filing cabinets and unseasonal clothes and a guest bed. But it’s a place to work.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29 percent of wage and salary workers could work at home in some capacity in 2017, while 25 percent actually did so. Now, however, workers with home offices are spending more time in them than ever intended. Plenty more are simply working from home however and wherever possible: at the table; at the counter; in bed; on the couch; in the garage.
Most workplaces aren’t ready for this. Most living spaces aren’t either. Yet millions of us have been sent home and may be there for a while. Perhaps you are one of them.
Whether you are working, avoiding work, balancing work with care for others or looking for work, chances are your temporary office is neither an optimized nor particularly happy place right now. I have no tips for optimizing it, in the aspirational work-from-home, escape-the-office sense.
Let’s lower our expectations. Here are a few ways to make working from home less miserable, according to experts.
FOCUS ON POSTURE
Karen Loesing, a certified ergonomics assessment specialist, helps people design their workspaces for maximum comfort and productivity. She can tell you what to buy and how to set it up.
But right now you may not want, or be able, to buy new things. According to Loesing, much of the standard equipment on the market leaves something to be desired anyway. “The average desk for years has been at around 29 inches, and that fits hardly anybody in a correct posture,” she said. (Most people end up with a desk surface that’s too high.)
Wherever you’re able to sit, there are some basic principles to keep in mind, Loesing said. Your hands should be on your keyboard, with your forearms basically flat and elbows bent at a right angle. Your back should be supported (“If you’re not sitting at the back of the chair for support, it’s like you’re holding a weight all day long,” she said) and slightly reclined — around 15 degrees from straight. Your feet should be resting on the ground, with your knees bent as close to 90 degrees as possible.
This may not be easy at the kitchen table in a wooden chair, so do what you can with pillows, boxes, plastic storage containers or books. “Don’t sit on a stabilization ball,” Loesing said. “Those are for gyms.”
Then there’s your screen. “Your whole entire posture is going to be related to where your monitor is,” Loesing said. If your monitor is too low, you’ll slump forward and, sooner or later, be in pain. “If you’re looking straight ahead, you want to be about 4 inches below the top of screen,” she said.
To achieve this setup, place your laptop on a stack of books and connect a keyboard, which should sit on your work surface. (External keyboards are still widely available and affordable if you must order one.)
If your work involves papers, note that commercial document holders are intended to sit between your keyboard and screen. You can use a clipboard or a thin book leaned against the bottom of an external monitor to create this effect. (If you have access to an external display — and don’t discount using your television for this, whether over Wi-Fi, with a feature like Apple AirPlay, or by using a cable — you can turn your laptop’s screen into a document holder.)
Loesing said that many of her clients are enthusiastic about switching to standing desks. “They’ve read all this material about how sitting is the new smoking,” she said. “They’re excited. It’s a novelty.”
Do it if you want — the same guidelines for your monitor and arms apply, although you should be careful when stacking boxes to get your laptop 5 or 6 feet off the ground — but don’t expect to stand all day. Maybe 20 percent or 30 percent of the time, Loesing said. Try not to lock your knees. Throw a book on the floor to lift up one foot at a time — this can help ward off discomfort and keep you aware of your posture.
You may be surprised at how quickly standing in place becomes uncomfortable. Walking for hours may feel fine; the discomfort of standing in place, even for much shorter times, can sneak up on you.
When your workspace stops feeling good, the best thing you can do, Loesing said, is move around. Take breaks. Sit somewhere else for a few minutes. Look out the window frequently, and remind yourself that this won’t go on forever.
Real offices are designed according to all sorts of theories and principles: correct values for density, plans for lighting and acoustics, flow. The emergency home office, in contrast, was most likely designed for something else: eating, sleeping or storage.
George Evageliou, president of Urban Homecraft, a custom furniture company, suggests taking a moment to visualize the office you want, even if it’s out of reach. “Look for the ideal, understanding that you’re not going to get it,” said Evageliou, who is currently locked down in a 250-square-foot studio apartment. “Whatever you get is going to be better for it.”
This exercise, in the moment, may feel extreme. Ideal: an office with a door, a space to work, a clearer line between the stresses of home and the stresses related to work. Improved reality: a table in a kitchen or living room, cleared off, where nothing can happen but work.
If space is your problem, that’s fine. “Try to create delineations within a room,” Evageliou said. (He spoke to me from a desk installed underneath a lofted bed.) A clear workspace of any sort — a few square feet surrounded by an invisible fence — can help maintain mental boundaries, too.
Knowing that you’re not redesigning your home, or signing up to do this forever, can recast otherwise less-than-appealing prospects as reasonable concessions to a need for privacy, space and emotional separation. “A closet is an ideal place for a desk,” Evageliou said. Yes, it’s a closet. But it’s also, he said, “a great spot to eliminate distractions and focus.”
Having a truly separate space in which to work, no matter how small, can pay off in other ways. “It makes it much more pleasurable to return to the dinner table, or to sit down on the couch and watch TV,” Evageliou said. Maybe most of your home has become a borderless, chaotic work/child care/storage/food preparation zone. A tiny quadrant for thinking and dealing with the outside world will help.
So can its inverse: Pick a truly work-free space, even if it’s just your bed, and keep it sacred.
There may be no space to put to work, or to make sacred against it, in your suddenly more crowded home. Take your dog — or yourself — on a socially distanced walk around a city or suburb in lockdown and you may witness another way in which a need for space, privacy and silence has superseded the aspirational “work from home” ideals of just a few weeks ago.
Ideal: a space of your own to figure out the confusing and terrifying scenario that is confronting everyone in different ways, separate from the rest of your home, maybe with comfortable seating, silence and good lighting. Reality: people on their phones and computers, or with pens in hand and stacks of papers beside them, sitting in the passenger seats of parked cars. You’re not driving anywhere. Why not enjoy, if only for a few minutes, an office with a door, and a view?