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How to make your home office a more pleasant place to work

A humane office for one

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Illustration by Samar Haddad / The Verge

This pandemic has more people working from home than ever before, but it’s not all lollipops and daffodils. While there may have been some early excitement about not commuting or being breathed on by Chet the Xerox Tech, an actual home office can be downright depressing and / or uncomfortable. I should know.

As someone who has freelanced for the great majority of the last decade, I’ve worked from home nearly that whole time — even when home was a camper van for more than five of those years. Yes, that was a tight space for a home office, but those constraints led me to refine my WFH game to keep my body healthy and my mind at least partially sane. Here are some of the tips (and items) that made the biggest difference for me.

Desk setup

If you only do one thing on this list, make sure your desk and chair are comfortable. That’s broad advice, but it kind of has to be, because each body is different. What you find comfortable might be a medieval torture device to me. Case in point: I once bought a desk online that had rave reviews, but it turns out that if my chair is set to the proper height, the front of the desk digs into my thighs. Not ideal! So, if at all possible, try to sit at a desk before you buy it. You might also consider a standing desk which increases the number of positions you can work from. Personally, I couldn’t find one that worked with the rest of my setup (I’m a sucker for lots of drawers).

I’d argue that the chair is even more important than the desk. You’re going to want something ergonomic and with adjustable lumbar (lower back) support. Working hunched over can destroy your body, and your shoulders, your back, and your neck will all suffer. Chairs can cost a pretty penny, but they don’t have to. Craigslist, OfferUp, Nextdoor, and similar sites can be treasure troves for used office chairs. I read good things about the Herman Miller Aeron, so I went and tried it out in a store, then I found a gently used one on Craigslist for about 30 percent of the cost of a new one. You might also look into gaming chairs, as they are built for long periods of sitting. Just make sure it will fit with your desk.

Herman Miller Aeron chair
Herman Miller Aeron chair
Photo: Herman Miller

Last for this section, let’s talk about what goes on top of your desk. Depending on the line of work you’re in, a second screen can be a real game-changer, so consider an extra monitor for your desktop or laptop. It allows for vastly easier multi-tasking with much less clicking around. If you use a laptop, it might be especially revelatory. Personally, I recently switched back to a desktop setup (a Dell tower with an Intel Core i7, an Nvidia RTX 3070 and 32GB of RAM, which has been great for photo and video editing as well as VR gaming breaks), and instead of two monitors, I went with one big one which I can divide into halves or quadrants. I chose the Dell UltraSharp 32 4K monitor, and I’m in love with it. If you don’t photo or video edit, you may not need something that high-end. The point is to give yourself more space to work.

Light

There are a bunch of different studies that explore how different shades of light can impact our minds and bodies. They could affect everything from sleep quality, to alertness, to mood, to our productivity at work. My best advice is to set up your office near a big window that gets decent light, but I know that isn’t always possible. The next best thing, in my view, is a set of color-changing lights.

Personally, I’ve been using Philips Hue for years, and I even set them up inside my van, back when that was my home. Philips spent a lot of time working on its light recipes, and the system comes pre-programmed with “Energize” and “Concentrate” settings that I genuinely find useful. Personally, I use Energize when I first wake up, then Concentrate (which is slightly warmer) for the bulk of my workday. When I’m ready to start winding down I’ll switch it over to the Reading setting, which I find warm and relaxing. There are a lot of other brands of color-changing lights out there, and if they don’t have presets like those I mentioned, you can experiment with different shades of light (bluer for more alertness, redder for relaxing, or something like that). It’s a small thing, but it really makes a huge difference in the way your home office feels.

Plants and animals

There is something about surrounding yourself with living things that makes your home office feel more natural and less like a sterile shoebox. Having a few houseplants can really change the feel of the whole room, and they can even make the air slightly fresher. I would recommend putting them near your desk, but also close enough to a window so they get plenty of light. If that’s an issue, you can get a hydroponic garden — for example, I recently got the small Rise Garden. I am bad with plants, but it enabled me to grow lots of fresh herbs which made my apartment smell amazing. If that feels excessive (or expensive) then you can just start with this cool-looking snake plant that we’re kind of obsessed with (it’s $35).

As far as animals, I know a lot of people who adopted pandemic puppies and kittens. That’s cool, and maybe that’s a great fit for your life, but it definitely wasn’t for mine. So, I got a hummingbird feeder called the HummZinger.

A simple hummingbird feeder with several birds drinking at the flower-shaped holes.
The HummZinger.
Image: Aspects

I got this one because it is simple, yet still has anti-ant and anti-fly protection. I am now obsessed. I can see the feeder from my desk, and whenever one of those little guys shows up, I stop what I’m doing and just watch. On days when I’m frying my eyeballs on my computer screen, it really helps me feel like I’m still a part of the natural cycle. You can get a regular bird feeder if you like, but I wasn’t interested in constantly cleaning bird poop off of my little outdoor space, and hummingbirds are nice and tidy.

Take care of your body

Eliminating your commute may actually have some negative impacts on your body, especially if your commute involved some amount of walking or biking. These days you could conceivably not leave your home for days on end, and being that sedentary really isn’t good for you. Get up and move, and get your heart pumping. You don’t need a fancy home gym. Get a yoga mat and watch some YouTube workouts that require only your body weight. Force yourself to go for walks, even when you don’t wanna. Stretch!

I also tend to get a fair amount of knots in my shoulders (and in my legs if I actually go running). For those I really like the Hypervolt 2 massager. It is incredibly powerful, highly portable, and it comes with five different attachments for different stubborn muscles. Coming in at just under $300, it isn’t cheap, but it’s been worth it to me. The other thing I’m currently obsessed with is this pair of slippers from LL Bean. They’re just so warm and comfy I pretty much work in them all day, and then lounge in them the rest of the evening.

Hypervolt 2 massager
The Hypervolt 2 massager
Photo: Hyperice

Snacks and meals

This is one of the trickiest items. Suddenly you have unfettered access to your fridge and snack cabinets, and it can be very tempting to just graze all day. So, what do you do? Here’s the strategy that has worked better for me than anything else: Fill your kitchen with healthy foods, and only healthy foods. Yep, really. If I wander into my kitchen, wanting a snack, and there are chips there, I’m going to eat those chips. But if I go there and the only snackable foods are carrots and sugar snaps, then that’s what I’m going to eat. Basically, I have to use my tendency toward slothfulness against my tendency for gluttony, and it really works!

Beyond the superficial reasons for eating healthier, doing so will lead to better, more sustainable energy levels, as opposed to spikes and crashes. Not only can I subjectively feel the difference, but when I recently reviewed this continuous glucose monitoring system I was able to get hard data to back it up. When your kitchen is full of tasty but highly-processed foods, you have to have the willpower to make the healthy decision every time you want a snack. It’s easier to just be strong once, at the grocery store, and then you don’t have to make those tough decisions a dozen times a day in your own home.

Calling it a day

You’ve got to know when it’s time to quit, and then you need to step away. This used to be a more delineated status for a lot of us: If you were at the office you were working, and if you weren’t at the office then it was your personal time. Working from home makes those lines a lot blurrier. It can easily feel like work never stops or that you always have to be reachable. Set some limits for yourself for your own mental health. Get your work done, and when office hours are over, get up, and walk away from your computer for a while. You’ll be happy you did, and you’ll come back to your “office” tomorrow more refreshed and ready to go.