Thoughts on a Home Office Setup after a Pandemic Year

by Laura Hemmer, FCAS

If you are like me, when you packed up to leave work on March 13, 2020, you definitely thought you’d be back in the office in a few weeks — maybe a month or two, tops. Or in my specific case with a baby due in early April, I thought surely by the time I returned from maternity leave in late June that we’d all be in the regular office space again. Unfortunately, it’s only now, over a year later, that we are beginning to see many companies in the insurance space truly start their return to office plans.

When I think back to my early home office setup last year, there were definitely some growing pains. First, my husband and I tried both working at the dining table. I quickly learned that our wood dining chairs are not meant for eight hours of sitting each day. My husband is also an extrovert and a morning person, and his often hours-long chatty work calls, while necessary for his job, were doing a number on this introvert’s concentration. Next, we tried having me work out of our spare room and him at the dining table; this was better, but we still shared a wall, and I could still hear his calls, although now they were just muffled, and he was still stuck with an uncomfortable dining-chair. Finally, we hit upon the solution of getting him a second desk and setting him up to work from the basement. It’s a little chillier down there and there’s not as much sunlight, but it has worked well for us.

While there were growing pains, I recognize that I am extremely lucky. I was able to work from home with relative ease. I also have the space to try a couple reconfigurations before finding one that worked for us. Like many of you, I will be shifting to a hybrid work situation in the fall — for me it’s two days remote and three days in the office. The hybrid schedule means that my home office setup will likely become permanent. That made me think about whether some of the temporary home office setups we have can be (or should be) sustained long term. With that in mind, I polled the members of the CLC to learn some of their lessons learned on building home offices from this great work-from-home experiment. Our hope is that some of the ideas will be helpful to you too.

  1. Get a comfortable desk chair. As I mentioned, I only lasted a few weeks in my dining room chair before going online and buying a real desk chair. Several CLC members said that they tried to work from the couch or bed before moving to an actual chair. To quote one, “I felt like I was leaving a permanent dent in the mattress.” It doesn’t have to be a fancy executive chair; it just needs to support your back. Your future self will thank you.
  2. Make your at-home space as similar to your at office space as possible. This tip mostly has to do with technology, particularly monitors. If you are used to two monitors in the office, try to have two monitors at home (or at least laptop screen and monitor). Many companies during the pandemic have reimbursed their employees for monitors; if yours has not, try asking if they would consider it now. Maybe in the beginning of the pandemic you were fine with just your laptop, but if you will be working from home at least part of the time permanently, you will probably want the second monitor. The same might be true about a printer/scanner. It’s ok to change your mind about what you need now that the situation might be permanent.
  3. Consider ergonomics. I used to roll my eyes when HR would start in on their talks about the importance of ergonomics, but after a couple of attempts of working from the couch left me with massive neck pain, I have learned my lesson. A supportive chair helps, but the other piece that most CLC members agreed on was the importance of correct monitor height. If you can get a monitor stand, great; if not, many people have had success from stacking books, boxes or paper to raise the height of the monitor. I’m sure you have some old study manuals lying around. Just make sure it’s stable! I also swear by a $25 laptop stand I got online that both raises my laptop to a good height and promotes airflow underneath, reducing the likelihood of overheating. One CLC member said, “It helped my neck and shoulder tension immensely by getting my monitor to a good height for my body.”
  4. Surrender to the headset. Headsets are a must-have if you do a lot of video calls. I avoided getting a headset at first. I figured I was fine with the laptop speaker/microphone, so, why go through the hassle of the headset? Then I had a meeting with the CEO and all our VPs where none of them could hear me through the laptop microphone! I got a headset the next day. While it does often result in that telltale dent in my hair, a headset has allowed me to participate in calls when the coffee machine is running or the dog is going nuts at the Amazon delivery guy. CLC members report they are also very useful if you have roommates who take a lot of calls. If you’ve been resisting the headset, I recommend giving in.
  5. Disconnect at the end of the day. The main theme of CLC member responses was that working from home often made it harder to truly log off at the end of the day. Having work at your fingertips (and not having to commute) means it is easy to fall in the trap of working “just a bit longer.” That’s fine (and sometimes necessary) every once in a while, but at my own company we’ve had a lot of discussions recently on burnout and the enhanced risk of it while working at home during the pandemic. CLC members reported various rituals for ending the workday, such as powering down the laptop and putting it away, closing the door to the office and taking the dog for a walk. I shut the curtains in my spare room to signify end of day. If you haven’t developed your own ritual yet, I highly recommend it. Your downtime is valuable; protect it.
  6. Think about needed duplicates. Many of us brought home monitors/keyboards/mice/docking stations etc. for the long-term working from home. Now is the time to think about what you’ll want to be carrying to the office every few days vs. having a duplicate at home. For instance, I have a keyboard and mouse that lives at home so that I don’t have to bring that back and forth. The same is true of my headset and even my laptop power cord. If you can’t duplicate the power cord, make packing up for the office part of your end-of-day ritual if the following day is in office.
  7. Remember: Life, kids and animals happen. If this pandemic has taught us anything about working from home, it’s that life happens and that’s ok. Sporadic unplanned interruptions can lighten the mood and remind us that our coworkers are all humans dealing with the same stuff we are. Once one of my team members started a video call with her cat in place of her at her desk; the cat had had a minor medical procedure and, instead of a recovery collar, wore a massive donut pillow around its face. It was adorable! My favorite CLC member story is about Holley Rouse’s dogs spotting a fox outside. Not to be deterred by their hard-working owner and her co-workers, her Treeing Walker Coonhounds frenetically barked as they attacked the window. So, don’t sweat it if something happens while you’re on a call; in my experience it’s rarely an issue.

I hope the CLC’s thoughts are helpful to you as we begin a new phase of pandemic life. In particular, keep in mind that what has worked temporarily during the pandemic lockdowns does not need to be the permanent solution.

Now is the time to consider adjusting your work-from-home setup.