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Mad About . . .

Why Zoom meetings are bad for your brain (and you reallly, really need an office chair)

26th November 2020
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Emma Morley is concerned about our brains. And our backs. An interior designer who specialises in office spaces – once commercial now often residential – she fears an epidemic not only of mental health issues at the end of this pandemic, but of back issues too as we spend hours on unsuitable chairs in badly lit corners of cramped spaces.

home working pink office via trifle creative

home working pink office via trifle creative

The founder of Trifle Creative, Emma did a drama degree and has always been fascinated by how our surroundings change our mood – beginning with theatre audiences reacting to the lights going down and later working for an experiential events company. When they asked her to redesign the office she realised she had found her niche.

But more of that shortly. Firstly those Zoom meetings. “Essentially they confuse our brains,” she says to me  – on the telephone.

“When we are in the same room we look at each other and we observe the body language. On the phone we know it’s just about listening and our brains understand that, but when it’s a screen meeting, we might not see all the body language, and our brain is looking for eye contact which it doesn’t get. The only way to make eye contact is to look at the camera and we don’t do that – we look at the faces on the screen so our brains receive the message that we are not being listened to and that we don’t have anything interesting to say because the person we are talking to isn’t looking at us and therefore our brain says they aren’t listening to us either.”

Emma Morley's home office via trifle creative

Emma Morley’s home office via trifle creative

That’s why you feel utterly drained by the end of a Zoom meeting. Not to mention the fact that many of us go from one to the next with none of the down time we might have if meetings were face to face – wandering back to your desk via the canteen or taking the bus back from an out of office.

The solution, however, is relatively simple. Emma says for her team, unless a meeting is required to look at samples or check designs, it’s all done on the telephone. And everyone feels better for it.

Having completed 100 projects in 10 years, Emma is well versed into how to create the perfect working environment whether it’s at home or in a large commercial space. Her first office job (after spending several years selling vintage clothing to fund her travels) was in a company that was regarded as ground-breaking at the time. “We were organising events and I was fascinated by how people’s behaviour would change when they came from their grey, corporate offices to our brightly coloured and relaxed space.

plants are important in offices via trifle creative

plants are important in offices via trifle creative

“They instantly relaxed and wanted to take their shoes off. Men would take their ties off before they came. Offices like that are more commonplace now but at the time it was groundbreaking.”

When Emma redesigned this first office she included a meeting room with a huge bed so that everyone could relax and chat and kick their shoes off. And studies have found (from this book I have written about before) that changing the traditional hierarchy of one person at the head of a table with everyone else subordinate, to a round table (beds aren’t for everyone or every meeting) really does foster a collegiate approach and makes every person in the room feel their ideas will be heard and valued.

Over the course of this refurbishment Emma, who has no formal training – which she finds frees her up to react according to perceived need rather than obeying a set of rules, conducted a huge amount of consumer research into what people wanted from their offices; what they liked, what they hated, what they needed (and didn’t) and fed it into her own company.

natural surfaces like wood and plants are key to a successful home office via trifle creative

natural surfaces like wood and plants are key to a successful home office via trifle creative

Then March 2020 rolled in. Emma was determined to keep her team so she dumped her office space. Then she realised, like so many of us did, that the pretty little home office corner we had decorated for the purpose of a small burst of light office admin wasn’t remotely fit for purpose when you had to sit on a hard kitchen chair perched by a tiny table with a charming (but utterly useless) 40W bulb for several hours at a time.

So she pivoted to offer consultations either to private clients who want to know how to create a home office that fits in with the rest of their home (Making Homework) or to caring employees worried about their staff. And yes she has tales of CEOs sending flowers and fruit to employees at home.

They have a duty of care to their staff she says.  As more people continue to work from home, or to stay at home long term, there will need to be legislation to address this. Bosses will need to contribute money towards a decent chair or a proper desk. Or help with bills and internet connections. At the moment some are really good about it and some have just left their employees to get on with it while expecting the same standard of work they had before.

a home office can be small image via trifle creative

a home office can be small but functional image via trifle creative

One friend of mine, an employment lawyer (so you’d think her company would know better) has spent up to eight hours a day on zoom meetings while perched at her dressing table. The work hasn’t stopped just because the environment has changed.

Emma now offers consultations and sells home office packages based around a chair and a desk with the option to add accessories such as desk lamps and storage or create something completely bespoke to suit your needs. A 30 minute zoom meeting (make sure you don’t have too many others on that day) takes place after a detailed questionnaire has been filled in. This asks about your job and your requirements as well asking what distracts you during the working day and other similar details. Following the meeting to discuss how you might create a space that really works fo you there is a discount on purchases made.

So what about those office chairs? None of us want one of those in our sitting room. Emma, who is only half-joking when she says she spent seven years working on a dining room chair to earn the money for seven years of osteopathy says it’s non-negotiable.

use botanical wallpaper to give you green views and zone a workspace via trifle creative

use botanical wallpaper to give you green views and zone a workspace via trifle creative

“Office chairs have proper lumbar support and a hard kitchen chair doesn’t. Wheels mean that you will move around and stretch your legs and change your position. I am constantly looking for good office chairs in colours that aren’t black and grey and they are beginning to emerge.”

If you are spending no more than three hours at a desk a day you can get away with a hard dining chair but more than that you need to invest in a proper office one.

Once you have the right furniture, you can focus on lighting (Emma recommends overhead for general ambient, natural when the season permits, task on the desk and a table lamp to the side for more general brightness) as well as lots of greenery. Studies have proved that plants detoxify the air and provide oxygen to the brain and can even help with memory retention and creativity.

work space by trifle creative

work space by trifle creative

Her home office doesn’t face a window so she has installed a panel of botanical wallpaper, which also helps. Researchers found that just looking at plants and greenery produces a beneficial effect.

So there you have it. If you have spent 2020 camping in a temporary office situation now is the time to really focus on how to make it work long term so that you can get the most of of your space and your brain.

To book one of Emma’s consultations for your own home click here.

 

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  • Becks Sherwood 26th November 2020 at 6:50 pm

    Does Emma have recommendations for comfortable and aesthetically pleasing office chairs? I’ve been searching for a while now and most of them are so unattractive!

    • Matija Curic 26th November 2020 at 11:08 pm

      You might want to check out symbioticchair.com, a variety of colours and finishes are available and it’s an active sitting chair

  • Lorraine 26th November 2020 at 12:53 pm

    Please can you tell me what the shelving system is in the first photo – String, by any chance?
    Thanks.

  • Anna 26th November 2020 at 11:57 am

    Office chair? May I share my experience with you all?
    IKEA have attractive versions that are not black but try buying the one you want.
    For months the web sit tells us that a particular chair is available until you put in your post code and then it is not! Eventually an hour of so waiting to speak to an adviser reveals that although the chair appears to be available online unless it is in a warehouse near you….you can’t buy it!! My attempts began in April!!!
    So give up on IKEA and search elsewhere would be my advice.

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 26th November 2020 at 12:07 pm

      That’s massively frustrating isn’t it. I think everyone is having problems with supply lines. I imagine Ikea sold their entire year’s supply of office chairs in March and April and then the factories shut down and have been struggling ever since. A vintage furniture dealer in Brighton told Sophie (my podcasting co-host) that he couldn’t source office chairs fast enough as they were flying out of the door.

  • Longdenlife 26th November 2020 at 8:41 am

    I read this article, nodding all the way through! I work in a school and spent a number of weeks in the spring/summer working from home. My lovely ercol chair in our boxroom (cant really call it an office yet) looks great but so uncomfortable, even with a seat and back cushion added! Luckily, working from home I had the opportunity to do alot of online yoga sessions when normally I would be commuting.

    Although I am now back in school and have been since about June, I have plans to make a proper home office, to include better lighting, new chair, decent storage, lots of plants, and somewhere to store the ironing out of sight so I dont have to move it every time I have a zoom call!

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