This week, many Australians are opting, or being ordered, to work from home as businesses try to stymie the spread of coronavirus.
It is unclear how long the virtual workplace will be the new reality, but without the proper set-up, it can bring real physical and psychological challenges. We explain how to overcome some of them.
Ergonomic health at home
Associate Professor Jodi Oakman, who heads La Trobe University’s Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors, says we can prevent neck and back pain from bad posture and a poor work set-up at home by piling boxes or books on a table.
“Put your laptop so it’s nice and high on the table, using whatever you’ve got,” Oakman says, “and then using a separate keyboard and mouse is really important.”
This is because the laptop’s keyboard and mouse will be too high if the computer is elevated to eye-line.
“With a separate keyboard and mouse, you can be more flexible with where your screen is,” she says. “The other thing you can do is alternate between sitting and standing if you’re going to be stuck at home for a while.”
Again, Oakman suggests using boxes or books to create a make-shift standing arrangement on a bench or high desk.
She also encourages people to get up every 20 minutes or so to move and stretch their legs.
“You shouldn’t stand all day, nor should you sit all day. Doing a mix of each is important,” she said. “Our bodies are not designed to be stuck in one position for long periods of time, so moving is important.”
Psychological health at home
Psychologist Meredith Fuller specialises in professional coaching, and she says while some people thrive from working at home, many struggle.
“Some people feel a little bit lost when they don’t have all the normal triggers and rituals of the workplace,” Fuller says. “They will have to work a lot harder to achieve their goals and not fritter away the time. It’s so easy to say ‘I’ll get to it later, I’ll just put the washing on’.”
Phone or video meetings to connect with co-workers can create a sense of structure and help to prevent feelings of isolation.
“Schedule it in,” she suggests. “Otherwise you may have many starts but few finishes. Often it’s those little things you do with others that mean you sign off on the work.”
Having the radio on to create a background hum can also help those used to office buzz, she says, and ensuring you connect with someone after work can reduce loneliness.
“Schedule something to contrast with being alone all day working,” Fuller says. “You might not be able to go to the bar for an after-work drink, but, instead have a fantastic get-together with your neighbour, your friend, your partner. That’s a very fulfilling experience… If you’ve got a dog, a cat, a fish, it’s OK to talk to them too.”
Productivity at home
It’s important to designate a workspace and consider your optimal working rhythm.
“When do you do your best work?” Fuller says. “Schedule your most difficult work for then. When you’re working in a place with lots of people, they can help get you through the slumps, but they’re not going to be there so you have to be much more aware of your own rhythms.”
Oakman and Fuller both suggest chunking tasks into allotted spaces of time to maximise efficiency and minimise blurring of the boundaries between professional and personal lives at the end of the day.
“It’s a good idea to have little lists with tick-offs,” Fuller says, adding that wearing work clothes can help to create separation between work and home.
“It’s important to think about how you’re going to structure your day,” Oakman says.
This includes plotting out snack breaks and making time to be active to replace incidental exercise from coffee breaks and public transport.
At the end of the day, she recommends tidying the space, reflecting on what did and did not work, and having some ritual to say that ‘the day is over’.
“You have to figure out your own way and if you review it at the end of the day and think it wasn’t very productive, tweak it.”