Publications

Setting Up a Healthy and Productive Workplace at Home

by Leigh Stringer

March 18, 2020

Brightly lit home office with a laptop

The coronavirus outbreak is changing how and where we work at a rapid pace. Over the past week many employers have issued a work from home policy and many workers have decided to self-quarantine to help "flatten the curve." Many parents have had to adjust their schedules to take care of a loved one at risk or stay home with their kids as schools temporarily close down. Whatever the reason, many are suddenly at home for an indefinite period. This “new normal” of working in isolation makes us all safer but can be a potentially isolating and stressful experience.

It’s important to take stock of your home environment and “redesign your workday” in order to be productive and healthy, but also to stay connected and in tune with what is happening with your team and organization. The good news is that many organizations have been testing and adopting remote work strategies for years, and there are best practices we can follow. Assuming you have the technology you need for remote work in place, here are five strategies to consider, perhaps even a few you haven’t thought about:

Plan movement into your workday

You probably have an office desk or kitchen table at home to set up shop, which is great, but sitting for long periods of time can negatively impact cardio metabolic health and in some cases cause conditions like deep vein thrombosis. Walking on a treadmill desk for eight hours a day is not the answer either (at least for most of us). Instead you can:

  • Stand up every 30 minutes and walk around every hour and a half, even if it’s just for a few minutes
  • Find surfaces around your home that are bar-height (like the kitchen counter) and stand and work for a few minutes each day
  • Take phone calls, watch presentations, read, or perform other activities while standing or even walking if it makes sense for the task
  • Find a way to integrate a workout into your day. You’re not taking as many steps as you normally would commuting to work, walking to meetings, and might not be getting steps in after-hours either due to quarantine. There are many classes and videos available online to help you stay active 

Set up your kitchen to enable good eating habits

cecilia-par-YUg5RwlnMKc-unsplash.jpg.jpeg

You know when you walk into a grocery store and find yourself buying junk food at the end of the aisle? Or how candy is located at child-eye level by the checkout counter? Foods that are easy to spot and presented well are not put there by accident, and food companies pay for the privilege. The secret is “choice architecture,” a term for different ways choices can be presented to consumers, and the impact of that presentation on consumer decision making. Don’t fall victim to this while working at home! Instead:

  • Plan your healthy lunch and snacks ahead of time
  • “Hide” unhealthy foods in your kitchen by putting them in the cabinet or in opaque containers (versus putting healthy food like fruit or nuts in glass containers)
  • Brian Wansink, Director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, and author of Mindless Eating, suggests ways our eating behavior is impacted by the way food is presented to us. For example, in some of his studies, people were less likely to snack in kitchens that were tidy versus those that were cluttered. So keeping the kitchen clean is more than just a sanitation issue, it can affect how much we eat!

Get some sunshine to help you stay alert (and sleep better)

People walking in a park

A good portion of our global workforce spends 90 percent of each day indoors, which essentially puts us in a state of "light deficiency" and negatively impacts our sleep cycle. We need more intense light to reset our circadian rhythm, which helps us sleep.

Some sleep experts recommend being outside as much as two hours a day, but even going outside for 30-60 minutes during the day will provide roughly 80 percent of what you need to “anchor” your circadian rhythm. That said, some of you might not be able to go outside due to quarantine. Here are some work-arounds:

  • Set up your work space by a window. Having a view is good for stress reduction, but to get the benefits of melatonin suppression, it’s better to sit very close to one (within five feet)
  • Buy an LED “circadian” light bulb for daytime use and screw it into a light fixture by your work area. There are also travel versions of tunable circadian light fixtures you can adjust for daytime or nighttime use
  • Take a walk on your lunch break, weather and health permitting, to get some sunshine

Integrate biophilia into your home

Research suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. Study after study shows how psychologically restorative and beneficial being in natural environments are for us on many levels. To take advantage of the nature lover in all of us:

  • Add natural elements into your home workplace by putting small plants or a water feature nearby
  • Add artwork or elements that mimic nature, like shells, leaves, or wood with a visible grain. These features can have the same biophilic impact as the real thing
  • Listen to nature sounds on your phone or computer

Build in time to socialize and collaborate

Humans are social animals. Social distancing is great for dealing with coronavirus, but not so great for connecting us with each othes and helping us handle stressful situations. To keep everyone more connected try to:

  • Schedule video conference calls. Seventy percent of what we communicate is in our facial expressions and body language. Choose a voice call over email or instant message, as our voice is the second most effective way to communicate.
  • Set up regular virtual meetings with your team even if it’s just a 15-minute check in to see how everyone is doing
  • If you’re a manager, be aware that there is extra pressure on you to communicate and share what is happening with your team and to keep them informed. A lack of information flow can be concerning, especially to those who are distanced from decision making. Emotions are high, and no information can feel scary so be sure to keep the conversation going so that your team can best prepare for changes as they come.

It’s safe to say we’re moving into uncharted territory here. We’ve never seen a global pandemic of this scale in our lifetime. The good news is that many of us can work from home fairly effectively and have some flexibility in our work, but it is worth acknowledging that not everyone has this luxury. A special thank you to those who work for the government, emergency services, health care, and other positions that require your physical presence at work. We are grateful for your protection and care.

Leigh Stringer

Leigh Stringer, LEED AP

Managing Principal - Washington DC, Workplace Strategy