By Cammie McAda, Vocational Rehab Employer Services Leader, Guardian
With the quick onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses transformed the way they work almost overnight. With so many offices shifting their working arrangements unexpectedly, the majority of employees were not set up with a traditional home workspace.
While working with an ad hoc setup can be a fine interim solution, repeated strain from poorly placed monitors or improperly arranged desk setups can lead to serious discomfort, pain, or even injuries and musculoskeletal disorders. And as many companies plan for long-term remote work, it’s important to take steps today to set up a proper workspace that promotes comfort and is conducive to productivity.
What does an ergonomic workspace look like?
A huge piece of ergonomics is how we interact with our work environment. It’s about the human behaviors that you can control and change — not that your company buys you the coolest chair or a sit-stand desk.
Whether you’re working from a couch or a kitchen table, there are certain elements and behaviors that impact how your workstation can support your physical comfort and prevent unwanted discomfort, pain, or injury. And simple modifications or behavioral shifts are often all it takes to turn regular household furniture into a comfortable workstation.
Desk and chair arrangements
You should set up your workstation to support good desk posture and promote neutral body positions, which let your joints naturally align and reduce physical strain. Position your chair and desk so your wrists are straight when you’re using your keyboard or mouse, and your hands are at or below elbow-level. Your chair height should permit your knees to rest at approximately the same level as your hips. You can use a footrest, if needed, to raise your feet. If your chair has armrests, adjust them so your arms gently rest on them while your shoulders remain relaxed.
If you’re using a chair that’s not designed specifically for working, consider using everyday objects to make simple modifications. Put a thin pillow or towel down on your seat or roll a towel or t-shirt to create a low back support. Your chair might not be able to be adjusted, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a footrest — it can even be a box or a trashcan.
Your monitor should be about an arm’s length away and positioned so the screen is slightly below your eye level and right in front of you. If you use multiple monitors, place the screens so the primary monitor is directly in front of you and the other monitors are adjacent. If you consistently use two monitors, position them next to each other and angle them in a way that doesn’t require you to move your head back and forth excessively.
The keyboard and mouse should be at the same level and comfortably reached while your arms rest on the same surface. If you frequently use a telephone, keep it nearby and opt for using a headset, if possible, to avoid straining your neck.
Using laptops as a primary computer
Many employees who quickly transitioned to working remotely may only have a laptop as their primary computer. A laptop can be awkward if you have your keyboard too high or your monitor too low. It helps to use an external keyboard and place your monitor higher, or use an external monitor and keep your keyboard lower.
It’s more than furniture and equipment
While having a properly arranged monitor and chair can help prevent discomfort, you need to be aware of how your actions can have an impact. Our behaviors are critical to our overall well-being and working at home requires you to exercise control over your environment to the extent you’re able, and to be aware of your body and surroundings.
Simple adjustments can make a big difference. Keep regularly used items within reach if you’re experiencing strain or try placing your phone on your non-dominate side to force you to alter your routine activities. If you find that you’re slumping too much in your chair, try taking breaks to work from your kitchen counter while standing. These behavior alterations can promote movement and reduce the chance for repeated actions that might cause future discomfort.
Many employers may be able to provide equipment such as monitors, keyboards, headsets, or wrist pads to all employees, or even offer discounts or subsidies for furniture purchases. If your company offers resources such as a vocational expert — someone who can give you expert guidance on how to set up your home workspace — reach out to them for advice. And speak to your manager to discuss your specific workspace needs.
Try to designate a specific area of your home as your workspace to the extent it is possible. And structure your day in a way that is conducive to your comfort and well-being by alternating the amount of your time spent in communication-intensive meetings with independent work. Shorten meetings by five or ten minutes if possible, to plan for a small break in between tasks.
Supporting your physical well-being ultimately helps promote your ability to focus and contribute to your business’ success. You want to take breaks to give yourself the opportunity to take care of what you need to take care of to be prepared, focused, and productive.