How to set up a work-from-home ‘office’ for the long term

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How to set up a work-from-home ‘office’ for the long term

During the pandemic, and likely well afterwards, many people will work outside the office. Here’s what you need to do so your home workspace will support your work — and won’t wreck your body — over the long term.

Working from home is hardly a new phenomenon, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it an unplanned requirement for many office and knowledge workers. Even as the coronavirus crisis eventually recedes, many employers will have discovered they don’t need large office buildings, and many employees will have discovered they don’t need to be in the office every day or spend hours commuting.

But many people have set up makeshift home offices for the pandemic that won’t work well for the long term. In addition to having the right equipment, the physical setup — the ergonomics of the workspace — is critical, especially around avoiding repetitive strain injuries a bad setup can cause. I suffered such RSI issues 20 years ago and narrowly avoided a relapse a year ago, so I know what it takes to get back to and stay in a workable status.

The ideal home office setup

A long-term home office should ideally be a separate space in your home that is properly outfitted for work. Do as much of the following as you can to create an effective, safe workspace for the long term.

home office ideal setup

A dedicated space

Ideally, you would use a small room that can hold a desk and computer equipment and whose door can be shut for the essential need to separate work life from home life.

Most people don’t have spare space, but many people can convert a guest room into a dual-purpose space: an office most of the time and a guest room when people visit. (A Murphy bed is a great way to do that if your space and budget allow.) An enclosed porch, a large laundry room, or even a garden shed can also do the double-duty trick.

If you can’t get a dedicated space to separate you from the rest of your life, try to find a niche space you can use that is out of the rest of the household’s way — and they out of yours — as much as possible.

Proper work height

Your space needs a desk or table that is at work height. The industry standard is 29 inches from the floor to the top of the work surface. Tall people do better with a higher height, and short people do better with a lower height. Many desks and tables have adjustable height, usually through their feet.

But that industry standard is based on writing on paper, not using a keyboard and mouse. That’s why keyboard trays pull out from below the work surface and are typically an inch or two lower than the desk or table height. If you have space for a keyboard-and-mouse tray (it must be wide enough for both!), get one. If not, consider lowering your desk to the tray height; if you also write on paper, you can get a writing surface (such as a thin cutting board) for pen-and-paper work.

You know your work surface is at the correct height if, when you sit up straight, your forearms are parallel to the ground and your wrist is not bent up or down when you type or mouse. The top surface of your wrist should essentially be on the same plane as the top of your forearm, with your fingers dangling slightly down to the keyboard. Bending the wrists for prolonged periods is an easy way to cause injury.

Proper monitor height

Get a large monitor (maybe two) for your home office — just as you would at the corporate office. I’ve had good luck with 25- to 27-inch monitors from Asus and Acer, but any major brand will offer high-quality monitors. Just avoid the cheapest monitors if you can, since they can lead to eyestrain over prolonged use due to their lower resolution and thus increased fuzziness.

Display resolutions come in a whole alphabet soup of terms, but look for any of the following ones to get that desired higher sharpness: QWXGA, QHD, WQHD, or 4K UHD. Also note that the display connector may limit the screen resolution; on many computers, the video subsystem limits HDMI 1.x resolution to 1920 x 1200 pixels regardless of monitor size, which can make screens on 25-inch or larger monitors appear a bit fuzzy. Generally speaking, check your computer’s video specs and get a monitor whose display resolution matches its maximum capability. For the best video quality, you want computers and monitors that support HDMI 2.x, DisplayPort, or USB-C connectors. Because you likely already have a computer, such as a work-issued laptop, focus on getting a monitor whose specs meet or exceed what your computer can deliver (if you are unsure, give us a call).

Your monitor should line up so that if you look straight ahead when sitting straight, your eyes are at a height of 25% to 30% below the top of the screen. That way, you keep your shoulders level and don’t hunch your back — two easy ways to cause injury.

To get the proper height, you’ll likely need a riser for the monitor — I use two, which also gives me some handy shelving. A monitor whose height is adjustable is a plus, though you may still need a riser – or buy yourself a separate monitor stand that is adjustable (some colleagues use this one)

Tip: Be sure to measure the desired height of the monitor from the work surface, so you know how much of a rise you need between the work surface and the monitor stand to get to that “top is 25% to 30% above eye level” target.

A good chair

There are a lot of bad chairs out there that can injure you over prolonged computer use. Dining chairs and deck chairs, for example, rarely are at the right height, and they don’t always encourage the needed upright posture.

If you can afford it, get an adjustable professional office chair like an Harman Millar Aeron, where you can set a precise fit for your body and workspace. But those typically go for £600 and up; there are also much cheaper office chairs — figure between £150 and £250 — that will do the job. You’ll need to test them out in person if at all possible, since you can’t tell fit from a picture on a website.

Be sure to get one with adjustable height, that can roll, that provides lumbar support for the lower back, and ideally has adjustable seat pan tilt, arm height, and lateral arm position. An arm rest is preferable, but only if you use it correctly: That means your forearm should rest very lightly on the arm rest; there should be no pressure from your arm onto the arm rest. The arm rest basically should remind your arm to stay in the right position, not support its weight like a seat does your butt.

Good lighting

It’s very easy to underestimate the effects of your work environment on your ability to work. Lighting is often an area people don’t think about. Ideally, you have sufficient indirect light to illuminate your workspace, so you can easily read papers and see physical objects. Overhead lighting is usually best, such as from a ceiling lamp.

Indirect lighting means lights, not in your direct field of view or reflecting off your monitor. For example, an outside window behind or to the side of your desk can create glare on your monitor screen when the sun is shining. Natural light is quite pleasant, but diffuse it with shades or curtains so it doesn’t create glare.

Don’t place a lamp right next to a monitor, where you end up with competing light sources and possible glare. You may need lamps for additional lighting, but if possible, place them in a way that they don’t create glare on the monitor screen and are not in your direct field of vision when you’re working on the computer.

Likewise, make sure your monitor’s brightness is not too dim or too bright, both of which can cause eyestrain. “Too dim” and “too bright” are subjective, of course, but a good rule of thumb is that the monitor’s lighting intensity should be just a little brighter than your ambient lighting, and that ambient lighting should be sufficient to read paper documents without additional light.

Good internet service

Most urban and suburban areas have at least one high-speed provider for internet service; 50Mbps is the minimum speed to shoot for, and the more people using the internet at the same time, the more you want to get a higher-speed service.

The bandwidth within your home matters too. The best connections are wired Ethernet ones, so if possible, connect your computer to your router via an Ethernet cable; that’s especially important if you do video or other bandwidth-intensive work. I appreciate this is not always possible, as people rarely want cables traipsing around the home – so it is probably a WiFi connection you will need to use. Wi-Fi is fine for basic office work, but it is important to be based as near to the WiFI router as possible – as the signal degrades the further away you are from it.

In both cases, be sure to have modern equipment supporting at least 100Mbps for wired connections (1Gbps has been common for years) and at least 802.11n for wireless ones (802.11ac is much preferred). Almost every router with Wi-Fi is dual-band, supporting newer standards like 802.11ac and 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) and older ones like 802.11b/g/n that some of your devices may still use (such as older phones and some home-automation devices).

It is common for people to have the Router/WiFi that was originally installed when they first signed up with their broadband provider. If this was some time ago, it is well worth contacting your ISP (Internet Service Provider) and asking them for the latest router.  Many of these will provide one for free (as long as you renew your subscription with them – but this is well worth doing, as the new hardware can be significantly more efficient than old technologies.

Other equipment

You’ll need a keyboard and a mouse or touchpad, of course: If you’re using an external monitor, your laptop is likely folded shut or off to the side in a position that would be awkward to reach to for using the built-in keyboard and trackpad. Any keyboard and mouse or touchpad/trackpad are fine as long as they are responsive to the touch and not the wrong size for your hands or the wrong height for your posture. Wireless ones save you cable mess but require recharging or battery replacement.

And if you work in a shared space, you should invest in a headset so you can join online conference calls with less noise leaking into your home, where other people are working, sleeping, taking classes, and so on. The competing noises make it harder to work.

And definitely do not cradle a desk phone or cell phone in your neck! That’s a sure way to pinch a nerve or cause muscle strain. If you use a traditional desk phone, get a headset designed for it plus a 3.5mm-to-2.5mm adapter so you can also connect the 2.5mm phone headset plug into the computer’s 3.5mm audio jack. Note: Be sure your computer and monitor and/or dock support two-way audio (mic and headset), not just audio-out.

You could use wired or wireless earbuds instead of a headset, but the in-ear variety can be uncomfortable, even painful with long-term use for many people. (By contrast, a headset rests over your ear on a cushioned pad.) Also, wireless earbuds typically have poorer audio quality in their mics, making you harder to understand in meetings. Earbuds are fine in a pitch, but if you are on meetings for hours a day, use a headset or the computer’s audio instead.

docking station (or port replicator) is a great to have if you use a laptop, so you can plug the computer into the dock and leave all the other connections alone, then easily remove the laptop when you are working elsewhere such as for business travel or an in-office visit. These are relatively inexpensive, but can make life much easier – just needing one cable connecting to your laptop to get up and running.

Many people hardly use paper any longer, so you may not need a printer. Even though my own use has diminished over the years, I still recommend getting a multifunction printer/copier/scanner for your home office. A good laser version from Brother or HP costs just a couple of hundred pounds, and when you need to print, copy, or scan, you can. (Laser versions are much cheaper to operate than inkjet ones, they last for years, and they don’t suffer the dried-ink problems that often happen in inkjet devices that are rarely used.) I still have the same laser printer at home I bought over 10 years ago – still going strong.

You might consider a surge protector or, if you’re not using a laptop, an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). If the power goes out, computer equipment is usually unharmed, but if you live in a stormy area, there’s a small chance you might get a power surge that could damage your computer equipment. A power strip with a built-in surge protector is an inexpensive insurance policy for that rare event.

I do recommend you have computer backup. The Backup and Recovery feature in Windows 10, like the Time Machine feature in macOS, makes backing up easy, so get an external drive to use it. But an even better backup method is to store all your work on a cloud service like OneDrive or iCloud, so if your computer gets damaged or lost, all your work is easily available from another computer. Macs and Windows PCs keep a local copy of the cloud-stored work by default, so if the internet goes out you still can work on your files; they will sync once the internet access is restored. Combining cloud storage with a physical backup provides the best assurance that you have your files.

If you are using a shared laptop or PC (with other members of the family) – great care should be taken with any company data you are accessing (including your work email), and ensuring it is not available to other users of the computer. There are potential significant GDPR issues with this – and sharing a computer should really be avoided.  If you simply have to share, then you really should have different user profiles so that the company work is not accessible to other users – but this is really a last resort, and sharing is strongly discouraged.

It is also important to be aware of the company data being held on your computer. If not already done, you should consider encrypting the hard disk (fairly straightforward with Windows 10 and the latest Macs. If the computer were ever stolen there would be consequences on a GDPR level too. If your company has a server (or cloud based storage solution) it is highly advisable to store all work related documents within this storage, rather than on your home laptop/PC.

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Simon Tonks

Owner and MD of Synium who loves his job, his life and the wondrous outdoors - especially when on a bike of any kind (but preferably on a mountain bike going downhill fast).Please get in touch if there is anything IT related I can help you with (or if you want to talk bikes :-)