The past few months of working from dining tables, couches and beds have taken their toll on novice telecommuters. With many of us settling in for the long haul — told to stay home until at least Labor Day or, like some Facebook and Twitter workers, permanently — the makeshift office hacks of the coronavirus shutdown are getting old. America’s backs and necks are suffering.
Realizing this is not as “temporary” a situation as you thought, you might be ready to trade in your metal folding chair for an ergonomic model or treat yourself to a set of new candy-colored Sharpies. Maybe you want to make the spot where you spend your days (and maybe nights) more welcoming and videoconference-friendly. Maybe your employer is even offering a stipend for workers in need of home office improvements.
Designer Young Huh started the pandemic in her Scarsdale, N.Y., home sharing side-by-side desks in a small office with her husband, as their two kids worked in their bedrooms. But her husband’s conference calls were disturbing her concentration. “He makes too much noise. We needed him contained,” she said. She moved to the dining room to work. A butler’s pantry and a bar cart now organize her papers. And she’s added a few frills. “It’s still important to make your workspace look pretty. I put my pens in pretty canisters and put my ear buds in a silver gravy boat,” Huh says.
Many households were unprepared for the entire family’s transition to working from home. “In some homes, there needed to be four or five setups,” says Jeff Miller, vice president of design for Poppin, a line of furniture and desk accessories known for its color and modern vibe. As for Miller’s own New York apartment setup: “I sequestered myself in an extra-small bedroom with just an Eames Aluminum Group chair and a music stand for my laptop,” he says, great for videoconference calls. After the third week, his back hurt. He picked up two Poppin Series A desks, which he arranged next to each other to create two seating areas, which he could share with his wife, who is also working from home, or their 12-year-old son.
When the pandemic hit, designer Loi Thai, of Tone on Tone, had already converted the garage a few steps from his 1928 home in Silver Spring, Md., into a cottagey office. “Since I’m spending so much time here now, I want to be surrounded by things that I love,” Thai says. Instead of standard desk accessories, he uses galvanized garden pots and trays to hold pens and note pads. In lieu of a boring office task lamp, he bought a fun ceramic lamp base with a silvery glaze and a navy ikat-print paper shade from World Market.
Keeping it all together is hard, but organized living beats chaos. Beth Penn, a Los Angeles professional organizer and owner of Bneato Bar, has heard from a number of clients looking for help. “I have gotten calls to talk about productivity. My clients say they aren’t getting as much done as they would like since they are home with all these distractions they are not used to,” Penn says.
Looking for an upgrade of your own? We’ve consulted with design pros who shared some of their home office decorating secrets.
You can’t work in bed forever; you need a decent chair that will support your back. But you don’t have to get a hulking black monster on wheels that takes up half your room. The best models are ergonomic and have adjustability in height, lumbar support and arm rests. Choose something that fits with your desk and room, but make sure it’s comfortable.
Penn is a fan of West Elm’s two-toned upholstered office chair ($649). It’s pretty, she says, and keeps your home looking like a home. It’s also cushioned and adjustable for comfort.
Thai picked a streamlined Graham leather desk chair from Crate & Barrel ($349) that has a stylish look and small footprint. “I sit in it all day, so I wanted something comfortable, but not a bulky model,” he says. He took the arms off so it can slide under his desk.
The industry standard for a good work desk height is 29 inches based on an average person’s height, Miller says; your table and dining surfaces may not match up to that.
Don’t make your desk an afterthought, says Tali Roth, a New York designer who hails from Australia. “Look for something you admire when you walk past it and that you love to use.” She prefers vintage desks, interesting console tables or credenzas, although you should make sure the dimensions work for your computer setup. She might put chairs behind and in front of a desk, “so if your husband or kid wants to come talk to you, you can use it also in a conversational way,” she says. One of her recent finds is the mid-century-inspired Carmel desk from Burke Decor ($1,000–$1,150), which has three drawers and interior shelving.
For a small footprint desk with a lot of style, Huh suggests the West Elm mid-century mini secretary ($399), which even has a flip-down door. Roth says the ash and birch Ikea Lisabo desk ($149) makes for a nice space-saving desk that is sized perfectly for a laptop.
You’ll want good lighting to prevent eyestrain – and so you’ll look fabulous on Zoom calls. If you’re still using a cheap plastic lamp that you picked up at a drugstore years ago (guilty as charged), maybe it’s time for an upgrade.
“If you don’t have natural light or overhead light, you’ll need a good task light,” Roth says. She looks for lamps that add shape and texture. One of her favorites is the classic adjustable task table lamp from RH ($249) because of its clean lines and flexibility. The dimmable Design Within Reach Matin table lamp ($225) has a pleated cotton shade that comes in several colors, including lavender and yellow.
Thai prefers to use traditional table lamps at desks and likes the look of mercury glass, which adds a bit of sparkle.
Storage and organization
You need a place to stash your work stuff, Roth says. “Otherwise, it ends up becoming a dumping ground,” and messy surfaces covered with work papers can make you anxious. She’s a fan of trays to corral papers, such as the dimpled glass Cloud Desk Tray from Urban Outfitters ($24–$39). Or get a small rolling file cabinet. “That way, you can pack it up and transition away from your work day by rolling it into a closet or under a desk,” she says. One of her picks is the Madera rolling wood cabinet from Article ($449).
Papers and utensils need places to land. Penn says you can’t beat a good-looking magazine organizer to quickly stash things away. Their wide mouths can hold lots of papers and notebooks, and they come in many textures and colors. She’s partial to the blush-color Poppin magazine file box ($17).
If you don’t have space for a new bookcase, Huh says to consider floating shelves. A bar cart can also take on a new role in quarantine: She bought herself an antique American regency bar at auction to put in the dining room for storing work supplies, such as cups for drawing markers, a scale ruler, samples and papers, as well as some flowers to cheer her up “and make a nice backdrop for Zoom calls.”
The two levels in most bar carts are space-efficient, and she suggests looking for one at Ballard Designs or Wisteria. Another one of her picks is the Peekaboo acrylic rolling two-shelf cart from CB2 ($349).
And Penn says there is no reason a kitchen cabinet shelf or kitchen drawer can’t be commandeered for work papers, especially if you are working nearby.
Thai prefers a homey office look that reflects his interests, such as growing flowers and caring for topiaries. “I spend so much time in there; I didn’t want it to look sterile,” he says. He added his art books and some English pottery. He is fond of bulletin boards — such as Pottery Barn’s linen pinboard ($149–$199) — as idea generators. His galvanized iron trash can is an extra-large Habit and Form garden pot from Terrain ($58).
He snips items from his garden or a house plant to brighten the office and add something green, even if it’s just a single palm leaf. He prefers pottery vases — such as Crate & Barrel’s Alya white speckled vase ($34.95) — instead of clear glass. “If you don’t happen to have access to flowers, the pottery vases, even empty, are like sculptures and still look pretty,” he says.
Well-considered ergonomics are essential for working from home. “A dining chair or even a well-upholstered side chair is only meant to provide comfort for a couple hours,” Miller says, and is not contoured to your body in a posture appropriate for working in front of a computer screen all day. A good ergonomic seat that allows independent movement of the backrest and seat is important. Feet should be flat on the floor, and elbows should be relaxed upon the desk surface.
Monitor height is another consideration, Miller says, to keep the viewing angle at about 15 degrees to 20 degrees below eye level. If you have a separate monitor, you can get an adjustable or fixed-height monitor stand or riser. For laptops, a riser can reduce slouching (Poppin sells a basic version for $40) and makes for a better view of you on videoconferences.
Penn says she takes breaks at home and moves around from space to space so she doesn’t get bored or stiff. Make sure your desk and chair work well together for your height, and if you need to replace something, she says, you don’t have to buy new; try your local Buy Nothing Group, Nextdoor or Craigslist.