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How to set up a home office

Read our step by step guide to getting all the tech together so you can comfortably work from home.

woman_working_from_home_wearing_bluetooth_headset
Last updated: 25 March 2020

Need to know

  • It's important to treat your home office as a dedicated work space – don't just come home and start typing on the sofa
  • The right measures can protect your physical and mental wellbeing, and that of anyone else who may be confined indoors with you
  • If you have to buy things with your own money, keep the receipts – you may be able to claim the money back through your employer and/or as a tax write-off

If you have an office job, odds are you've been told to work from home for the foreseeable future, to help stem the spread of COVID-19. This may be a new concept, so it's worth putting a plan in place, as there's a bit more to it than grabbing a laptop and getting in your comfy pants.

Setting up a dedicated space to work in your home is important. Not only does it help put you in the mindset for work, the right measures can protect your physical and mental wellbeing, as well as those who may be confined indoors with you. Though it takes time, it's worth the effort.

Setting up a dedicated space to work in your home is important

Your office should supply you with the necessary equipment. We're not encouraging you to go out and buy a bunch of new equipment, but we have included some low-cost essential buys. If you do need to grab some stuff, speak to your boss and hold onto your receipts. You may be eligible for reimbursement or write-offs at tax time.

That said, your employer is unlikely to reimburse you for a new Tesla on the grounds of "an essential COVID-19 purchase." Don't push your luck.

Getting started – pick your spot

Choose a spot that isn't in a common area of your house/apartment and turn it into a dedicated workspace. If this isn't possible, find a space you can use during business hours without having to move around.

Your home office needs to be on a solid surface, with an upright chair that provides plenty of support. A desk is ideal, but a counter or table will work too provided you can dedicate the space to work. Don't let children, family, housemates, etc, take over. It's a workspace from nine to five and needs to stay that way.

Work in a well-lit environment to reduce eye strain. Try to find a spot with limited glare on the screen, away from large windows that get a lot of direct sunlight. Also, try to get your hands on a dedicated computer chair.

Setting up your space

You're probably working from home on a laptop. Ideally, you should set up a computer monitor and separate keyboard and mouse, so you're not hunched over a small screen and keyboard.

  • Put your monitor on a level surface in your direct line of sight. You don't want to turn your neck for hours to look at it.
  • Adjust distance from your eyes based on comfort and monitor size.
  • Your eyes should be level with the top of the monitor, so you can look down without tilting your head.
  • Ask your IT team for advice on adjusting your monitor brightness. If it's too dark or bright, you will get eye strain.

If you don't have an external monitor, and your work hasn't provided one for you, you can still use a laptop. Raise the top to eye level, using books or something similar, then make sure it is balanced and secure.

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A full-size keyboard, rather than a laptop one, will help reduce any possible muscle pain.

If your employer won't supply a keyboard and mouse (separate from your laptop), we suggest buying a low-cost bundle. This is the only necessary expense in our guide. Your hands, arms and wrists will thank you. Remember to move your mouse using your arm from the elbow, rather than your wrist

Finally, keep your equipment well ventilated. Most of us don't have a docking station at home, but you can move your computer out of the corner and prop the edges up on a couple of books to maintain air flow.

Do not:

  • Work in bed or on the sofa. You will damage your neck and back.
  • Sit in anything but a chair (no stools!).
  • Hunch over or look down at your computer.

How to manage your computer cables

This is an important safety issue, particularly if you're setting up a home office in a shared space.

  • Position your workstation near a power outlet if possible. That way you don't need to run cables across the floor.
  • If this isn't an option, try to run your power leads in corners, against surfaces. Lay them flat against the floor/wall, otherwise they will become a trip hazard (which can also send your gear flying). You can use cardboard tubes or pipes too, provided they are clean and without sharp edges.
  • Get an extension lead and a powerboard. Run them to your work space and plug in equipment on your desk. That way, you only need to run a single cable along the floor rather than one for your computer, monitor, phone charger, etc.
  • Make sure cables for other devices are bundled up safely on your desk. Dangling cords are a magnet for curious children and pets.

Phone calls and video conferencing

Just because you're in lockdown doesn't mean your office can't see your face. Video calls are replacing meetings during this time, so keep these tips in mind:

  • Once the video call starts, you're basically back at work so maintain the same standards.
  • Don't wear anything you wouldn't wear to work.
  • Put a shirt on. Also pants.
  • Tidy up the area around and behind you. You don't want co-workers taking a peek into your private life, do you?

That said, you can turn off the camera if you prefer to stick to voice chat.

If you have a pet, why not bring them to the video call? Your colleagues will love you and it's the kind of wholesome content that can alleviate stress in these trying times.

Constant calls

Your office should provide a headset if your job keeps you on the phone all day. Holding it to your arm or cradling it on your shoulder will put your muscles in a world of hurt. If a headset isn't available:

  • Check your headphones. A lot of corded and Bluetooth wireless models have inbuilt microphones for taking calls.
  • Most smartphones come with a pair of headphones. They're probably kicking around your house if you own an Android or iOS device.
  • You can pick up a low-end pair that will do the job for well under $100.

Alternatively, you can temporarily liberate a headset from any gamers in your house. Just remember to sterilise the microphone.

We're in this together

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, CHOICE will be here to help. We'll be working with you to stand up for consumer rights, calling out bad business practice via our investigative journalism, and providing regular expert advice and resources.

As a nonprofit organisation, we depend on your support. If you can, please consider making a donation so we can do even more in future.

Dealing with home internet

Some of us are lucky enough to have a solid internet connection at home. If this is you, feel free to skip this section. If you're stuck with a slow or spotty network, there are ways to work around it.

  • Ask housemates and family to limit non-essential network usage during business hours. Keep the kids off Netflix until 5pm.
  • Try to work offline, rather than in the cloud. You can find plenty of free, legal software to use offline, such as Open Office (though you will need to get online at some point to download them).
  • Organise phone meetings if possible, if your network can't handle video conferencing.

Don't rely on the cloud if your network is prone to dropping out. You may lose hours of work if you're working on a server. We suggest working offline on your desktop before moving your content to the cloud/office network.

Working around peak time

Peak time refers to periods when internet connections experience heavy traffic due to increased loads, which can slow things down. Although internet service providers will be under extra pressure now that everyone is working from home, standard peak times still exist.

  • Breakfast and 6-9pm are typical peak times, as many homes are accessing online entertainment such as Netflix.
  • Many people are likely to stream videos during their lunch break while working from home, so midday to 2pm will probably become peak time as well.

If your network speeds aren't up to scratch, try to schedule work around these peak times.

  • Request video calls before midday, or after 2pm.
  • Upload content around these hours, especially if you're dealing with a lot of data.
  • Leave your computer to upload very large amounts of data (eg, digital media) overnight.

Protecting your privacy (and data)

You may be connected to home internet, but standard workplace rules and filters apply.

  • Don't follow dodgy links or visit questionable websites.
  • Buy a temporary VPN subscription to protect your digital footprint.

Backing up your data

Chances are your company already has a backup storage system in place. This is your primary port of call while working from home. That said, it doesn't hurt to have a few other options to hand.

  • Move your documents into secure cloud storage at least once a day.
  • External hard drives are also good, and they cost considerably less.

Spreading your data across three locations during any lockdown will almost guarantee that nothing is lost should another disaster occur.

Printing at home

Companies should accommodate paperless workflow with staff working from home. But now is as good a time as any to pick up a new printer if you absolutely need to make physical copies.

Try to grab a multifunction printer. That way you also have a scanner to hand just in case. Otherwise, hold onto all your documents and make one essential trip to print them off at somewhere like Officeworks. This is a last resort that should only be used if absolutely essential.

Non-essential equipment and upgrades

You don't need to run out and spend thousands of dollars to improve your home office. But it's worth you looking into:

  • Noise cancelling headphones, to silence the sound of youth if schools close.
  • A new Bluetooth speaker, if you prefer to blast your tunes (fine now that you're out of the office).
  • Smart bulbs for your desk lamp/ceiling lights. They're fun, fancy and you can adjust brightness to optimal levels to reduce eye strain.
  • A mesh network can help boost and spread your wireless network around the house, like a Wi-Fi relay system.

Keeping your workspace clean

Now that your fancy new home office is ready to go, you can't let it get to the state of your desk at work. Keeping it clean and organised is beneficial for a number of reasons:

  • You'll help stop the spread of COVID-19, and similar viruses.
  • A workspace cleared of clutter can improve productivity.
  • Dust can affect respiratory health, not just yours, but your equipment's too.
  • Crumbs and spills will attract insects. Wipe up any spills to stop an infestation.
  • Wipe down the space around your computer. Vents love to suck in dust and block air flow. This will cause the computer to run hot, which can damage components, reduce performance and potentially break it.

Separating work and home

These temporary measures mean that the line between your office and house is rather blurry right now. That's why it's important to set boundaries.

  • Keep your workstation and chill spaces separate. Don't start watching Netflix in your home office, or you'll find it hard to commit to working. Similarly, don't do work on the sofa – that's where you go to relax.
  • You may have your work equipment at home, but that doesn't mean you're working a 24-hour job (see next point).
  • Stick to a strict nine-to-five routine (or equivalent) and shut down your computer at the end of the day.
  • If you use the same computer for entertainment, don't check your emails.

The trick to getting through this is to treat your home office as a dedicated work space. Remember, you're at work from 9am, it just happens to be in a new location. That mentality will make the transition much easier, and you'll be back to slumming it in a traffic jam or on public transport at 6am before you know it.

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