How to Work From Home in the Age of Zoom

Meeting tech should change the way one thinks about home office design.

Zoom backgrounds

Lloyd Alter

When the pandemic hit and many people started working from home, the Treehugger team was ready; we had all been working from home forever and had written many posts about how healthy, frugal, and green it was. I was full of advice about how to keep it simple, keep it light, and keep it mobile.

But my thinking has evolved in the last six months, primarily because of the way our social and professional lives have moved onto Zoom and Meet and other video platforms. And while every guide to working from home will advise you to get dressed and look professional, almost none of them look at what it takes to make your home office look professional.

I have been thinking about this a lot on Wednesday evenings when I join about 300 designers and builders for the Passive House Happy Hour, where I always think that Zack Semke of the Passive House Accelerator pops out from the crowd with his clean background, good lighting, and crisp camera.

Michael Ingui of Baxt Ingui Architects has a setup like most of the people in the Happy Hour; his home, looking comfortable, often with a big white dog on his lap. But I find it distracting, the reflection of a light in the window, cluttered. Then there is Susan Rowley of HOK in Toronto, with her Coronavirus Zoom background; I am not normally a fan of these backgrounds, when body parts come in and go out and they don't cut very well around hair, but hers is just fun, given the circumstances, and she is well lit.

Lloyd Alter's Desk

Lloyd Alter

When I designed my home office a few years ago, I had just started experimenting with videos and decided to do a neutral wood background out of maple veneered plywood. I built a standing desk in front of the window which many people said was a bad idea, but natural light is the best light, and there is nothing worse on Zoom than a window behind you. I was not happy with the camera built into my iMac, so I recently bought a Logitech Brio with 4K resolution, and which comes with software so that I can adjust the zoom and the color, which I toned down in the image at the top. The only problem is that 4K is really detailed; I have to shave very carefully because you can see every imperfection. it needs a soft-focus option. For sound, I am finding that the Apple Airpods are working really well both as a microphone and for hearing. The ugly white wire is the ethernet connection hard-wired to the computer; I have found that it significantly increased the speed and dependability over wifi, even with the antenna right there on the wall.

Zack Semke desk

Zack Semke

I was impressed enough with Zack's setup to ask him what he had, and he shared it with Treehugger; he explains:

"I have a circle light set up behind the desk that I sit at. I use a webcam on the larger monitor that I use for the Happy Hour so that I can make the text on the monitor really big and still have my focus not too far from the camera. For backdrop I hang a simple self-expanding cloth one from my low basement ceiling."

He has a little Logitech Streamcam Plus camera on top of his monitor; you want the camera higher than a laptop camera that's looking up your nose, and that big ring light does a great job. You might think this is all a bit much for a home office, and that he needs this for his job at Passive House Accelerator, but the fact is that it is everyone's job now, working and communicating from our home offices.

Happy Hour fun

Lloyd Alter

There's nothing wrong with having a bit of fun in a happy hour; Mark has a wild but distracting moving background, and Shaun is always up for a party. But for everyone else, some basic rules should apply: make sure that the light is in your face and not behind you, get the camera up above eye level, and think about what's behind you. And don't do the bookcase thing; everyone will criticize your library.

It's a Good Time To Try a Standing Desk

Standing Desk

Michael Graham Richard

If you have ever considered a standing desk, it is a good time to try it out. They can be a lot shallower than a regular desk because you can easily move sideways to reach for stuff; mine is only 16" deep and 4'-6" wide, which can be hung on a wall like a shelf. Kids can't demand to sit on your lap because you don't have one when standing. It's much easier just to walk around when you are thinking, and if you get tired and want to sit down, that's when you go for the sofa. Treehugger Emeritus Michael Graham Richard built his out of kleenex boxes and worked on it for months before he committed to buying one. Just be sure to buy an anti-fatigue mat to stand on; it makes all the difference.

What Is Your Home Office Like?

I would love to see how others are dealing with this; send me a photo (1500 pixels wide preferred) and a description of what you find works, and what doesn't, any tips or tricks, at lalter@dotdash.com