Working from home for the foreseeable future? Follow these nine expert tips for cultivating a healthy and productive home office environment.
1: Focus on these most important home office challenges
Kirsty Angerer, ergonomic consultant and member of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors, says there are three major challenges when working from home. If nothing else, focus on these.
She says: ‘If they aren’t addressed, it will only be a matter of weeks before you’ll find yourself suffering from aches and pains.’ They are:
- What you do with your laptop or PC
- What you do with your seating
- What you do about your table or desk height.
Read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?.
2: Set up your computer for home working
Screen This should be straight ahead and at arm’s length. When you look towards it , the top third of the screen should be in line with your eyes and should be put on a laptop or screen stand if not.
Keyboard Use a separate keyboard and position it directly in front of you, with space in front of the keyboard so you can rest your hands and wrists when you’re not typing.
Mouse Use a separate mouse and place it so you can use it with a straight wrist and without having to stretch your arm. Support your forearm on the desk rather than using a mouse wrist rest, which can put pressure on the median nerve and lead to wrist pain.
Internet Reliable high-speed internet is a must. If you want to switch providers, most are still possible but Openreach (the network supplying the majority of the UK’s broadband connections) has paused in-home engineer visits. So in some cases the switch will have to be delayed. In the meantime, check your broadband speed to see if it could be improved.
Is it a good idea to switch internet providers during the coronavirus pandemic?
3: Choose the best home office chair
If you’re going to spend money on any new equipment for homeworking, a good chair would be an investment. Before you buy, Kirsty recommends checking for these six features (especially the first three).
1) Height The whole height of the chair needs to be adjustable to accommodate different statures and heights.
2) Seat depth Ideally, the seat should be deep enough to support your legs if you’re tall or not too deep if you’re short. The front edge of the seat should be rounded-over to stop it digging into your thighs and the seat not so deep that you sink into it as this may hinder you changing position.
3) Backrest height adjustment The backrest of your chair should give firm support to the lower and middle parts of your back. Height adjustment is important, too, unless the backrest is high enough to provide complete back support.
4) Adjustable armrests Armrests aren’t essential, but if you prefer a chair with them, make sure they’re set back from the front of the seat, or adjust to allow the chair to be drawn up close to the work surface.
5) Ability to unlock or lock the chair so it reclines Having a recline adjustment will allow you move in the seat so you’re not constantly sat in one position.
6) Castors Ideally, your chair should have a five castor base so you can move around freely. ‘Check whether you need carpet or hard floor castors depending on the flooring in your home,’ says Kirsty.
How to sit when working
The Chartered Institute of Physiotherapy says that good posture while you’re sat at your computer helps your back, neck and other joints to keep healthy.
- Sit with your bottom at the back of the seat and rest against the back of your chair for support.
- Rest your forearms on your desk with your elbows at a 90 degree angle.
- Relax your shoulders and don’t allow them to become rounded or to hunch up.
- Keep both feet flat on the ground and keep your hips level with your knees.
- Imagine there’s a piece of string coming through your body and out of the top of your head to the ceiling. This will prevent slumping and help to keep you upright.
Popular home office chairs
Argos, Ikea and John Lewis & Partners are among the most searched-for stores for those shopping for home office chairs. We asked them for their most popular picks. Below are those that best met the criteria of the expert ergonomist and were available at the time of writing.
One of the bestselling office chairs from John Lewis, it has a mechanism-free recline for automatic lumbar support.
This Ikea office chair has an adjustable and lockable tilt function, height adjustment and built-in lumbar support, as well as a mesh backrest to let air through while sitting.
4: Find a work from home desk that works for you
Your choice of desk will largely depend upon what you are using it for and the space you’ve got, as well as aesthetics. You might find a dining table or kitchen island unit works just fine, but if not here are some of the desk options available:
Corner desks These are space-saving and their wraparound nature means easy access to your things without having to move around too much. However, they can also mean reduced privacy as people behind you can see what’s on your computer.
Rectangular desks From space-saving and compact through to a large format, these offer a continuous workspace that’s ideal for working with documents and books. A rectangular desk may also make it easier to achieve the ideal position of sitting at a 90-degree angle to any windows to reduce glare on your screen while still illuminating your desk area.
Sit/stand desks These can be adjusted in height to give you the option to sit or stand. Sitting all day can lead to shoulder and back pain, whereas standing all day can result in foot pain, so the variety offered by a sit/stand desk could pay dividends to your health.
How to buy the best computer desk
Standard UK desk height is 730mm They can vary, but the important thing is that your chair fits under it with you sitting on it. The height of your desk chair seat pad should be between 380mm and 535mm from the floor, so your desk should be able to accommodate this.
Don’t scrimp on desk dimensions This is so you have plenty of room on top of it for your computer, keyboard, mouse, document holder and documents and phone. Desk sizes vary in terms of depth and width but opt for the largest desk that fits comfortably in your space, as you can never have enough work surface.
Check the thickness of the desk surface It should be thick enough to safely hold the weight of your work equipment (around 15mm minimum), but a maximum of 30mm in thickness. Any thicker and it could hinder sufficient clearance for your thighs.
Consider your knees If a desk has a cross beam running along its length, make sure it’s at the back rather than running along the centre, or you may find you can’t get your legs under the desk or are constantly banging your knees.
Avoid desks with a deep central drawer A drawer increases the thickness of the desk, which means you might not be able to tuck yourself under it properly when seated. No drawer or drawers to the side give maximum clearance for your legs.
Popular home office desks
Argos, Ikea and John Lewis & Partners are also among the most searched-for stores for those shopping for home office desks. We asked them for their most popular picks. Below, are those that best met the criteria of the expert ergonomist and were available at the time of writing.
This rectangular desk has drawers to the side as well as a cross bar to the back, both of which allow for good leg clearance.
74cm x 135cm x 62cm (height x width x depth)
This has built-in cable management and drawers to the side, giving good clearance for legs. The back is finished so it can be neatly placed in the middle of a room.
75cm x 73cm x 50cm (height x width x depth)
5: Make the best of what you already have at home
Ideally, you should have proper equipment for home working.
However, before you rush to buy any, look at what you already have around you to see if you can safely make do with these in the meantime.
Kirsty recommends these swaps:
- Use a pile of books instead of a foot rest
- Use cushions or a rolled-up towel instead of a lumbar support cushion
- Put your laptop on a box to raise it instead of buying a dedicated laptop stand
- Connect your laptop to your TV monitor using an HDMI cable to give you a bigger screen to work on
- Take the drawer out of a kitchen table or dressing table to get your legs under it for use as a desk
- A sturdy ironing board can be used as a desk for either sitting or standing once you’ve checked the height – and can be easily put away at the end of the working day
6: Keep on moving
When we’re in the office, we leave our desks for activities such as conversations with colleagues, trips to the photocopier or toilet, or to get a hot drink. In our home environment we tend to be more sedentary – and this isn’t great for our health.
Although we might be doing our designated period of exercise during lockdown – whether it’s a run outside or a yoga session indoors – we’re missing out on these cumulative ‘incidental’ exercises that help to give us the break from our workstation that the body needs.
Try to build them into your home working day, by:
- Walk around rather than sitting still when you’re on a phone call
- Do squats while you wait for the kettle to boil
- If you’ve got one, use a toilet on another floor so you get some exercise climbing the stairs.
The Health and Safety Executive says that ‘short, frequent breaks are better than longer, infrequent ones’.
For example, five to 10 minutes every hour is better than 20 minutes every 2 hours. But if you find yourself getting achy more often than that, then listen to your body and move about a bit.
7: Look after your eyes
Kirsty says: ‘Our eyes are muscle so they, too, need to move regularly and also have frequent rest breaks from looking at the screen.’
- Adjust the brightness and contrast controls on your screen, depending on how light your room is.
- Adjust curtains or blinds to make sure there’s no intrusive light. The best position for a desk is at 90 degrees to a window, so that light doesn’t cause glare from behind or dazzle from in front.
- If you use paperwork, a document holder might help you avoid awkward eye movements.
- Make sure individual characters on your screen are sharp, in focus and don’t flicker or move. If they do, your equipment may need adjusting.
- Choose a text size that is large enough to read easily on the screen when sitting in your normal working position.
- Select colours that are easy on the eye – for example, avoid red text on a blue background and vice versa.
- Changing your focus (by looking out of a window, for example), blinking from time to time and taking time away from your screen altogether are important to give your eyes a break.
- Follow the 20/20/20 rule. Every 20 minutes look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
What to do if you need to see an optician during the coronavirus pandemic.
8: Separate work life from home life
Normal life affords us the opportunity to both physically and psychologically leave our working life in the office at the end of the day.
Caroline Boyd, business psychologist at The Manager Hub, says: ‘When you’re working from home, this isn’t so easy to achieve. However, creating a demarcation between work life and home life may be beneficial to your mental wellbeing.’ Here’s how to do it:
- Clear away your laptop from a shared working space, such as the kitchen table or a space used for other tasks such as sleeping.
- Tidy your office space at the end of each day so that you don’t dread returning to it. Document boxes and file boxes can help with organisation.
- Use screens or room dividers to shield work paraphernalia from view during downtime.
- If you can, shut the door on your home office at the end of the working day.
- Keep to a work time routine, including setting the alarm to get up, prioritising tasks and pausing to mark progress at the end of each day.
- Put your working hours in your online calendar as a reminder to colleagues, as well as exercise sessions and childcare commitments.
- Dress for work, even if you’re not on Google Hangouts, Skype or Zoom calls, to get your head into a work frame of mind.
- Put a sign on your ‘office’ door giving instructions to others, such as ‘In a meeting – do not disturb’.
- Work incognito on your computer to minimise the temptation to use social media.
- Wear headphones to separate out from others sharing your space while working.
9: Make your home office into a feel-good space
You’ll be spending a lot of time there, so make it an environment that makes you happy, rather than an ad hoc space.
Put a plant on your desk Researchers found that offices with plants led to improved performance among staff compared with those without. Plants can help to oxygenate a space and result in numerous health benefits, including reducing fatigue and headaches. However, our recent research found that, contrary to popular claims, plants will do little to purify the air indoors.
Invest in an air purifier This will help to clean the air you’re working in, which may be particularly beneficial if you have hay fever, other allergies or asthma. You might also want to think about an air conditioner if your workspace gets hot and stuffy in the summer, or a dehumidifier to help remove condensation and damp from your home.
Sit somewhere different If you normally hot desk, you’ll be used to sitting in different places, possibly more than a couple in any given week. If you’re able to, move your desk occasionally so you look out on to a different vista to keep things fresh and stimulating.
Create some noise If you’re used to knuckling down in a busy office or like the hubbub of a public space such as a café, there are apps to help recreate the ambient sounds of a coffee shop to get you in the work frame of mind. If you’re missing your daily flat white, you could always invest in a coffee machine as well.
How to buy the best air purifier.