Just over 9,000 days ago I entered 37 Fitzroy Square, London, and sat at an office desk for the first time. 380 days ago I entered the iconic Cheesegrater building and sat at an office desk for the last time. I hope it won’t be the very last but it’s clear I won’t be back until mid-2021 at the soonest. Ignoring a project I did many years ago with night-shift supermarket workers, this is the longest by far I’ve not worked in an office.

When the UK, and much of the rest of the world, went into “lockdown” back in March/April 2020 it all seemed rather temporary. Of the many millions conducting our work interactions via email and Zoom, most took a short-term approach to our workspace — sometimes through limited choice, sometimes through natural inertia. Sure, a new mouse, or a monitor, but still just stuck in the same corner or on the dining room table.

As the work from home extended we entered the summer months with the siren song of working outside or, as in my case, spending large parts of the day on calls while walking. Thus no real reason to adjust.

Now here we are a year later. Spring finally returning and people still in a form of denial that this has gone on for a year. But, quite clearly, many more months before a lot of us can return to ‘normal’ office life.

As our backs get stiffer and our tempers more frayed there is real value in considered a “work from home” reset.

The Three Aspects to Consider

The approach I’ve taken is similar to many of my friends and colleagues. Stand up out of your chair, step away from the desk and consider these three questions:

  1. Is this the best place to be working?
  2. Is my desk set up in an optimal way?
  3. Do I have the right equipment?

Look at each of these questions through three lenses — work efficiency and effectiveness, physical comfort and safety, mental wellbeing.

Now let’s consider these one-by-one

Is this the best place to be working?

At the start of lock-down, those with school-age children suddenly needed to devise a model of work that took into account having children around during the day. Depending on the age and temperament of the child and the quality of the online teaching this might mean having them close to you or being as far away as possible. Lockdown lead into summer holidays with similar dynamics. Now, in most cases, kids are back at school, but have we necessarily reacted to that change when it comes to our working location and setup?

Do you still need to be working at the same shared table as to when the children were studying next to you?

Is the kitchen in fact the brightest location and, now that there’s less disturbance and lower risk of cable trips, could that be where you sit again?

Does the fact the TV is not on all day mean that you no longer need to be on a table at the far end of the corridor?

You would have hoped that we would all have naturally evolved since schools went back properly. I know that not everyone has.

In most cases, the room you choose to work in will primarily be a decision around how well you can work and how comfortably you can sit.

On some occasions, there is a mental well-being aspect too. If you are a carer with responsibilities at home you might want to be as close as possible to another room for ease of access, or as distant as possible to minimize disturbance or distraction.

I had one colleague whose window view was of the neighbor’s perfectly kept garden and this would constantly make him feel inadequate about his gardening skills. This was not the right room to be in (or not the right direction to be looking — see point below).

Once you’ve confirmed which room then it’s time to ensure you’re in the right part of it.

Is my desk set up in an optimal way?

Much like “am I using the best room?”, this initially feels like a daft question to be asking. However, consider how long ago you set up the desk in the configuration it is.

Unless you’ve done something new already during the past nine months, or have recently moved house or redecorated the answer is likely to be ‘not for years’. So imagine the room was empty and you were moving in new.

Plenty of screen space. (Andrew E, via LinkedIn)

For a moment even imagine the furniture was all lost in the move and you have the luxury of starting from scratch.

What size desk to do you want? Where would you put it? What direction would it face?

In my case, I’ve swiveled by ninety degrees to get a better view of the garden while working. I know people who’ve simply sat at the other side of the desk to help with light or because they actively didn’t want to look out of the window (given it faced over a busy road). Two married colleagues who were working in the same room at different desks realized that by shifting two small desks together they could actually make more space for both of themselves.

Consider what has changed over the past months. Different levels of sunlight, different needs from radiators. Was the draft from the window a problem in the winter, but less so now? Think all this through, or even better discuss it aloud with someone in your bubble or a colleague on video chat.

If the cost worries you remember the tale that the Amazon office started with people using doors as desktops because they were cheaper. Apocryphal or not, the point is that there’s plenty of space to think outside the box when it’s your own home.

A corner in a Paris flat (Jean-Francois B, via LinkedIn)

Back in Spring 2020, there was lots of pressure to have the camera on all the time. As such, people-oriented their desks to avoid showing where the laundry was hanging or the corridor that family members might be walking up and down. As cameras have become less de rigor and virtual backgrounds more effective that requirement has changed. Many people’s orientation has not changed, however.

(As a side point to managers sitting in large houses: not all your staff are as lucky as you in terms of what’s going on behind them during the day. While there is a strong case to be made for use of video both to see emotions in key meetings and to check appearance on a regular basis, don’t presume that a preference to have the camera off is immediately a sign of a problem. It may simply be that the individual doesn’t want to have to worry about you seeing what’s behind them.)

Do I have the right equipment?

This is not simply the obvious things like a large screen, a quiet keyboard, and a decent internet connection. These are vital but frankly, if you still don’t have that sorted you must have had a tricky twelve months. That said, there is constantly the chance to learn from others.

This is about taking that literal and figurative step back and considering what could be better. Could a second screen help your efficiency? Could a better chair or wrist support help your physical wellbeing? Could a new piece of art or a brighter lamp help your mood?

I dragged an old Bluetooth speaker out of the cupboard so I can have some jazz playing which I haven’t done for years. Yes, I could have used headphones, but once we’re all back in the office there won’t be a chance to get the decent bass and top tones of a large, high-quality speaker.

Optimized for video calls? (Jean-Christophe L, via LinkedIn)

I bought some phone charging cables. I’ve always tried to make do with too few (a legacy of the time additional ones cost a fortune). I’ve now got them scattered in all the places I might want to charge my phone.

Art is an important one. I saw post-Christmas that a lot of people had taken the opportunity to gift art that brighten up someone’s work area. Why not do the same as an unprompted gift? I’ve also seen people offer their family and friends photo-montage albums to flick through on dull conference calls.

Plants as well can make a difference. While not “equipment” per se their attractiveness can clearly help your mood while there are increasing numbers of studies that talk of the positive impact on physical wellbeing and your ability to focus.

Equally candles. While not to everyone’s liking, an increasing number of people are burning scented candles where they work or in the hall outside to bring a little cheer even though Christmas is now long gone.

Key point: don’t just think of equipment as what you directly touch when working, but all the accouterments around you. Your aim: an environment that gets the best out of you in terms of work and personal well-being.

Part of the challenge for many people is they know (hope) they will be back in the office soon. I have three thoughts on that:

  • Even if we are then there are plenty of low-cost changes that will be worth it even for a few months
  • If the stay-at-home requirements do extend then you’ll only wish you had done something now
  • For many, many people the number of WFH days, even once back in the office, will be far greater than they ever were, so you are essentially taking a “forever” step rather than just doing something for a while.

Why wait? Why not stand up, step back, and ask yourself those three questions right now?

I’ll repeat that, of course, plenty of people reading this will already have taken many steps. But even if you’ve made lots of changes, the light, the temperature, and many other things may have changed since you did.

I know several people who only recently have taken these steps after not changing anything for months. They are now joyous at the positive impact the changes have had.

A proper reset of course needs to move beyond just physical space into routines and relationships. But no point considering those until you have the more tangible element resolved.

Good luck with your change. Or if you’re lucky enough to conclude everything’s good enough then instead please make the effort to share your good fortune with others.