Among the many impacts COVID-19 wrought on society in 2020 was a rapid shift to remote work for millions of office workers. If you were among them, you likely had to quickly adapt a work from home space that allowed you to continue functioning with the equipment and furniture you had on hand. Some employers helped to whatever extent they could to keep their businesses going in these extraordinary circumstances, but it was a challenging transition for everyone.
There was definitely an ‘adapt and overcome’ feeling for weeks following the shutdowns. On the home front, dining tables, kitchen counters, dining room chairs, kitchen stools and folding seats were pressed into service for makeshift workstations. Laptops came out of their travel bags for daily use and webcams went quickly out of stock at electronics retailers for suddenly ubiquitous video conferences. No one knew how long they’d need to be working in their dining room or bedroom.
Now that it looks like many employers plan to keep their staffs working remotely some or all of the time, it’s time to revisit your space and setup for better health. The wellness benefits of a properly designed work from home setup include fewer aches and pains, the likelihood of fewer occupational injuries, more movement potential and greater comfort. “Designing a ‘healthy’ workspace is easier than one might think,” observes Jill Di Clementi, director of interior design at Spiezle, a New Jersey-based architectural firm with five offices along the East Coast.
The necessary components include wellness-enhancing work surface, lighting, seating, and computer equipment. There are non-equipment enhancements that support healthy home work too. These can include the room’s location in the home, as well as its décor, views, and floor space.
Milwaukee-based physical therapist Nina Geromel adds a physical element to this list: Movement. These are their pro tips to make your work from home space healthier, using wellness design enhancements.
“Sitting for prolonged periods of time is the new smoking,” Geromel declared in Wellness by Design (Tiller Press) last year. “Even if you are active, it doesn’t negate the effects that prolonged sitting can have on the body,” the physical therapist added, which include increased stroke and cardiovascular disease risks. To counter these negative health outcomes, she advises office workers to “Get up every hour, if possible.” That can include a quick bathroom trip or healthy snacks visit to the kitchen, doing squats and stretching at your desk, and planning movement-rich lunch breaks, she suggests.
Additional ways to add movement to your workday include conducting your phone calls while pacing, turning up the music between tasks and dancing to your favorite songs, doing some of your desk work standing with desk risers or an adjustable desk, or adding a treadmill desk to your space.
Noise can be challenging to someone working from home, or to those nearby. Mitigating it can be accomplished with “adding carpet and window treatments to a room, as the fabric will soften or even deaden noise,” Di Clementi suggests. If you’re not planning to remodel, a room-sized area rug can stand in for new carpet.
Drapes with sound-blocking potential can also be added to a room to help mute outside noise. This can be especially helpful in family-oriented neighborhoods with after-school traffic and front yard play.
If sound is a serious issue in a full-time work from home space, insulation can solve the problem. “Properly insulated walls will stop sound transmission from room to room,” the designer comments. She notes that privacy panels and acoustic lighting fixtures can also help. “Lastly, portable and affordable sound-masking machines will muffle noise coming from or going out of a room. These are extremely effective,” she adds.
Inadequate lighting, bad lighting and glare can all impact your health and productivity. “The most common issue tends to be headaches from eye strain. Neck pain can be prevalent too if someone is leaning forward to read the screen or documents due to poor lighting,” Geromel observes. “I see a mixture of over-lighting and under-lighting,” she says. “Bright fluorescent lights are never eye-friendly, but under-lighting can be just as bad,” the physical therapist comments. You may think of fluorescent lights as an office mainstay, but many homebuilders specify them too to meet local energy codes.
“Light bulbs are not created equal,” states Di Clementi. The designer recommends LEDs in the 4500 to 5000 Kelvin range, which is closest to natural light. “This color temperature will balance the warm and cool color tones of light output,” she explains.
“Natural lighting is also essential,” she points out, and can serve as the room’s ambient lighting during daytime hours. She recommends positioning your work surface near a window to get its benefits. A floor lamp washing across the ceiling can also provide ambient lighting, especially during evening hours or when the sun might cause too much glare.
Work from home spaces also need task lighting, Di Clementi advises. It should be located at your desk and focused on your work surface, she notes. This can be provided by an adjustable lamp or by an LED puck light mounted on a shelf or cabinet above the desk. “With any lighting, you want to avoid it being placed directly in front of your computer to avoid any glare it may cause on the screen,” the designer adds.
If you’re able to do so, consider a work surface that enhances your health and well-being. Options include treadmill desks, adjustable desks, and desk risers. All give you the option to work without sitting for hours.
Geromel has clients using treadmill desks, she says. “The feedback tends to be pretty positive. If someone tends to be fidgety during the day, this can be a great option to allow more focus. I always recommend a very slow walk so that there isn’t any risk of falling when focused on your work.”
Di Clementi offers these suggestions for treadmill desk shopping: “Be sure you are buying a quality item, as safety is a concern while multi-tasking. Make sure the speed can be adjusted in small increments; and that it has an automatic shutoff mechanism and shock absorbers. Be sure the desk surface is large enough to hold all the essentials you might need to work (computer, mouse, phone, papers).” The designer also recommends considering its wire management for safe operation (so no one is tripping over the power cord), as well as addressing noise and vibrations, and considering whether you might want a privacy feature while using it.
An adjustable sit-stand desk is an alternative to a treadmill desk. “Sit/Stand desks come in many shapes and sizes and different types of operating mechanisms, which make the cost vary,” Di Clementi observes. Desk risers on a stationary desk can achieve the same goal at a lower cost, but they don’t always have the amount of workspace needed, the designer adds.
Geromel is also bullish on sit/stand desks and risers. “People tend to feel better, get less pain throughout the day, and feel more energized,” the physical therapist shares. “It is a great way to get your movement in by switching from standing to sitting and vice-versa every hour,” but she cautions, “I never recommend standing all day; you get the most benefit from changing positions.”
Let’s face it, most office workers spend hours in desk chairs. And sitting on the wrong type can wreak havoc on your body. “The biggest complaints tend to be headaches, neck pain, and back pain,” Geromel says about poorly chosen chairs.
“The best chairs are customizable with movable arm rests (both forward, backward, in and out, and height), adjustable back support, adjustable height, and adjustable depth of the seat. No one is the exact same size and office chairs that are fully adjustable will provide the best support for your body,” she recommends.
“Air filtration is a hot topic, especially with the pandemic,” declares Di Clementi. It was a problem before then too, most acutely in homes that were tightly-built for energy efficiency. In fact, indoor air pollution can be 10 times worse than conditions outside, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
What many home-based professionals don’t realize is that computer equipment releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the room, especially when it’s new. Having the space be well-ventilated can offset the risk, (and the risk of catching many viruses too).
Di Clementi offers these suggestions for improving your work from home space’s indoor air quality: “Change heating and air unit filters frequently and use high-quality filters that have high MERV ratings. Use portable air purification units to remove allergens and contaminants in the air,” and last but definitely not least, “Open windows to let the air in when possible!”
There’s something to be said for using a snack break to get fresh air and stretch your legs, but many busy executives want to add fueling or hydrating elements to their work from home spaces too. This is particularly true if these work zones will eventually host client visits.
A small refrigerator – especially one built into the cabinetry – can hold flavor-enhanced water, fruit, and other healthy snacks. A coffee station with cappuccino maker, fridge drawer for creamer, cups and other brew gear can get your workday going faster. A fireplace and library wall can make the space feel homier.
Just because your work from home area is designed for productivity doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an enjoyable environment, especially given how many hours will be spent there. “I strongly believe that personalizing your space is critical to setting up a meaningful work-from-home environment,” Di Clementi shares.
“I like to ask my clients, ‘What makes you happy? Is it your family?’ If so, I add a favorite picture of the family. If it is a hobby such as ceramics, I advise using one of your creations to embellish your desk,” she says. The designer points out that some collectibles or personal creations can be multi-purposed for a workspace, like ceramics holding pens or clips. “These added elements will bring along fond memories to lighten the day. They help your mental wellbeing while other items like an under-desk minibike or balance board will keep you active.”
You can also paint (or light) your space to delight, calm or energize you. Reds and oranges are often invigorating but can also impart anxiety. Blues and greens tend to calm, potentially ideal for high stress jobs. Yellow can impart joy but can also make a sunny room feel hotter. There’s always chalk board paint as an option for the ultimate personalization.
Author’s Note: Geromel and Di Clementi will be sharing wellness design insights and answering related work from home questions in an August 4, (4 PM Eastern/1 PM Pacific) Wellness Wednesdays conversation on Clubhouse.
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