For many, a “hybrid model,” with some time spent working remotely and some time in the office, might be the best of both worlds. As study from last May found that 55% of workers would prefer a hybrid model. Company leaders also expect it to become the norm, with 80% believing that many workers will stay remote at least one day a week, even after the end of the pandemic.
Whether you expect you’ll stay fully remote, or you will transition to a hybrid model, one thing is for sure, you’re probably going to get some more use out of that home office.
So, don’t you think it might be time to spruce it up a little bit? After all, you owe it to yourself, especially after a hard year of remote work, to treat yourself to some quality-of-life and quality-of-work upgrades
Your company may even treat you; during the beginning of the pandemic, 1 in 5 companies in the U.S. were helping pay for their staff’s home-office needs, with some tech companies offering up to a $1000 stipend. If your company hasn’t caught up to this trend, be patient—with so many workers now fully remote, it is likely to become the norm.
So whether you’re hoping to boost your productivity, or just make your day at the “office” a little more pleasant, here are five ways to improve your home office experience.
1.) Upgrade your lighting
I think that lighting is often one of the most overlooked things about one’s home or home office. But it’s truly something that can make such a difference to your quality of life.
We’re all so used to just flipping a switch in the morning or when it starts to get dark and forgetting about it. But the lighting around us can have a major effect on our quality of life and productivity.
When it comes to lighting for productivity, you can’t really do much better than natural light. Studies of sunlight and productivity in the office found that sunlight had a direct positive effect on employees’ mental health, productivity and job satisfaction.
Okay sure, your home office may not compare to a beautiful open-plan office in a high-rise with 15-foot windows, but that doesn’t mean you should forget to get some sunlight, especially in the morning. Exposure to sunlight in the morning helps regulate melatonin, a hormone that is significant in regulating our sleep and waking cycles, as well as promoting greater alertness throughout the day.
We’d all like an extra hour, or three, of sleep in the morning. But resist the temptation to keep those curtains closed in the morning, even if you’d like to pretend that you’re still cozy in bed for the first few hours of work.
If you don’t get much morning sun in your apartment or home, step outside for a little fresh air and soak up that sunlight and vitamin D before you start your work day. I guarantee you’ll feel a lot more alert in your 9 a.m. Zoom check-in.
If you don’t get great sunlight, or even if you’re stuck trudging through a rainy, gray day at the home office, you can do a lot with lighting to help to improve your productivity and mood.
I’m a big advocate of circadian lighting, which is designed to promote your body’s natural sleep and wake cycle. Circadian lighting actually has a proven track record of boosting office productivity: a study found that after switching to circadian lighting, employees were 20% more productive overall, 10% more focused and even 38% calmer!
So how can you implement circadian lighting in your home and office? It’s simple, actually. Bright lights to mimic the sunlight during daytime hours, and warmer, softer lighting after the sun goes down. Try Edison bulbs. Who doesn’t like the soft orange glow of those beautiful filaments?
Here are some other suggestions for improving your lighting, and your quality of life, in your home office:
- Color-changing accent lights.There are many amazing designs for color-changing lights that can be adjusted via Bluetooth, including the very popular Phillips Hue series. When you’re working, subtlety will be your friend—after all, you don’t want to look like you’ve escaped to a Miami lounge on your video conferences. But a little accent light with some color never hurt anyone. Changing your lighting to some nice accent colors after you sign off for the day can also be a great way of changing the mood in your space and creating some separation for off-work time, especially for those who don’t have a dedicated office at home.
- Light therapy lamps:If you’re someone who has struggled with seasonal depression, or seasonal affective disorder, or even if you’ve just felt a little down in the dumps this winter, you may appreciate a light therapy lamp. These lights are specially designed to closely mimic sunlight, and can also help boost your productivity. And they are perfect for implementing circadian lighting in your home office. One more home office hack: these types of light are actually great for lighting your face during videoconferencing, and you’ll get a lot more benefits than with one of the LED ring lights we see in every makeup tutorial on YouTube.
- String lights:I know what you’re thinking: you’ve grown out of “that” phase of decorating. But there are actually tons of stylish string lights that are way more “boho chic” than “freshman dorm.” A subtle arc of gold-accented Edison bulbs would look great adorning your bookshelf. Or go subtle with these warm and simple lights from West Elm. Need some inspo on how to style these in your home office? Check out this list from one of my favorite websites, Apartment Therapy.
2.) Invest in quality headphones
Has this ever happened to you? You sign onto a Zoom meeting with someone you’ve never connected with before. Within 30 seconds, you realize that you can barely hear what they are saying. Their audio sounds like two people playing that tin can and string game at two ends of an Olympic-size swimming pool.
You reach for your trusty earbuds, but you realize you left them in your car. The next 30 minutes are excruciating, with you trying desperately to hear them without having to ask “what was that?” every five seconds.
We definitely can’t control the audio settings of everyone we connect with via videoconferencing, but we can ensure that we set ourselves up with the best tech to hear and be heard. And that starts with good headphones.
To start with, let’s address your favorite earbuds. We’ve certainly come a long way since those first-generation iPod earbuds that you had to wear for a week before they stopped hurting your ears. AirPods and other Bluetooth earbuds offer incredible convenience and connectivity, and generally have excellent quality both in the audio they reproduce and their built-in microphones.
But, it’s definitely worth mentioning that earbuds come with certain risks, especially when you find that you’re using them for the majority of your work day. Earbuds carry a greater risk of hearing loss when used at high volumes for longer periods of time than over-the-ear headphones.
Because earbuds send sound directly into the ear canal, they can project sound up to nine decibels louder, which can make a real difference if you are listening for long periods of time. In addition, because over-the-ear headphones tend to block more outside sound, if we’re using earbuds, we often tend to turn the volume higher. If you’re just using your headphone to tune into video conferencing or phone calls, you probably have less to worry about than someone who is blasting their Discover Weekly playlist throughout the entire workday. Doctors recommend the 60/60 rule: cap device volume at 60% and listening time on headphones at 60 minutes per day.
Noise cancelling headphones are great, because they block out outside sound, so you don’t have to lose your hearing just to hear your supervisor over the sound of a nearby train, or the daily passing of the neighborhood dog walker.
I trust you to make the best choice for the long-term health of your hearing.
If you are looking to upgrade from your old earbuds, or simply to treat yourself to better sound, her are a few great options:
- JBL Quantum 100:If you’re looking for good sound quality and a great microphone at a reasonable price, and you don’t mind being plugged in the old-fashioned way, these wired headphones are fantastic. They definitely lean a little more toward the gamer style, but their simple white or black classic design and removable headset microphone make them a more subtle choice than most headsets.
- Jabra Elite 45h: The award for most Instagrammable headphones goes to the Jabra Elite. If you’re looking for a set of headphones that would look equally good dressed up with a black blazer, or to complement an earth-tone matched athleisure ensemble, these would be the top contender.
- Bose Noise Cancelling 700: If you’ve been looking for something to splurge on with that stimulus check that you can still justify as “work-related,” these Bose headphones really are the (rose) gold standard. With an updated, comfortable design that will be the envy of the virtual office, and amazing quality audio and microphone, your work day will be greatly improved by the addition of these headphones.
3.) Add an air purifier
I grew up in California, so air quality has always been something that I thought about quite a bit. Between fires and smog, pollution and drastic weather shifts, Californians know all about how quickly and drastically the air we breathe can change from nourishing to toxic.
Last fall’s tragic and destructive wildfire season showed the world just how bad things can be. And with increasing pollution and climate change, it’s not just Californians who are thinking hard about the quality of air around them.
With all this in mind, it isn’t hard to understand why an air purifier can greatly improve your health and quality of life.
You may think that your apartment or home is a pristine sanctuary with perfectly pure air quality, however I’m sorry to inform you, that would be a bit of a fantasy.
A 2019 study found that the average American apartment may have air quality comparable to a “polluted major city.” Disturbing, I know. Everyday activities such as boiling water, cleaning with chemicals, heck, even making toast, can negatively impact the air quality in an apartment.
If that’s not enough to convince you that an air purifier is in your future, I don’t know what to tell you. But, seriously, with so much pollution outside, and the inside of our homes not much better, we could all do with fresher air to breathe.
If you’re anything like me, I bet you just opened all your windows and you’re about to buy the first air purifier you see on Amazon with more than four stars. But before you jump into a major purchase, it’s worth knowing a little more about air purifiers so that you can make an informed decision about which is best for you.
Generally, modern air purifiers come from two different camps, HEPA filters and electrostatics.
HEPA (or “high efficient particulate filters”) is more like the traditional air filter that you would imagine, a very fine mesh physical barrier to prevent particles from passing through. You’ve probably heard this term a lot more over the past year, as Covid-19 has led many public spaces to improve their air filtration. HEPA filters tend to be more effective—they filter 87–99% of particles on the first pass
Electrostatic filters work by using static electricity to charge the airborne particles, which in turn makes them stick to a filter system. They are not quite as efficient, capturing between 60–80% of particles on the first pass, and will usually take longer to fully filter the air in a certain space.
Both types of filters can be very effective in improving your air quality; you will just want to do proper research to understand your needs and what kind of air purifier would be best for you.
While your health is probably the primary reason you should consider an air purifier to improve the air quality in your home and home office, improving the quality of your air can actually boost your productivity. A study found that employees who worked in a clean air environment actually performed 61% better in their cognitive functioning.
4.) Go green with some office plants
Speaking of air purification, did you know that many house plants can actually help to purify the air in your home? This is just one reason why they make a great addition to your home office.
If your office is feeling a bit stale, whether in the air quality, or just the tone of the decor, bringing some beautiful greenery in will definitely give you a literal and figurative breath of fresh air in your space.
The beautiful snake plant, also known as “mother-in-law’s tongue”—how hilarious is that?—is an excellent plant to bring into the home to improve your air quality, as it filters formaldehyde and many other toxins from the air.
Spider plants are a great choice, especially for beginner plant parents, because they’re very low maintenance. They also filter carbon monoxide and xylene, a toxic chemical used in printing.
Here’s a great house plant that isn’t named after a creepy crawly creature: aloe vera. Aloe vera is a beautiful succulent that also helps with air filtration. And if you ever get a sunburn, skip the CVS-brand “soothing gel with aloe.” Just cut a stalk right from your own aloe vera and witness the amazing soothing power of this plant, without all the added drugstore chemicals.
Chances are, at some point in the last year of quarantine, you may have tried your hand at taking care of some plants. But maybe you’re scarred from too many plants dying, so you relegated yourself to ogling all the beautiful plant-filled oases in those urban rainforest apartments that seem to be all over our Instagram feeds these days.
Even if you feel that you have a “brown thumb”—in other words, every plant you touch withers and dies—there are many options that are actually really easy to take care of!
I used to think that I would never be able to keep a plant alive. I tried everything like a nervous new mom, but still my plants would end up brown, or just plain wilted and sad. All it took was a friend coming over and giving me a few tips on each of my struggling plants to learn how to properly care for them.
Every plant is different and may require a different watering schedule, different shade or sunlight, sometimes even a little bit of fertilizer.
My advice is that if you’ve struggled in the past, start with a few little succulents or cactuses. Give them plenty of light, and a little drink once or twice a week. A spray bottle like the ones they use at a salon works great for these. Once you’re confident that your little guys are going strong, you can move on to something a bit bigger and more challenging.
I promise that plants in your work space will genuinely lift your mood. And don’t be afraid to get a little messy repotting your favorite ficus. Playing in the dirt actually has proven mental health benefits. Healthy soil actually contains micro bacteria that have been shown to have an antidepressant effect, and can positively impact mood in a way similar to antidepressant medication!
5.) Buy some blue-light-blocking glasses
I feel that one of the most challenging and least-talked about effects of the pandemic has been the burden on our mental and physical health of way too much screen time.
Let’s face it, we as humans were never meant to be staring at an artificial light source, focused on miniscule text, juggling back and forth from screen to screen throughout our entire day.
A 2020 study showed that throughout the pandemic, a majority of Americans reported spending more time looking at screens, whether it be their phones (59%), their televisions (59%) or their computer screens (55%).
One of the most obvious and widespread results of all this increased screen time is digital eyestrain. The same study showed that not only are Americans’ eyes glued more closely to their screens, but 45% had experienced dry eyes as a result of increased screen time. An even greater percentage, 60%, expressed concern that the increased screen time could do damage to their eyes.
Digital eye strain is a major problem, and it has been exacerbated by lockdowns and remote work. It’s estimated that up to 50% of people, both children and adults, experience some version of DES, also known as “computer vision syndrome.” Some symptoms to look out for include itchy, red or burning eyes, blurred vision and headache.
I know that it would be unrealistic to expect that we could all reduce our screen time immediately to combat this problem. Well, we could probably all stand to cut down on the aimless scrolling. But I have a feeling your absence from mandatory video meetings would probably be noted.
The good news is that you can help reduce digital eyestrain by investing in some blue light blocking glasses. The blue light from screens can be very harsh on the eyes, and is often the cause of eyestrain.
Glasses that filter blue light allow you to work longer without strain and even better regulate your circadian rhythm. Remember how important that is? Blue light emulates sunlight and can trick our bodies into staying awake later. By reducing your exposure to blue light, your natural rhythm of fatigue will kick in, helping your body unwind when it’s time to sleep.
There are a lot of options, ranging from inexpensive drugstore frames that look a bit like grandma’s reading glasses, to much more stylish offerings from companies like Warby Parker.I just discovered Zenni Optical myself, and I think their super affordable frames are great to keep around as an extra pair, or a set you don’t have to worry about losing.
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You’ll find many stylish options for blue-light-blocking glasses, and you’re sure to get some virtual compliments on your new frames.
Even if blue-light glasses are not for you, try to protect yourself from eyestrain by remembering the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen for 20 seconds, focusing on an object that is 20 feet away. Simple, huh?
With remote work continuing and the rise of hybrid models of work, it looks like we’ll all be spending a little more time in our home offices. Take my lead on a few of these ways to improve your work-from-home experience.
Ashley Stahl is career coach, keynote speaker, podcast host (You Turn Podcast) and author, here to help you step into a career you're excited about and aligned with.