For nearly 18 months, millions of Americans have been toiling away at laptops balanced on beds, couches, makeshift desks and kitchen tables as the Covid-19 pandemic upended our normal office routines. Working from home undoubtedly has its benefits: no commute, the ability to dress down and more time to spend with loved ones, among other perks.
But the quiet loneliness of remote work can also zap energy and motivation. According to a recent TINYpulse survey, about 86% of remote workers say they've experienced a great deal of burnout, compared to roughly 69% of in-person employees.
Those fed up with working from home have clung onto the hope of returning to the office and reuniting with colleagues soon, however, the resurgence of Covid-19 cases due to the highly contagious delta variant is posing fresh obstacles. Some 36% of people working from home in July said they're still waiting to hear from their employer about whether they'll stay remote or be expected to return to the workplace anytime soon, according to a survey conducted by LinkedIn. Some companies such as Apple and Facebook that had previously announced a fall return to office have now pushed their plans to 2022.
The idea of working from home indefinitely may be daunting, there are easy steps you can take to make remote work a happier, more productive experience. CNBC Make It tapped an organizing expert, physical therapist and design guru to share their best hacks for revamping any work from home setup.
You may have set up your home office with the best of intentions, but 18 months later, as pandemic guidelines and companies' responses change week to week, focusing on work can sometimes feel like an impossible task. Establishing clear physical and emotional boundaries between work and downtime, especially when you're working from home, can minimize distractions.
"During the pandemic, we've been confining ourselves to these small spaces where we're working, living and doing everything," Amy Tokos, president of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, tells CNBC Make It. "There's no clear dividing line of work vs. not work … our brain is just juggling these competing thoughts all the time." Tokos suggests remote employees keep a separate notepad in their desk to jot down all of the non-work-related thoughts and tasks that pop into their head — then stash it away until you're done with work.
To improve focus and organization, Tokos also recommends people purchase a hanging files rack and noise-canceling headphones that light up when they're in use. The latter is especially helpful, she explains, as it gives others at home a clear signal when you're on a work call or can't be bothered.
Many people don't have the luxury (or space) for an at-home office behind closed doors, but there are still ways to separate your workspace from the rest of your home, engineer and design expert Isabelle LaRue shares. "You can use curtains, a bookcase, a panel screen divider or furniture you already own, like a couch, to create visual boundaries," LaRue explains. "It's important to have a designated zone in your house for work so when you're there, you're totally focused on work, and when you leave, you're done working."
Let in the light
Working in a dark, windowless room is a fast way to stifle creativity. Several studies have shown that sitting near a window with natural light boosts productivity and reduces drowsiness. If you're feeling cramped in your current setup, move your desk to a window, LaRue suggests. "Even if the view isn't great, having more visual freedom can make you a lot happier and inspired while working," she explains.
If working near a window isn't an option, you can still brighten up the room by decorating with vibrant colors, hanging mirrors on the wall or buying a couple plants, LaRue adds. "You can even cultivate a small grow station on your desk or a shelf with a light," she continues. "Anything green or bright helps create the illusion that you're basking in daylight, even if you're technically not."
Check that your workstation is ergonomic
Working from home with limited opportunities to move around can be brutal on your eyes, wrists, neck and back. Dr. Nina Geromel, a physical therapist based in Milwaukee, has helped many clients minimize body aches while working from home by encouraging them to follow three easy steps.
First, look at your monitor from your normal seating position, and stick your arms straight out in front of you. Your fingertips should hit the screen — not any closer or farther away, Geromel says, or you'll start to strain your eyes.
Another quick test from Geromel that can help mitigate neck and back pain: when you're seated at your desk, look straight ahead and make sure your eyes land on the top border of your computer monitor. Our natural gaze, Geromel says, is about 20 degrees down from our eyes, so this test ensures that your screen isn't too high or low. If you don't have access to a standing desk or monitor, Geromel recommends standing and working at your kitchen countertop, or balancing your laptop on a stack of boxes so your neck and back muscles don't get tight from sitting all day.
Finally, prevent wrist pain by checking your elbows: Geromel says they should be bent to about 90 degrees, or slightly over, so your forearms are sloped down toward your keyboard. "Working from home can cause a lot of headaches," she adds. "Checking in with yourself and your body is really important."