How to create a healthy home workspace in this post-pandemic world

The pandemic forced many people out of comfortable offices into their own homes, never to return. Here, Jackson W. Ryan speaks to experts who explain how to create a healthy home workspace.

It’s hard to forget March 13, 2020. The editor-in-chief rang our office and told us to pack up our desks and leave – we’d be working from home until the pandemic was under control. But, as fate would have it, we never returned to the office.

As a tech journalist, I was fortunate: I had the gear and the contacts to build a pseudo-home office in my living room. I took the laptop home and plugged it into a couple of external monitors. My desk already had a comfortable gaming chair that mostly prevented my slouching. And then there was Garry, my plastic desk plant – the perfect colleague.

Adapting to this New Normal hasn’t always been easy. Working full time from home has its own challenges. And there’s a lot of conflicting information about achieving the best setup for both your physical and mental health.

A plethora of research, spurred by the pandemic and forced lockdowns, has explored everything from the importance of regular exercise, the ergonomics of your desk setup and the best apps to support team communication. The bottom line? When it comes to a healthy work space, there’s a lot of research, but not always a lot of answers.

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” says Jodi Oakman, Head of the Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors, La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Amongst those unknowns, there are some tried and true ways to set up your workspace so its best for you. As with many things, it’s best to start with the basics.

Space jams: blockers to a healthy home workspace

The first thing to do: find some space.

It’s not helpful to turn your bed into the office cubicle, with a laptop resting against your knees and you definitely don’t turn the dining room table into your home office. That’s a one-way ticket to the Distraction Zone.

“If you were trying to design a perfect work from home environment, you give someone a workspace where they can work uninterrupted,” says Oakman.

The perfect scenario is a room but this is a tough ask for many, especially in apartments and smaller units, Oakman notes. If you can find the space, that’s where you start. Now, the desk: do you sit or do you stand?

Of course, if I’ve learnt anything from buying Old El Paso taco kits, there’s an opportunity here. Why not both? That’s what the experts suggest, too.

A range of research has demonstrated that both prolonged sitting and prolonged standing can have detrimental health effects. Sitting can increase the risk of chronic disease, heightening the chance of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, but standing can put a strain on muscles and bone. The middle ground is to opt for a sit-stand desk, which allows you to do both.

In both scenarios, you’ll need to be conscious of how your workstation is set up. Recommendations from Safe Work Australia suggest the best thing to do is to ensure your monitor is about an arm’s length away and that your eye level rests just below the top of the screen – sitting or standing. You should also have your feet planted flat on the ground and a chair with a five point base and no armrests.

A Cochrane review of the literature, one of the gold standard analyses of available evidence, was published in 2018. It couldn’t find any good evidence to show that standing desks were any better at reducing sitting than sit-stand desks, but a prompt to get up and walk around did help keep workers active.

How to kit out a healthy home workspace

There are well established principles about how to set up your desk space but less work has been done on the best equipment to prevent musculoskeletal issues.

“We know we should give people separate screens, a mouse, keyboard – don’t have them working on laptops for long periods of time,” says Oakman.

Over the past 15 years, ergonomics research has attempted to identify some of the more promising designs for mice and keyboards.

healthy home workspace - mouse and keyboard
We pick out our favourite ergonomic mouse and keyboard below

When it comes to mice, there is a decent evidence base that suggests a vertical mouse could be beneficial. Early research showed this type of mouse achieves less muscle activation when compared to a standard, flat mouse, mostly related to the rotation of a person’s forearm.

A 2018 review of the scientific literature suggests that no specific design is the best, but individual users might find benefits from switching to mice with non-traditional designs to reduce that muscle strain.

There isn’t great evidence that alternative keyboard designs, like mechanical keyboards or fixed split-angle keyboards, promote less musculoskeletal strain but some studies, with small groups, have suggested a potential benefit.

Keep moving

Regardless of the way you position your desk or what you place on top of it, it’s really all about activity.

“The real message is around flexibility and making sure you move,” says Oakman.

The key to a healthy home workspace is actually getting away from that workspace. Sometimes that means darting off for a brisk two minute walk around the house every half an hour. There are tangible physical benefits to reducing sedentary time and emerging evidence this is also beneficial for mental health.

“Introduce little bursts of more activity into your day,” says Josephine Chau, a public health researcher at Macquarie University. She suggests even going out to grab your coffee is a useful time to get the heart rate up. Then, when you return to your desk, you’re not even really sweating or flush in the face, but you’ve reduced your sitting time.

…and keep things airy

Other factors in the workspace can also influence health.

One study, by researchers in the US, suggests air quality could be an important consideration – cognition benefitted in work spaces that were better ventilated. There is also evidence showing natural light is an important consideration, with office employees reporting fewer headaches and less drowsiness when daylight is optimised. Whether lights that mimic natural light provide the same effect has not been studied, but optimising light into a home office space seems like a smart idea.

There’s even some suggestion, via a 2024 study of work from home employees across the Netherlands and South Korea, that living in an apartment is worse for concentration and energy levels. While this suggests it’s probably best to just up and move house, that’s likely not a consideration for many – instead, it shows the importance of considering everything from the interactions you have with neighbours to the physical space you work in.

A healthy home workspace: the bottom line

What’s most important in establishing a healthy home workspace then? Understanding your needs, building something comfortable and making sure you move.

For what it’s worth, I use a fairly standard setup with three 27in monitors, a standard Razer Cynosa keyboard and a Corsair mouse that’s almost certainly been discontinued. To help you find the best kit for a healthy workspace, we’ve put together a list of suggestions below.

I use a Koala Virtue office chair and try to keep my feet planted and back straight, as is the standard advice, but I have to be honest: of course I slouch, I cross my legs in my chair a lot and sometimes I just keep typing for four hours straight without a break. I have to remind myself to move.

That’s the thing to remember about building a healthy workspace: It’s not going to be perfect because there is no perfect. Try to stick to basic ergonomic principles and tools you feel most comfortable with and factor in some time throughout your day to get up, stretch the muscles and get the heart rate up.

Oh, and get yourself a Garry. There’s no science behind it, I just think a plastic desk plant looks nice.

Healthiest home office chair

Herman Miller Mirra 2 chair
The Herman Miller Mirra 2 chair in situ

No-limit budget: Herman Miller Mirra 2 chair

Sheer comfort and luxury, with a seat that adapts to your position. But you’ll pay for the privilege, as this costs from around £1,000 in the UK and around $2,000 in Australia.

On a budget: Boulies EP200 in the UK, Buro Tidal in Australia.

Considering the Boulies EP200 costs under £200, it feels both well built and comfortable. It’s not available in Australia (or the US), but fortunately the Buro Tidal is another fine, ergonomic offering for $617 from Elite Office Furniture – and it’s made in Australia.

Healthiest keyboard & mouse

most ergonomic keyboard and mouse
Logitech’s Wave keyboard and Lift mouse

Amongst Logitech’s huge range of mice and keyboards, it offers these two high-end ergonomic selections: the Wave Keys keyboard and Lift Vertical Ergonomic Mouse. In the UK, the keyboard costs £70, but it’s better value in the US at $60 while in Australia it’s $150. The Lift mouse costs £70 in the UK, $70 in the US and $130 in Australia.

Healthiest monitor

For a monitor, you’re looking for one that includes the latest blue-light reduction technology and plenty of height adjustment (150mm is a good target) so that you can follow the guidelines we mention above. That gives you a huge number of options, but we’ve picked out the Dell 27 4K UHD USB-C Monitor (S2722QC) for its value for money.

At present, it’s £329 in the UK, $360 in Australia and $320 in the USA.

You can pick different sizes and resolutions to suit your budget, but make sure you keep the “height-adjustable” box ticked on Dell’s website.

Related: Which are the most sustainable computers and peripherals?

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Jackson W. Ryan

Jack Ryan is an award-winning science writer and investigative journalist focusing on climate change, space, biotech, health, video games and human beings. He has previously been the science editor at US tech powerhouse and a science and tech reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.