Beyond the pandemic: How to set up an ideal work-from-home space

Are remote and hybrid work the new normal? (Yue Li/MEDILL)

By Yue Li
Medill Reports

“It’s just temporary. …”

Sure. As of June, 66% of Americans worked remotely, at least part time, while 68% would prefer to be fully remote, according to recruiting site Zippia

“Working from home actually works,” said Mohamad Awada, the lead author of a 2021 research study on productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s not going to deteriorate your productivity.” The research showed that office workers could maintain the same level of productivity as before the pandemic. “But it comes with many hidden things related to our physical and mental health, so that’s why we need to be able to counter these negative effects,” said Awada, who is also a fourth year Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California.

So, get moving and turn that temporary office corner in your home into a more permanent space. Worried about finding scientific solutions? Follow these tips from the experts to make your work-from-home (WFH) more comfortable.

1. Do not isolate yourself

You hear this all the time: Concentrating and working without interruptions makes you more productive. But you don’t need to be a shut-in. “We are all social animals, and we need to engage with people,” said Mark Cropley, a chartered psychologist, program leader for health psychology at the University of Surrey and author of “The Off Switch: Leave on time, relax your mind but still get more done. “Once you finish work, plan activities that engage people. This also helps you recover externally from your work.” Follow your hobbies: sports, ballroom dancing or puzzles, Cropley suggested. 

Too lazy to go out after a long day at work? Talk and interact more often with your family — or even your pets. When WFH parents have their infant, toddlers or teenagers at home with them, it boosts their mental and physical health, according to the study Awada co-authored. “Parents were grateful that they were spending more time with children and having more bonding together,” Cropley explained. 

2. Take breaks throughout the day, not just after work

Do you sit at your laptop or PC almost all day without moving? “In a work situation, there’re natural break times: talking over coffee or photocopier or you go out to have lunch,” Cropley said. Without resting periods, there is an increased risk of having sleep problems, headaches, more fatigue, more anxiety in the evening and difficulty switching off from work, he warned. 

Don’t work too long without a break. “As psychologists, we know that 40 minutes is the maximum of our attention span,” he explained. You can set a timer on Google Chrome to remind you to move and break up the day, Cropley suggested. 

3. Set up ‘walking’ meetings

After sitting through hours of Zoom meetings, some people tend to experience back pain. With WFH, you can “use your phone to link in virtually and take a walk,” said Kermit G. Davis, Ph.D., director of the graduate program of industrial hygiene and occupational ergonomics at the University of Cincinnati. “Being creative on getting postural adjustability” is the key, Davis explained. During virtual meetings, leave your seat and get documents from your bookshelf, do stand-up stretching, stroll around your home or even walk on well-maintained streets without potholes. “Move back and forth” to reduce your stress, eye strain and body fatigue, he said. 

4. Do not look at the screen again when relaxing

After finishing work, do you also like to watch TikTok, movies or TV shows while lying on your bed or couch? That’s often a bad choice. “If your job is physically demanding, maybe watching TV is good,” Cropley said. “But sometimes people just sit down and watch TV without any conscious thought.” 

When work is finished, switch it off. Hide work to-do lists and close the door to a home office. “It’s really about paying attention to something else instead of your work,” he added. You can play an instrument, repair things at home or hang out with friends. “But it’s got to be an activity that draws your attention and prevents you from thinking about work.” 

5. Guys, support your spouse

Work-life balance is a topic of intense discussion. But what about husband-wife balance? A 2022 study on heterosexual married couples, published in the journal Personnel Psychology, found that while married couples who work from home (versus in-office) take on more family-related tasks, including housework and child care, wives didn’t complete fewer household tasks when husbands worked remotely. However, males’ workload would decrease in the reverse situation. Women also “felt increased guilt” for not doing more chores and spending more time with their families when WFH, said Jia Hu, Ph.D., lead author of the study and professor of management at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

When husbands can “be flexible with their work schedules and procedures,” they can “provide more resources and support” for their WFH wives, Hu explained. So, husbands, please take time to help your spouse. Help cook during your lunch break, clean the room and floor when waiting for a virtual meeting or wipe down the table when making your morning coffee.

6. Turn your home office into an ergonomic one

“Ergonomics, in any case, it’s really matching and developing the work environment to fit the person,”  Davis said. You don’t have to spend too much money to buy a fancy chair or desk to make your home office more efficient and safer. “Use the types of materials around your home,” Davis added.

Make sure your chair has five casters — so you don’t fall over — and adjustable armrests to position them. If a minimal chair is all you have at home, “you can use a pillow that can provide lumbar support, and you could wrap the arms and towels that would allow you to adjust them a little bit more and have padding on them,” he suggested. At least spend money to get an external keyboard and mouse — $50 at the most. Put your laptop on boxes or books and raise it to a proper height. Of course, you can also benefit from buying an external adjustable monitor, Davis said.

But how to find the proper height? “The computer, the keyboard and the mouse, you want it to be at the same level as your armrests, so it’s all the same plane. If you’re having your shoulders held up, your arms are extended, all that stress has been put onto your upper back,” he explained. So that’s also why you can’t sit on your couch working for a long time. (We love you, couch, but you’re so slouchy.) “It’s about having your arms and your back muscles holding your arms up continuously, which the body doesn’t like static postures like that,” Davis said. “The top of the monitor should be at your eye level. So, you’re looking slightly down, about 20 inches away from.” 

7. Surround yourself with perfect lighting

Lighting affects your mood and mental health, according to Kathleen Glynn, senior interior designer at KED Interiors, licensed architect and member of the American Institute of Architects. “Being aware of not just how the light impacts your eyes, but also how it impacts your body’s circadian rhythms, especially if you’re working with people in other time zones,” Glynn said. Glynn suggested at least three layers of light in your home office: natural light, overhead light — a fixture or candle lighting — and a desk lamp. A fourth light layer could be even better. “If you have bookshelves, particularly built-in ones, it’s nice to have task lighting or an LED,” she said. 

If you plan to build a home office from scratch, design it with natural light in mind. “A north-facing window is the best,” she said. “I know that sounds counterintuitive. But it gives you consistent natural light throughout the entire day. So, you don’t have a time of the day when it’s beating in on you.” Also, make your window header — the top of your window — as high as possible, she added. “Because the higher your window header, the more light will penetrate your space.”


Yue Li is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn