Home office ideas on a budget: Tips from the experts

by Mike Sharkey

Home office on a budget

With increasing local COVID-19 lockdowns, remote and hybrid working is here to stay. So we’ve put together this guide to help people create a home office that maximizes space and money and enhances their employee experience.

Having a designated workspace is all-important now so many of us are working from home. But how do you do it if you don’t have much room – or money? We asked an interior designer and physiotherapist about their best home office ideas on a budget. If you’re wondering how to set up a home office without an extra room, or make a home office in a small space, read on.

A relaxed remote working policy has been found to do workers and businesses the power of good. A 2017 study from Stanford University showed that employees of Chinese travel giant Ctrip, who chose to work from home, increased their overall productivity by 13%. And, thanks to the freedom and comfort they got from working from their own space, the business benefitted. Happiness among these workers rose so much that employee retention increased by 50% which created savings on recruitment. But there was a catch. To qualify to work from home, workers had to have both “decent WiFi” and a home office setup, or designated space to work.

Fast-forward three years to a pandemic world – now the demand that most people work from home is causing concern. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, who led the 2017 survey, thinks that added distractions of family members and “unsuitable” work spaces will cause a drop in overall productivity.‏1‏ But, like waking up early and putting on your ‘work’ outfit, a designated home office or working space could help combat low productivity, boost concentration and reinstate that all-important work-life balance.

Many of us haven’t got a home office setup at our disposal. Even fewer of us have two separate ready-made spaces if our partners or housemates also need a place to work. But luckily, creating a suitable spot to get stuck into your 9-5 needn’t be difficult – nor expensive. Interior designer Cathy Flanagan and chartered physiotherapist Colin Nash share their best ideas for a cheap home office setup – from space, light and color palettes to ergonomics and physical health.

Create a home office space that works for you

Think multifunctional

Not all of us are lucky enough to have an extra room waiting to be transformed into a home office, nor have the time – or the cash – for a home makeover. The good news is you can easily and cheaply set up an effective working space in whatever spot you’ve got, even in a small space.

According to Cathy Flanagan, founder of London-based design studio Keep Interior Design, existing spaces in the home, can double quite nicely as home offices, whether a rarely-used spare room or a light-filled corner of the dining room. Whatever you do, don’t go for a space that’s too restricted: “I’d much rather adapt a larger space to be multifunctional than end up working in a space that’s awkward or compromised, like the space under the stairs,” says Cathy.

Chartered physiotherapist Colin Nash agrees. “If possible, choose a space that gives you options for shifting position throughout the day, as it’s important for maintaining good posture” he says. “It’s equally as important to have space to move away from your workstation from time to time and stretch out.”

Consider your layout

In the UK, people work, on average, 42 hours a week.‏2‏ That’s more than eight hours a day to feel comfortable, productive and inspired in your home work space. Whether you’ve got a room in mind to convert, or are setting up an office space in your sitting room, bedroom or kitchen, how you choose to lay it out really matters according to Cathy. “You’re going to spend a lot of time in this room, so it’s important to think seriously about the best use of space and design,” she says.

There are simple ways to do this. First, Cathy suggests, get some inspiration: browse Instagram, Pinterest or interiors magazines for ideas on colors, textures, styles and layouts. But don’t misjudge the space you have available: you don’t want to find that the perfect desk you’ve spotted online cuts straight across a window frame, or that the bookshelf you’ve chosen for your files is too tall for the wall.

Put in partitions

If you’re converting an existing room, such as a living room, to accomodate a home working space, make sure to create partitions using curtains or even plants to divide one space from the other. “It’s important to be able to shut your office away at the end of the day, to create separation and allow you to relax,” Cathy says. And that goes for the spare bedroom too: “Your guests won’t want to feel like they are staying in an office,” she adds.

Get the app

If you want to take planning a step further, there are reliable interior design apps you can download to help you virtually plan a space. For straightforward overhead planning, try the aptly-named Floorplanner app. It’s free, simple to use and ideal for laying out 2D room plans plus making sure all your favourite furniture fits. If you’re looking for more comprehensive software that allows you to explore all aspects of your design, opt for SketchUp, favored by the professionals for its 3D modeling, viewing capabilities and ease of use, “as if you’re working with pen and paper”.‏3‏

Physical health and wellbeing

The word “ergonomics” usually conjures up images of specially designed chairs, keyboards and other office equipment adapted to make working life easier. But it’s more than that. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) describes it as “the science concerned with the ‘fit’ between people and their work” – that is, the job at hand, the person’s physical and mental capabilities, and the organization and social environment.‏4‏

When it comes to the benefits of ergonomics for health and safety, the HSE says that applying them in the workplace “reduces the potential for accidents, reduces the potential for injury and ill health, and improves performance and productivity.” So when we’re working remotely we need to shift the ergonomic benefits of the workplace to our home office spaces, without breaking the bank – or our backs…

The problem of aches and pains

Since the COVID-19 lockdown began, there’s been a sharp increase in complaints of musculoskeletal disorders. IES Working from Home Wellbeing Survey findings reveal that more than 58% of respondents suffered from new neck pain, 56% complained of increased shoulder discomfort and 55% reported back pain since remote working became a full-time requirement.

The causes for such irritating aches and pains vary. Fatigue and unsound sleep could be one reason, with 60% of people reporting an inability to get a good night’s sleep. Repressed anxiety around family safety and job security is another. But the main causes are physical: prolonged periods in cramped or twisted postures, lack of movement, awkwardly laid-out work stations and unsuitable or badly adjusted furniture. If you’re suffering, you’ll be relieved to hear that you could be back to your pain-free state in no time, with some cheap (or even free), straightforward adjustments.

Workstations: think outside the box

As many as 90% of the UK population uses a computer or laptop for work. But when working from home, not everybody will be using a traditional office desk – at least not all of the time. So moving from place to place and between different levels for a change of position can be highly beneficial, says Colin, who’s writing from his kitchen where his laptop is propped on a stool, on top of the kitchen table.

“This serves as a perfect standing desk for my height,” he explains. “When it comes to feeling comfortable working remotely, think outside the box. You don’t need to spend big bucks for a hybrid sit-to-stand desk. Play around with different pieces of furniture you have at home, such as boxes and books, to set up a comfortable standing height.”

Peak positioning

For perfect posture and peak positioning, Colin warns against emptying your wallet for the most expensive adjustable chair money can buy. “When it comes to your working setup there is no perfect posture, so play around with what you’ve got,” he says, suggesting a balance between a standard kitchen or dining chair, a medicine ball and standing upright.

“The key is to change position every so often. Experiment to see what works for you – I would suggest changing between different sitting positions or sitting and standing every 30-60 minutes. Though there’s no perfect working posture, I would recommend having your keyboard close to you and, if possible, your screen in front of you at eye level.”

Mind over matter

It’s not just your physical wellbeing you need to look after when putting in the hours at home. There are also plenty of simple tips for keeping your mind focussed and engaged, and helping you get that balance between peaceful and productive.

A question of light and color

It’s said that color has a profound effect on our state of mind, with orange and yellow supposedly connected with energy and vitality, green inducing a sense of calm and groundedness and white denoting a new start and sense of refreshment. However, different colors resonate with different people, so don’t be afraid to rewrite the rules when it comes to decorating your work space.

“I think everyone has a color palette, and colors they respond really well to,” says Cathy, who works predominantly with neutral tones and dark colors in her designs. Don’t choose anything too busy or distracting, however. “Stick to three colors, one of which will be an accent,” Cathy suggests. “Remember, you want the space to be calm. If you’re a fan of patterned wallpaper, ask yourself if you’ll still be a fan in a couple of years’ time.”

A well-lit office is also essential for mental wellbeing and harnessing focus. “Choose a naturally-lit spot with a window open to let some air in,” suggests Colin, “the opportunity to soak up some vitamin D is a big bonus!”

Cathy agrees: “If there’s a way to get natural light into the room – do it.” And if there’s no window in the space you’ve chosen to set up your home working space? “Consider putting in a glass door to let some light in, instead,” Cathy advises.

Stay organized

Having a tidy and organized workspace isn’t just important from an aesthetic point of view, although, as Cathy reminds us, “in the age of Zoom, people will be looking!” – it’s also essential for productivity and focus, making you feel more capable of tackling the task at hand with fewer distractions.

There are various ways to achieve optimum organization, depending on the space you’re working in. If you’re in a smaller or shared space, for example, there’s no need to overfill it with unnecessary cabinets or storage units.

“Look up!” advises Cathy. “Can you fit a wall unit or shelves above a desk to free up floor space, for example?” Those of us with the possibility of a window seat area could go a step further, she suggests, and build shelving units in at the sides to keep files, documents and other bits and bobs tucked away at the end of the working day.

And a top tip? Don’t let people use your office space for storage. The bike that can’t stay on the porch anymore, the crib on standby for the next family reunion, the rarely-used gaming consoles...? Shut them away elsewhere – don’t clutter up your working and thinking space with stuff that’s not essential to your work.

Atmospheric extras

Everybody has their go-tos for feeling relaxed, inspired or enthused – an art print to admire or a yoga mat and candles on standby for regular stretching intervals. Cathy’s personal enhancement for a home office on a budget? “Plants, plants, and more plants!”

Greenery makes an ideal choice for home decoration, not least for your home office; plants purify the air, provide aesthetic pleasure and have been found to lower stress and illness, even providing healing qualities in hospitals.

Colin, on the other hand, opts for regular exercise intervals to keep the mind and body sound when working from home. “I plan my work day around exercise,” he says, “beginning with first thing in the morning, having just spent the night lying in bed. Beating the afternoon slump with some movement is also key for my productivity and wellness levels.”

So, get searching for those yoga mats and home weight sets. Just don’t forget to tuck them away before you relax at the end of the working day.

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