The meteoric spread of the Covid-19 virus has caused us to re-examine almost every facet of our lives including, how we go to work. Working from home has been more and more common since the 1980’s as technology increasingly allowed us to connect well with others and bring the power of on-site computing home with us.
Over that time we have learned much about how organizations can work successfully in this way. We have learned new skills in the management of remote employees, we have learned how to effectively run distributed teams and we have learned how to break down the tyranny of distance with a whole range of excellent new collaborative tools and technologies.
But this article is not about that. This article is about the physical workplace at home and the principles of being productive using our best understanding of what drives cognitive performance. These tend to apply equally whether it be a corporate office or a desk in the spare bedroom.
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Working through the Center for Evidence-Based Management (CEBMa) we have explored the factors that impact cognitive fitness. Their findings are incorporated into the advice provided on the occupancy and provisions of the workplace as best summarised in the following diagram.
Using my own home office as an example let’s consider the following:
Most people do not have the pleasure of a high-level extensive penthouse overlooking some bucolic setting. Having recently down-sized, my own home office shares space with a large double bed in our second bedroom. For those with even less space to spare it’s quite possible to imagine the use of a foldable table as long as the height is at an appropriate height and you have room to store an ergonomically adjustable chair. In total the space consumed by my office is about 36 square feet but it’s the most effective space I’ve ever had, including all the corporate space I have inhabited over my 40-year career. Let’s see why!
Comfort is important. Uncomfortable people’s health will ultimately suffer over time and with it their cognitive ability. If your tasks include heavy computer work, then good posture is vital. Unfortunately, the kitchen or dining room table rarely work well in this regard. They are not usually at typing height and do not allow the right adjustments to be made to seat height even with a well-designed ergonomic chair. Screen height is also very important. There are expensive monitor height adjustment stands but I manage perfectly well with two small monitor stands. Ergonomists tell us that screens need to be at seated eye-height.
The entire furniture solution is an IKEA offering and it works very well for many things:
Wire management: Please take the trouble to take care of the myriad sets of cables and not have them tangled up with your feet.
Storage: The beauty of remote working is that one is usually unencumbered with hard copy filing, so leverage electronic storages and reduce your hard copy to a few of the most meaningful or most commonly accessed information for which the hard copy version might just be the better form factor. For data security reasons there may be a requirement for lockable storage in which case you will need to find room but perhaps it doesn’t necessarily need to be actually in the office space giving you more solution options.
Colour: Avoid glass and very dark surfaces. They accentuate the glare factor and anything dark tends to close-in the sense of spaciousness.
Sit stand: an even better solution to the traditional desk is a sit/stand desk which allows you to vary your posture between sitting and standing and take advantage of the well researched benefits which flow from this.
Sooner or later the home worker is going to find his or herself in video conferences with others. The participants can see you, but they can also see where you live, and this can be a positive opportunity. While I am waiting for calls to start the early birds will often comment on my train collection behind me – which acts as an ice-breaker. Others use paintings or charts as backdrops, each of which can send positive messages about you and your interests. Think about this and the impression that this conveys as you set up your desk location and the view others will have of you. Of course you can always ignore this advice and use the fuzzy backdrop option on most conference systems, but you might have lost a chance to express yourself. People like that – help others connect with the real you!
In some senses putting my screen in front of the windows is not a great idea because it potentially induces a glare condition. It is however a north facing window, so I rarely have to pull down the blinds to offset the glare. The benefit of this however is the ability to look outside on nature. Views of the adjacent water meadow, trees and birds speak to the known positives of biophilia and the ability to change one’s sight focus from close to distant with the relief that brings. Just make sure that you think about these things. Getting this right will reduce eye strain, increase your comfort and lengthen the time during the day when you are performing well. With two lighting sources I can adjust the lighting levels in the room as the sun angle changes and day fades into evening.
Noise and interruptions
Along with temperature, noise and disruptions are typically the biggest complaints in the typical office. This is where working at home is such a boon for so many people. In an ideal situation, you are alone with your thoughts and can create an acoustic envelope that works for you: absolute peace, gentle music in the background, full-on driving rock through your headset…whatever works for you. I should point out though that music is generally considered to be a mild detractor to high performance.
Of course you don’t always have control over the situation: the postman comes and the dog barks, the guy next door starts mowing his lawn and the children are at home. To deal with noise correctly you would do well to prioritise the importance of various activities: thinking time, video calls of importance, routine process activities etc. and try to prioritise in terms of your schedule setting. You may have to get up well before the kids or leave thinking work till after they have gone to bed where that is relevant. The point is that many acoustics issues are manageable.
Another known performance suppressor, temperature is an important consideration. One does not tend to celebrate when the temperature is right, but one is very cognisant when it’s wrong… Each of us has our own unique reaction to temperature which is why it is almost impossible to create a single temperature in an office with which everyone is happy. At home… you are the king and can adjust the temperature to your preferences. I happen to like things cool and plenty of fresh air. My windows are often open. Being able to adjust to our own needs is very important in a cognitive sense.
Simply put, without fluids, the body just doesn’t work as well. It’s not just the body: this applies equally to the brain and to its performance. It is quite possible to get engrossed in tasks while working at home. Before you know it, hours have passed, you have failed to take in the right amount of fluid and unknowingly your brain function begins to falter. In theory this is no different to life in the office, but it is so much easier when working at home to stay statically seated for hours on end: you don’t need to leave your seat to go to a meeting.
Use hydration as an excuse to get up and stretch your legs.
This has a known impact on energy and attention, but it doesn’t last forever. You will need to pace yourself when you have such good access to the coffee pot. Another positive impact though is the act of getting up to go and make coffee. It is a bonus in and of itself: staying static in a chair for hours on end is not good practice as we have learned in hydration
Leading on from the subject of regularly getting up and walking around is the importance of physical exercise to the brain’s successful functioning. This will mean different things to different people, but the point is that it should be sufficiently intense to get the heart pumping. A stout morning walk, yoga or an early morning visit to the gym is a great way to get the body going but it should also be followed by other interventions during the course of the day to either provide stimulation or give the brain a break. This could mean anything from a short walk to a nap…yes short naps can be an important spur to cognitive function and while not always culturally acceptable in the office, taking a power nap at home should be much more achievable when needed. When you don’t experience physical activity in getting to work, you will need to compensate.
The deleterious effects of access to the fridge is an often humored comment about working from home, but the fact is that it is within your control to make healthy choices. A good breakfast is a positive foundation on which to build your day. I’m afraid that a Coke and a bag of crisps is not. There is plenty of advice as to what constitutes a healthy diet but from a cognitive perspective it is important to be able to distinguish between the immediate effects of a glucose drink (good although in moderation) to provide energy, with the inhalation of several chocolate bars (bad) which will end up ultimately deteriorating your performance.
It is important to understand that the workplace experience involves all the senses. The visual and touch senses often predominate but we should consider all of them. An often-overlooked contributor is smell or, to put it more delicately: scent. In you own home you are free to experiment with different scents and their ability to stimulate or decompress depending on how your day is going and what you are working to achieve
We’ve touched on the idea already of taking a nap as a possible accelerator of cognitive function (a sort of disc defragmentation of the human brain) but in truth sleep really is a fundamental predictor of cognitive capacity and function. Those who have enjoyed a high quality eight hours will perform better than those who have not, both in the short term and the long term. This is not to judge whether early risers are better performers than night owls but it’s the amount of sleep that matters and also needs to be seen in the context of others around you and when the quality time you need can best be preserved for you. Sleep time is when the body heals and rebuilds – it’s vital.
The surprisingly low utilization levels of many modern offices speaks to the fact that the modern office is increasingly a celebration of togetherness: face-to-face engagement, collaboration, co-creation etc. which gives it a high energy level, and in many cases, a fun and collegial feel. When users just have to get something done however i.e. focus and concentrate, they go home…or at least away from the interruptions of the office. The home’s latent ability to be productive for focused work is demonstrated by the choices people make each and every day when the chips are down.
What is however becoming more evident is the fact that, through the use of Tools like Zoom and Teams, individuals from increasingly widely sourced teams are able to connect and work well together… virtually. This throws open the availability of a greater pool of talent, potentially higher levels of access and availability and an opportunity to supplement the value of face-to-face engagement in very effective and constructive ways.
The home considerations of this are significant given that it effectively lengthens availability during the day by eliminating the commute. It also tends to humanise the participants by seeing them inside their homes, something you never see at work. I have never experienced this as a negative, but often comes as a positive. It also creates new routes and avenues for social connectedness, a reason many people argue in favor of going to work.
The bottom line
Given that the workplace experience is a personal one, it makes sense that someone working from home has more control over their environment and the set-up of their workspace. Certainly for focused work, this has potentially large contributions to make to personal productivity and effectiveness.
There is increasingly a case to be made that certain facets of teamwork can be equaled, if not improved through virtual work. If this is true, the consequences for society are profound. It means we could spend less time going to the office, that our corporate offices get smaller and the time we spend within them becomes better planned and facilitated.
Less buildings, means a drop in the carbon degradation of our planet, a reduction in the amount of commuting meaning less wear and tear on people, further reduction in carbon emissions and potentially a reduction in business travel with the ensuing climatic benefits. To do this we need to learn to work at home… really well.
Hopefully these few pointers help you to begin to think about how you can do this. For all the negative aspects of the Coronavirus outbreak, the fact that it is pushing more of us into familiarity with home working will end up being a force for good. It won’t stop the joy and exuberance of reconnecting to the social aspects of the workplace that will inevitably follow the clearance to return to your company workplace safely, but it might also encourage us to all think deeply about where, when and how are best work is accomplished.
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