Working-from-home comforts?

by Eszter Hargittai on December 27, 2020

Fifth in this little end-of-year series I would like to exchange tips on how to make working from home suck less. This is mostly for those who work in an office type job. I suspect some of you have been doing this for years and perhaps then it was not a huge shift and may even work well. I, however, had not had a home office since graduate school (when my living room doubled as a study in my one-bedroom apartment). The sudden closure of offices was tough given zero office setup at home. It’s not that I hadn’t ever worked from home, it’s just that I had only done it by sitting on my living room sofa feet up on my coffee table, laptop in my lap (a laptop in a lap, imagine that). This was not sustainable for full-time work, however. I suffered on my definitely-not-for-constant-sitting dining room chair. It turns out that a lumbar cushion can make a significant difference. I use the Samsonite Memory Foam one and it has worked well. I have found the halfmoon-shaped one less effective. (Curiously, neither of these seems visible on Samsonite’s own Web site, I hope it’s not because they have discontinued it. It looks like lots of retailers have it though.)

Now, if you have the budget to go all out on chair supplies then I highly recommend the Herman Miller Aeron Chairs, but after ordering one in May (with which there was an administrative glitch so actually in) July, I only received it in November so I had needed other arrangements for much of the year. (I knew of the chair as it’s what I’ve been fortunate to use at work for about twenty years now.) I’m sure there are other more reasonably-priced ergonomic desk chairs out there that would also be much better than a dining room chair.

The other hardware arrangement was getting a monitor to supplement the laptop, which was a very good decision. The IT staff in my department was amazing back in March helping folks get set up especially for remote teaching. (Unlike many schools in the US that seemed to be on Spring break when lockdowns first occurred, at UZH we were told on Friday afternoon that starting Monday we’d have to be teaching online so there was some serious last-minute shuffling going on.) A friend convinced me to get a curved monitor and that’s been surprisingly helpful even though I had already had a rather large monitor in the office before.

In Zurich, we were allowed back in the office by June and I spent much of the summer and fall there so I didn’t have to keep innovating on my setup. However, as infections rose in the past few months, I started feeling uncomfortable going to the office so am again on the lookout for new ideas. I’ll have a separate post for software finds. In this thread, I’m especially curious to hear how folks made their physical home setup work well. And yes, I recognize my very fortunate position of having support for all these things and the privilege I have had of continuing a job I enjoy with ongoing support from my employer.



CHETAN R MURTHY 12.27.20 at 5:47 am

Eszter, you mention that Aeron chair. I’d love to get one, but …. frugal bugger that I am (and paying for it myself), I can’t bring myself to part with the dosh. I wonder if any commenters have other thoughts that don’t …. cost so bloody much? I mean, I’m even open to “get this yoga ball and this little desk to go with”, if it’d be good for the arms/wrists/back/etc.


John Quiggin 12.27.20 at 6:41 am

Trivial, perhaps, but backgrounds for Zoom and Skype are a big plus. I got one of the main UQ sandstone building, so I can look professional wherever I am and allow family members to move around freely. I’m surprised this feature hasn’t attracted more attention as a response to the “digital divide” problem of showing your family’s living conditions when you connect.

Of course, it was fun inspecting people’s bookshelves in the early days
, but that gets old fairly quickly


Zamfir 12.27.20 at 8:15 am

Some things my wife and I did, some perhaps obvious:

Height-adjustable desks. We had these already, but I am surprised by the number of colleagues who don’t take this step. Cheap from IKEA, and it saves your back perhaps even more than a good chair. Also, make sure to adjust monitor height.

A drawing tablet. Huion makes good Wacom clones. My wife’s a teacher, drawing really helps in communicating. There’s software that lets you draw on top of whatever you’re sharing over Teams.

A headset with a boom microphone. We tried multiple ones, Jabra seems best. Laptop microphone is often good enough, but this is better if you have an audience who may drift off if the sound is less than perfect.

I prefer multiple monitors over 1 big curved screen, but that may be personal. Multiple monitor make it easier to snap windows to predictable spots.

55 minute meetings (there’s a setting in Outlook!). Don’t get drawn into back-to-back meetings, always take a walk in between. Same idea: keep tea etc in another room. I also do little exercises during the days that would feel weird at the office but goes perfectly fine here.


bad Jim 12.27.20 at 9:13 am

Oh, do I have a background for my next family zoom! I have a fairly capacious library, a few thousand books, which were once carefully scrutinized by a famous author, but I zoom from the den, which has a small bookcase, mostly LP’s and large format art. The background, though, is an enormous library disappearing into the distance. Come Monday, my nephew’s birthday, I’ll find out if anyone’s amused.

Actually I want to talk about chairs. I spent most of my professional career perched in front of a screen, and suffered from variable amounts of back pain all the while. (Hot tip: lifting a box full of books and then twisting is not a good move.) Long after I’d retired, I spent long hours lounging in my leather reclining desk chair, peering at the screen through my progressive lenses, and periodically my back would hobble me. I’d walk crooked.

My mother’s dementia got to the point that she required my constant presence, so I moved from my bedroom to the den, sitting on an ergonomic task chair, facing the Mac I’d bought her, sitting so close to the screen that I set my glasses aside. After a few years I realized that my back had long stopped hurting.


oldster 12.27.20 at 10:47 am

Virtual backgrounds as an answer to the digital divide:

My computer has enough power to run Zoom, and Zoom tells me that my computer does not have enough power to run virtual backgrounds.

So, people see the tatty flat.

I don’t want to whinge or one-up, because it’s not as though I actually suffer from this — I am a pensioner, and no one expects my room to look otherwise.

But you should know that VBs are not a solution for everyone on the other side of the divide.


Cranky Observer 12.27.20 at 1:46 pm

In the United States the Office Depot chain sells a mesh-type chair for ~$275 that is adjustable and surprisingly comfortable for long-term use. They were in spotty supply May-July but seem to be available again now (Dec 2020).


Eszter Hargittai 12.27.20 at 5:58 pm

Zamfir, my IT staff got me the Wacom after I mentioned that I was having a hard time figuring out how to teach methods remotely since I prefer to write things out real-time so that students can follow along in the logic. But I never really warmed up to it, unfortunately.

Oldster, what a helpful anecdote, thanks for sharing!

CRM, I totally understand the budgetary issues with the Aeron chair. As CO mentions, there are way more reasonable alternatives that also work well (I used one while I waited for my Aeron to arrive). It looks like Office Depot has a big sale on chairs right now.


notGoodenough 12.27.20 at 6:36 pm

There has been little opportunity for me to work from home (other than the usual in addition to working at work), and normally such activities consist of writing and reading at a computer. I have found a good desk and chair combination useful, and have made sure to have a good footstall and pile of blankets and cushions so I can keep comfortable, supported, and warm (most important during these colder months). I’ve also indulged myself with a snack (nuts and raisins) and beverage draw, in addition to those holding paperwork and the like, and I have a little timer to buzz and remind me to get up and walk around a bit when I’ve been sat still for too long (something my back appreciates).

I think the biggest comfort has been decorating a little (I rent, so no big modifications, but little personal touches to make it feel like “my space” a bit more). Currently the wise and noble visage of Pratchett’s The Librarian is within my field of view, providing as it does a suitable role model we can all look up to. And, to my other side, some rather nice cheese and crackers have mysteriously appeared just now after I’ve come back from my kitchen – I shall do my duty, and dispose of the threat as best I can.


SusanC 12.27.20 at 8:38 pm

I already had an Aeron chair at home. They’re a bit expensive, but definitely recommended.

I bought a usb video camera(s) and a headset at the start of lockdown.
I also reorganized the stuff in my house so that I have more computer room space.

When the weather is good, I can eat my meals out in the garden on the terrace. I already had special garden table/chairs for that, but I was using them more than usual in the summer.


SusanC 12.27.20 at 8:48 pm

Getting the lighting levels right for videoconferencing was a bit tricky (even good cameras have less dynamic range than the human eye). I ended up with some adjustable lighting in the indoor videoconferencing room.


SamChevre 12.29.20 at 2:06 am

I had never worked from home (small children and a small house) until March: to add to the challenge, I changed jobs at the beginning of May.

I have a hard-to-use 4×7 space in my bedroom (only the center 1 foot has a full-height ceiling, the 4 -foot sides are about 4 feet tall). I put an adjustable-height table on one wall, and built a little desk top thing to raise the monitors and hold the laptop out of a quarter-sheet of plywood. I bought a second monitor.

Office chairs are a good thing to buy second-hand. I was able to keep my Steelcase Criterion that used to be at my desk, but I’d replace it with another if I had needed to.


BigHank53 12.29.20 at 7:11 am

Sit-stand desks are worth every penny. Get one of the ones with a memory feature so you aren’t endlessly fiddling. Monitor stands (either fixed or adjustable) to get your neck straightened out are also worth the effort.

Get a keyboard you like. My spouse wears out the super-flat Apple ones in two years, while I prefer mechanical keys. You’ll need to test drive them, which means giving away or selling keyboards that didn’t work for you. Monitors are just as variable: the spouse uses Apple monitors exclusively…but she’s had a home office for fifteen years and can’t afford eyestrain.

Also, the Breville electric kettles with adjustable temps and the keep-warm feature. When you’re dashing about between two meetings it’s nice to push a single button and know your water will be at the right temperature in two minutes…or fifteen minutes, if that’s when you’re back at the kettle.


Dogen 12.29.20 at 8:57 pm

On backgrounds I made a couple that were good for laughs:

One is a video of a huge pile of tires on fire, with a billowing cloud of thick black smoke.

The other is a still photo of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot.

In general I don’t like virtual backgrounds on zoom because the app doesn’t do a good enough job of separating the live person from the background and it ends up looking messy. I can’t imagine that’s a more professional look, unless it’s done much better in other apps.


CHETAN R MURTHY 12.29.20 at 9:11 pm

A little bleg: when folks mention things (like chairs, sit-stand desks, etc) it would be soooooper-useful (!!) to mention brands and models, just for us who are thinking of what to get. B/c there’s so much stuff out there, and Sturgeon’s Law, natch.


Paul Davis 12.30.20 at 11:04 pm

Chetan @ 14 : I got a sit/stand desk mechanism last year in order to build my own desk. I have a vast amount of audio gear on mine, so standard desk surfaces were not going to work. I did a lot of research and in the end settled on VertDesk as my choice. So far, it’s been excellent – 4 position memory, incredibly stable even with a bunch of mixing consoles, monitors, piano keyboard and patchbays stacked on it.

The reality is that most of the desks sold in the US have mechanisms built by the same Chinese factory, so all that’s really different is the desktop and branding. VertDesk was one of just three companies I found that do not use the same old mechanism, and their blurb convinced me to give them a shot. The price was a reasonable mid-range spot.


CHETAN R MURTHY 12.31.20 at 1:06 am

Huh, they sure look like the desk I was given when I worked for [big tech company]. Thank you for the pointer! It’s a little pricey, but …. well, I’m a cheap-ass bastard, so anything would be pricey, I guess. Do you have suggestions for chairs?


Eszter Hargittai 12.31.20 at 3:47 am

Chetan, I just ordered and put together this chair (currently on sale):

I’m far from my Aeron chair right now and wanted a cheaper alternative for where I am. Since I just got it, it’s hard for me to comment on how it’ll be long-term, but it does feel very comfortable. Of course, it depends on what tends to be of most importance. I need lower back support and I like it when the back is flexible. This one is, but you can also stop it from leaning, which is helpful.


CHETAN R MURTHY 12.31.20 at 5:03 am

Eszter, thank you! that’s great! I’ll order one! [I hope you get a commission on referrals grin]

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