Isn't it time to improve your setup for working from home? You’ve been working from home for a few months during the pandemic. You thought at first that this was just going to be a very temporary arrangement, but now it looks like WFH may be the future of work, maybe for everyone or maybe just for you.

It could be time to ask: How are your working from home arrangements suiting you? Do they fit your personal work style? Do they support your workflow? Are they compatible with your family and personal commitments? Maybe you want to reclaim the dining room table? Maybe you want to reclaim your castle? Are you ready to make some improvements?

Ask a researcher

Looking for some guidance, I spoke to Kylie Roth, VP Workplace Research at Knoll, about changing home workspaces for the better. Roth says, “We do a lot of research with our clients to really understand their work better. Our research started early in the work environment, now more and more it’s moving into the home office environment. That area really hasn’t been as focused on ergonomics as much as we have in corporate environments. People haven’t traditionally sat in dining room chairs for eight hours a day. Now that they’re spending more time at home, people are really understanding the importance of health and wellness. They’re starting to feel the effects after six months of daily or twice-daily teleconferencing or not working in a proper environment.”

Roth goes on: “At the beginning of the pandemic, many people were using their dining room tables or adapting whatever they had because it felt temporary. Now I think it’s an important time to come back and set up an environment that’s dedicated. It’s moving longer-term and we don’t necessarily see an end in sight. If you don’t have an opportunity to set up a dedicated space, at least set up so you’re working ergonomically correctly as much as possible.”

Details make a difference: Start where you sit

I asked Roth for some details that will make a difference to your productivity and effectiveness. Specifically, I asked her about picking the basics: a place to sit that works for you, a work surface that works for you, and lighting that makes everything better.

Bill Brandon: Kylie, where should we start in resetting our working-from-home environment?

Kylie Roth: The number one thing is to start with a good chair. It’s typically the thing that’s closest to your body. You’re literally touching it sometimes for eight hours a day. Stick with an ergonomic seating product. It can really reduce your chances of muscle strain.

We found through our research that people will buy an ergonomic chair, but then they'll never adjust it properly. So now many of our products have more intuitive ergonomic adjustments that test body weights and other factors so that's built into the characteristics of the chair.

BB: Adjusting ergonomically—what are the key things in the adjustments that people don't think about? What kind of adjustments are involved with a chair?

KR: For example, the ability to slide back and forth, because we're all different heights. And the chair has a seat depth to it, so that can help people with longer legs or shorter legs to have a proper seating alignment that allows the back to go straight up and down so you sit more ergonomically correct. We find that most people don't necessarily sit in a chair the way you're supposed to ergonomically: looking forwards, perfectly straight. People like to fidget and move around.

One of our most popular chairs allows you to sit turned 270 degrees because we find that people like to sit on their side, they like to sit on their legs. A lot of chairs will have something like a plastic piece that goes all the way around the seat of the chair. And if you're a leg sitter, you sit on your legs and that could kind of cut off your circulation all day long. If you have a seat that has more of a softer edge to it, that allows someone who likes to sit on their leg to prop or move around, it doesn't cut your circulation off because of that softer edge.

Other things to consider when you're looking at a chair—fixed chairs don't allow you to adjust them up or down. We've all been to a restaurant and sat on a bar stool where it didn't have foot support and you felt like you were falling off the bar chair the entire night and it was just really uncomfortable. So some people will sit on their leg because their feet don't hit the floor. If you have the ability to adjust the chair up or down and you can properly put your feet on the floor, then you feel just a little more grounded and solid in your work and not fidgeting or moving around as much.

BB: What about foot rests?

KR: People do use them. We have a company called Foley that has them. I think that's another option to allow you to properly put your feet on the floor. But one of the reasons we've seen people maybe not use them as much is that people move around quite a bit. They sit up and prop themselves in their own way on their chair, but if you're a person that can just sit there, I think it is a really good option to have a foot rest.

BB: Is it better to have a chair with or without arms and if you have one with, what are you looking for?

KR: We typically have two arms on a chair. It really kind of depends on how you sit in it. The one I have has two arms. It can be based on your size, obviously, and multiple people can use a chair. I’m more of a narrow frame, so if you are like that it's sometimes nice to have one that allows you to move the arms in and out. Many chairs are in a fixed width, but they may be adjustable to some extent so they accommodate more people. If you happen to have more of a narrow frame, a chair that can allow those arms to come in a little bit so that you actually have a place to rest your elbows is really good as well. Otherwise, they may not have the proper place for you to put your arms so they're a little too wide, or you're spreading your arms all day long. And then if they adjust up and down, which is important, sometimes if they’re fixed arm, what you find is, they're fixed and that's exactly where it hits the table in front of you. So you can't adjust it to fit underneath the table. If you’re able to adjust up and down, then you can properly be able to pull yourself up and get to the table as well. If the arms are up in front of you, they block you from being able to actually get close enough and you're kind of arm stretched out all day long.

Work surfaces that move with your day

BB: While we’re talking about vertical adjustments, what about adjustable height desks?

KR: We typically recommend them mostly for the ability to have different options in the way that people work. I mean, we find that it's not necessarily that sitting or standing is good, it's just that people need options and staying one way all day is never a good thing. So if you can have the ability to adjust the desk up and down, you can vary your posture and shift your weight in different areas throughout the day. Having different options takes pressure off different points of your body. If you're sitting all day long or you’re not moving, you're putting pressure on the same points. If you stand up, you're changing the points where you're putting pressure. It allows you to shift your weight and ease pains that may be there if you put those pressures on the same points all day long.

BB: Are most of the adjustable desks motorized? Or do you need to lift them up manually?

KR: It really just depends on how often you adjust them up and down. You know, we have motorized, we also have hand-adjustable desks that are pneumatic. We find that in corporate settings, motorized is better because you can adjust those settings if multiple people use a desk and it can quickly go up and down. But maybe in home office use motorized isn't necessary. It really just depends on if you want ease and the usability or if cost is a concern. A non-motorized or pneumatic option can potentially save you the cost.

Put some light on the subject

BB: What about lighting? What are some things that people need to consider when they're thinking about lighting when they're working from home?

KR: One of the things we talk a lot about is having a task light because sometimes the overhead light can either be too dark or too bright. So having a task light can allow you to fine tune the lighting. Also especially with more people being online, a task light can help minimize glare that you may have from overhead lighting that can create strain eyestrain and headaches. But if you have a task light, you can adjust it more properly. Task lights oftentimes have different settings for the brightness level. A lot of times overhead lights don't have that. Some have dimmers, others don't. But the task light usually has those capabilities.

The other thing is, especially with so much time on Zoom, you know, it's important to avoid glare because if you want to see someone on Zoom, GoToMeeting, all those conference apps, it's important to have the light at the side of the computer rather than directly in front of it or behind it. That gives the best lighting level on someone's face. If we are doing these virtual meetings, it's important to see each other clearly because we're not seeing each other physically. So it's really important to place your lights in the proper area to best light your face.

Your smiling face and the pain in your neck

BB: The other thing that I see a lot on Zoom conferences that really bothers me is that people don't think about where their camera is with respect to their face. It sounds funny to say it, but it’s the “up the nose” shot or the “down the nose” shot. Or people that are so close to the camera that their face completely fills the monitors of the people on the other side of the conversation. How do you address that?

KR: It’s about positioning your screen correctly. The camera fits into that, but when we talk about positioning your screen, it’s to reduce eyestrain. Your screen is at least 20 to 30 inches in front of your face, which is typically an arm's length. That decreases neck strain, and if it is too close to your face, you're kind of staring down into the camera. That can give you that nose shot, but it's also putting strain on the back of your neck and you know your screen needs to be centered in front of you. If it's too far away, your eyes are really straining. So that kind of optimal is between 20 to 30 inches from your face. That tries to give your neck the best kind of balance.

The next thing we would suggest is to really consider a monitor arm. Many monitors or laptop screens, you know, when you put your computer right on your desk, you're still kind of looking down, even if you have a proper distance. But if you get a monitor arm, it can get everything off of the table a little bit. If you have your camera on top of the monitor or at the top of a laptop display, it can give you more of an eye level so you're directly looking at someone instead of up or down, which I think is important right now as we get beyond the presence we have on Zoom. It's directly in front of you to give you the most natural look with people..

We also know to add a second monitor or display to increase productivity and for the environment to dramatically lower the need to print. You have another screen to look at so you can read multiple documents at once.

Showing your work and getting it out of your way

BB: We've talked about the desk, the chair, and the lighting. What are other things that may need to be included when you are working from home? A mobile cart, a small table, a whiteboard?

KR: Some of it depends on the type of work that you do and how much you're storing. So if you need to store a lot of materials or you know, some professions require you to lock things up. If you're a lawyer and you are working from home, or maybe some government employees have to have storage that has locks on it because of different requirements. So that's one thing.

I normally think of that question as “file or pile.” Those are your choices. Some people are file people and some people are pile people and the two just don't really seem to crossover very easily. For myself, I'm typically a “pile-er”. So if I put something in a file cabinet, I might just as well just take it and throw it away because I'm probably never going to find it. What I like to have is more like cubbies, mobile carts, things like that, that I can easily move in and out of my workspace. That way I can pile all the things that I'm working on and then move those piles offsite or my basement if you will. When I'm done with them I might still need to be able to go back and find them if I want them. Like for taxes, okay, here's my files, I'm done with them. I'll keep them for seven years, and then at some point I'll discard them but I don't need them in my active workspace. But I think a lot of people especially working from home may not need those in that active workspace especially if they're trying to do a makeshift area where, you know, they may not have an entire room dedicated to an office.

One thing we do a lot with is like display boards or whiteboards, especially with so much being online, it's nice to have a physical reminder of schedules or appointments. If you're working at home, a partner or spouse or child could, if you're on the phone, instead of asking you a question, they quickly come in if they need to check a schedule. It's sometimes nice to have those tactile, physical things, and a place to display them within your workspace. It keeps everyone on schedule, especially as we move kind of more digital. I've been on Zoom calls with friends and colleagues here, and they actually had a whiteboard and they brought it as close up to the camera as possible so everyone could see their sketch or their diagram or schedule. The whiteboard is one way to work collaboratively. The act of literally putting tasks on and crossing them off feels somewhat rewarding in an environment that feels pretty stagnant. Yeah. I mean, that's more of the psychology of things, not necessarily the setup, but I find that very helpful.