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
The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down offices across the country, which means most people employed in non-essential jobs are working from home. But you can't just plop down on the couch and start chipping away at your to do list.
A dedicated work space can help put you in the mindset for work, keeping you focused, productive and in a positive state of mind. It also helps avoid physical issues like neck, shoulder and back pain. Though it takes time, it's worth the effort.
Setting up a dedicated space to work in your home is important
Various lock down and social distancing measures have been in place fr some time now, so you may already have a workspace set up. If that's the case, use this guide to review your home office. If this is brand new, then it's time to start from scratch.
Your employer should supply you with equipment required to do your job. If not, low-cost essential purchases or rentals may be covered by reimbursements or tax write-offs. If you do need to grab some stuff, speak to your boss and hold onto your receipts, but don't push your luck. Your employer is unlikely to reimburse you for a new Tesla on the grounds of "an essential COVID-19 purchase."
The best option is to dedicate one room in your home to work, away from common areas. That way you can:
- Close the door to reduce distractions.
- Mentally associate that space with your job, as this makes it much easier to get work done.
A bedroom is not ideal. It's a place for rest and if you if you turn it into an office, your brain may associate it with work which could affect your sleeping patterns. If you do need to use your bedroom, avoid flopping down on the bed during business hours.
People in small/share houses should dedicate a shared portion of the house to work, like an open office plan, in an area that has limited foot traffic. Don't let children, family or housemates take over. It's a workspace during your allocated office hours and needs to stay that way.
Finally, 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.
Place your equipment on a solid surface with ample room, at a height that lets your wrists sit flat and elbows rest against your body. Your chair must provide ample back support and encourage good posture.
Sit upright and keep your feet flat on the floor or a footrest.
Don't use a chair that forces you to hunch over the keyboard, like a barstool, and don't work in bed, on the couch or on the floor. You risk damaging your neck, back shoulders and so on.
Desks and appropriate chairs can be hard to come by, as many retailers may be sold out with so many people working from home. In this case, you could:
- Request loan equipment from your office.
- Borrow spare gear from family/friends.
- Contact furniture rental/office rental companies. In this case, speak to your workplace's finance department about rental cost reimbursement. Don't just assume it's covered.
Keep regularly used items such as your phone, documents and coffee mug in reach. That way you won't be stretching across your desk all day long.
A full-size keyboard, rather than a laptop one, will help reduce any possible muscle pain.
Odds are you're working on a laptop. While portable, they're small, cramped and not suitable for a full day of work. If possible, you should set up a computer monitor and separate keyboard and mouse, so you're not hunched over a small screen and keyboard all day.
- Put your monitor on a level surface in your direct line of sight, about one arm's length away.
- Your eyes should be level with the top of the monitor, so you can look down without tilting your head or turning your neck. If you work for a company with an IT team, ask them for advice on adjusting your monitor brightness.
- If not, head to YouTube where you can find plenty of tutorials. You will get eye strain which can cause headaches if it's too bright or dark.
If you don't have access to a monitor, raise your laptop to eye level on a balanced, secure surface such as large books. Connect a keyboard and mouse and put them on the desk.
Also, remember to wipe down the space around your computer at the end of the week. 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 even break it.
This is an important safety issue, particularly if you're setting up a home office in a shared space. Looped cables are a trip hazard, while dangling cords are a magnet for curious children and pets. Poor cable management can cause injury and send your expensive equipment flying across the room.
Position your workstation near a power point and try plugging your devices into a power board on your desk, so you can limit the number of floor cables. If you need to run one or more off your desk, lay them flat on the floor, against a wall or through cardboard tubes/spare piping (provided they are clean and don't have sharp edges). This should reduce trip hazards as cables are far less likely to loop or raise up.
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.
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.
Home internet speeds rarely match office plans, unless you're using a top-tier NBN connection. But there are ways to negate a slow or spotty internet connection. Try to work offline as much as possible, by using desktop rather than cloud-based software. 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).
Speaking of the cloud, don't rely on it like you would at work. 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.
You can improve speeds by limiting the number of concurrent devices using your network. Try to disconnect all non-essential devices and ask housemates/family members to limit online entertainment during business hours.
Unfortunately, there's not much you can do if your internet service provider (ISP) is feeling the pinch because everyone is working from home these days. Heavy traffic means slower speeds which is out of your hands, but you can work around them outside peak usage time:
- 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.
Also, if you want to keep the kids entertained with movies or TV shows during the day, see if your preferred streaming service has an offline viewing option. This lets you legally download content to view within a specified timeframe (usually 48 hours) and it won't require data to stream, just to download. Try to grab content the night before, outside peak times and typical business hours.
You may be connected to home internet, but standard workplace rules and filters apply. Don't go to dodgy website or click on unfamiliar links, as your home network protection may not be as stringent as your IT department.
In terms of data safety, the company server is your primary port of call while working from home. That said, it doesn't hurt to have a few other options to hand.
- 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, or theft, occur.
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.
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.
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.
It's important to separate your work and home life like you would if you were still going to the office. Commit to a schedule, work your regular hours and take your allocated lunch break. Working from home does not mean working a 24-hour job. Anything outside your usual hours can wait, your weekends are still yours and don't check your emails after five o'clock.
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. This mentality will make the temporary 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.