Make the best of working from home

Professor Stephen Heppell provides some clear and practical advice for making the best of working from home.

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“appreciating that not everyone is currently able or expected to work at home, many jobs can only be done directly (eg health professionals, bus drivers [or marine crew]) but for many of you the information below is the basis of a great project and you will be amazed at the difference that a cognitive makeover can have on your work in these difficult times.”

Optimising the physical space to be your very best

Our project, led by 30+ years of educational research, together with sporting insights into the aggregation of marginal gains, has been looking for 5 years at the small details that have a substantial impact on learning and behaviour in schools, colleges and sport. We have millions of hours of data and know what works, with good evidence.

Given the current coronavirus crisis there are now many children and adults worldwide facing a substantial period working at home / from home. This summary below is freely offered to help you make the home working space the very best it can be to keep you bright, engaged, clever and productive. All the details are easy to implement – and anyway, it looks like many of you now have time on your hands…


For your brain to be at its best for learning, you need to be in a place between 18°-21°C. Every degree above that and your performance declines in a straight line. By 23°C there is a statistically significant performance drop. With each degree temperature goes up, your performance goes down. Air circulation is a big help – keep the air moving through your working space.

With coronavirus we are being asked to work with open windows anyway, currently, so that also helps to moderate temperatures.

Light levels

Light is complex (see more here). Your working brain needs good light. There is brightness (lux levels), but also whiteness (the kelvin number, or temperature, of light). You can measure the lux levels easily with a simple phone app. There are many. On an outdoor Spring day in England light would be many thousands of Lux. Your brain needs a minimum of 500 lux and our project normally looks for 1,000 lux – which feels quite dramatic – like an operating theatre. Less that 500 and you will be yawning and off task pretty soon.

The old fluorescent tubes are not good for learning. Your brain perceives a flicker even if you don’t notice it and this is stressful, giving headaches, making reading hard and often resulting in real tiredness. Do not try to work under fluorescent tubes.

Fortunately you can usually retro fit modern LED bulbs into your existing fittings. when you buy LED bulbs you will note they have a kelvin value. The higher the kelvin rating the ‘whiter’ the light. You need “daylight white” a kelvin 5,500 or higher. Nothing else. Here is an example from Amazon but try to support your local shops if you can.


At its simplest, movement gets the blood flowing around your body, and thus your brain. It’s all a bit more complicated than that, but the important thing is to stand, move, stretch, and when you sit do so at a body angle more like 130° that the “sit up straight” of 90°.

You can do this with thoughtful furniture, by having a place to stand and work sometimes, or just by good habits. Move at least every 20 minutes. Even just standing rather than sitting prior to an important event (like a phone conference perhaps) will measurably sharpen your brain up.


Years ago teachers were taught that eau de Nil (an insipid green quite unlike the Nile!) was calming whereas orange would make children a little hyper. The evidence of any of this however is poor. We do know that red wakes you up in the morning (hence all those red dresses and clothes on breakfast TV shows) but really what is more important is a bit of variety. If you are lucky enough to have (or afford) a colour changing lightbulb or two, just use them to keep your ‘space’ changed as time goes by. Or add bits of spot colour by swapping in cushions or hanging things around the place – just bits and pieces, not whole walls!

White walls

Walls reflect light. White paint on walls reflects more light than coloured paint. Dark colours soak up light. In our project we have become enthusiasts for Dulux Light and Space paint, in white. If you get bored at home take a day to repaint your walls with this clever paint – it reflects a LOT more light than standard emulsion paint and it is only slightly more expensive. Worth doing; this may all go on for some time.


This is a hugely important variable. Again, it is complex and more details are here. We measure CO2 in ppm (part per million) and anything over 1,000ppm begins to impact on your learning and thinking. Our little boxes measure CO2 and much more for schools and colleges, but for your home space it is enough to know that CO2 is a heavy gas, hangs around in a room and we all exhale it as we breathe. A room can get to 1,000ppm surprisingly quickly. The more people in the room the faster that threshold is reached.

But there are simple solutions – keeping doors open lets the CO2 pour out of the room. Plants are your friends though. Through photosynthesis plants absorb CO2 and give back oxygen in daylight hours. So three or four biggish household plants (Aloe Vera, Sansevieria Trifasciata, that kind of thing) will do more than enough work to keep your room oxygen rich rather than CO2 flooded. In schools we really see a substantial behaviour problem resulting from the disengagement that too much CO2 brings, so spend some time on this bit of the makeover in your home.

Noise and Music

There is a lot of research about this, some of it surprising. We did our own as well. We concluded from all of this that:

Quiet music is less distracting than silence – perhaps because in silence you hear all kinds of little bits of noise and your ears strain to make sense of them.

However, if the music is at all loud, then it is also distracting. “Too loud” varies from person to person but it is usually much lower than you might expect. Keep the music down very low.

If the music has a lyric that you know it appears that the bit of your brain that sings along with the lyric is also the bit that does writing / reading and that is not helpful. So no lyrics.

and finally, If there is a noise, or music, with faster than around 75 beats per minute (eg a noisy fan) then that is unexpectedly distracting already. By 100 bpm it is really distracting. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is at about 65 bpm as an indicator. In classical music Andante would be too fast.
So in summary – go with music that is quiet, has no lyrics and is quite slow.


At the risk of seeming a bit New Age, smells matter. After we came across a school that opened every morning to the seductive smell of fresh bread, we looked at evidence of other positive smells. Mainly, we found that Rosemary has a quite substantial and positive effect on memory.

Shakepeare said “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance…” and turns out, he was right! Rubbing your hands on a Rosemary plant and sniffing them really does help short term memory. But Lavendar will send you to sleep, so keep away from that!

Finally, we do appreciate that not everyone is currently able or expected to work at home – some schools are still open (17th March 2020), many jobs can only be done directly (eg health professionals, bus drivers [Marine crews]) but for many of you the information above is the basis of a great project and you will be amazed at the difference that a cognitive makeover can have on your work in these difficult times.

An environment that is good for your brain is also a healthy and less stressful environment – that should perhaps help everyone to stay healthier too… every little helps.

And of course for everyone, you will have noticed that most of the above variables can be dramatically improved by working out of doors, if you are in a place where that is an option. There is a reason for all those fond childhood memories of outside learning! Even getting your head out of the window, or moving onto a balcony, will be helpful if possible.

Please forward this on to anyone that it might help. Hopefully, we can all play a part as this crisis sweeps by us all.

Professor Stephen Heppell

Make the best of working from home