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Home Office Ergonomics
March 27, 2020
Top 5 tips for a safe work-at-home space
Most home offices are littered with ergonomics errors, which can impair productivity and health, and cost you money. Here’s how to set up work environments that won’t sacrifice comfort, efficiency or health.
When working from home, it’s tempting to jump on a laptop and toil away in your favorite easy chair. The problem is, if you don’t treat digital work as a form of manual labor, your neck, back, arms or wrists will eventually exact their revenge.
Some 1.8 million workers suffer every year from repetitive strain injuries (RSI), which have surged in the last quarter century. These conditions can range from irritating to debilitating. (ever try opening a door with a carpal tunnel flare-up?)
A company whose workers accumulate on-the-job injuries face higher workers’ compensation premiums, not to mention lost time and productivity. In fact, employers already pay $1 billion every week toward direct workers’ comp costs, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Today’s incredibly efficient software and hardware come with a curse: few built-in interruptions for workers, and little need to depart the desk. The good news is that it’s entirely possible to prevent computer-related injuries from developing in the first place.
Whether you’re asking employees to work from home or doing it yourself, here are five best practices for setting up ergonomically friendly home offices. (Before you get any gear, this checklist from ergonomics consultancy EWI Works steps through the essentials.)
1. Use a chair that treats your neck and back well
Comfort-wise, the right office chair is the single most important investment. It should support the lower back and encourage workers to sit with their feet planted firmly on the floor or tilted slightly upward. When in it, the worker should be facing forward, eyes level with the screen. Shoulders should be relaxed with elbows and knees bent toward the keyboard at about a 90-degree angle. It’s also important to allow a couple of inches between the knees and the front of the chair.
For a home-office throne, adjustability is also king. A swivel seat prevents the back and neck from twisting, as do wheels (ideally five). Workers should adjust the chair’s pan height – the distance from the floor to the seat itself – by moving the seat up and down. The pan depth – from where a person’s bottom meets the backrest to their knees – should also be adjustable. Similarly, employees will want the option to lock the chair’s angle into place, allowing them to recline slightly rather than hunching forward.
While armrests should move as well, they shouldn’t push up the shoulders or prevent workers from getting close to the desk. If budget won’t allow adjustable armrests, which often come at a premium, skip them altogether.
The entry level for a well-padded, adjustable office chair is about $350. However, if a favorite kitchen chair ticks off the important ergonomics boxes, you're good to go. Add a pillow and voila, it’s possible to achieve low-back support with the necessary gap between the back of the calves and the front of the seat.
“It’s not enough to get an ergonomic chair; the best chair is the one that fits,” says Annie Barnwell, a certified professional ergonomist who helps to customize home offices.
It’s fine to perch on a yoga ball, stand at a counter or even curl up in bed with a laptop – but limit that time outside of a comfortable chair to 20 or 30 minutes to let back and core muscles recover. Just don’t power through an awkward position; even if working from home is only temporary, it can only take a few weeks to knot your neck or inflame a nerve in the wrists or elbows.
2. Aim for the correct height on your desk
After selecting the right seat, nail down a desk that places work within easy reach. Plenty of contemporary desks at office supply stores are adjustable, starting around $150, and many shift from a seated to a standing position. Some come on wheels.
“Standard” fixed-height desks, on the other hand, measure in at 29 inches, which is meant only for someone about six feet tall. Typing on a too-high table makes you hunch and shrug, compressing tissue and nerves in the wrists and arms. Even if you’re limited to a standard table or equivalent, you can create a comfy workspace by optimizing everything else around it.
To calibrate the workspace, employees should sit and relax their arms, with elbows at a 90-degree angle. Hands should rest on the top of the desk. If fingertips are higher than the wrists, lower the desk. If the employee is reaching downward to touch the desktop, raise the desk.
Next, don’t overlook the lowly yet critical footrest, which ultimately supports the spine. Foot risers that rock and shift for fidgeting start around $25. But there’s no shame in following this pro tip: A ream of legal-size paper is the right height and width.
3. Have a laptop? Treat it more like a desktop.
If working from a laptop, as many people do these days, don’t just rely upon the onboard equipment. While the integrated monitor, keyboard and mouse work just fine in relatively short bursts, you really want to treat your laptop more like a desktop if you’re going to be on it for eight to 10 hours per day. This means pushing the laptop back and connecting it to a separate monitor, keyboard and mouse.
Using a free-standing monitor or even the monitor function in your Smart TV can help avoid the neck and back strain that sometimes accompanies relying on the laptop’s computer display. To get maximum ergonomic benefit, you should adjust the monitor or use a riser so the top of the screen is at, or slightly below, eye level. Ergonomic experts recommend also having the monitor about 20 inches away from your eyes, or about an arm’s length.
For keyboards, you have numerous options for style and design. Once you pick the one that works for you, you’ll still have to assure the keyboard is positioned at about the height of your elbows. If your desk or tabletop is too low, use a large book, upside-down baking dish, or any other stable object to raise it to the correct height. It may not be beautiful, but your body will appreciate it until you can obtain a better solution.
Also consider your mouse positioning and fit. Make sure it’s the right size for the user’s hand, allowing the palm to relax and the fingers to drape effortlessly over its front. HP offers a variety of keyboards and mice for you to choose from. Specialty mice include the hoof-like, vertical Evoluent models or the Contour brand in small, medium or large.
4. Expand your view with dual monitors – or one supersized one
There’s a whole science (and an art) around using computer monitors more ergonomically. For instance, the top of the monitor glass should be positioned at about eye level, enabling workers to look about 20 degrees downward to the center of the screen. That’s a no-brainer when pairing a desktop monitor with a standalone desktop tower.
If users tend to work with or refer to multiple digital or paper documents at one time, it might also make sense to invest in multiple monitors to minimize neck and eye strain. Studies find using more than one monitor can also boost productivity by 40 percent. Dual monitors expand your view, making it a snap to toggle between tasks and files, helping to relax the eyes and keep them moving. Look for models that swivel or tilt. If a monitor can’t be adjusted vertically, add a stack of $10 monitor risers (or those handy office paper reams).
HP monitors include modest 21.5-inch, Full HD (FHD) models starting around $100 to 65-inch, 4K gaming monitors that run around $4,000. FHD does the job for typical office tasks. As an alternative to dual monitors at about the same price, a single, jumbo monitor such as the HP Z38c Curved Display provides uninterrupted, 37.5-inch, 4K-wide views.
There are some professions for which “the more the merrier” is true for monitors. There’s no harm in piling monitors onto a roomy desk or mounting some on the wall. Just make sure it’s possible to see the screen from a neutral neck posture. Also, keep screens larger than 22 inches at about an arm’s length distance. Dual screens should be positioned about 30 inches away.
5. A wireless headset keeps you moving
It is said that death, taxes and meetings are certainties in life – even when working from home. At least a cozy headset with stellar audio quality can prevent moments of conference call “fail." Users shouldn’t have to settle for the earbuds that shipped with their smartphones. HP offers a plethora of headsets at a number of price points. Over-ear wired models tend to please audiophiles, but sound quality has come a long way even for the smallest wireless options. Portability is the beauty of a Bluetooth headset.
“I love having a headset, especially for a home office, because when you do get a phone call it allows you to get up from your workstation and take a short walk,” Barnwell says. And that allows you to follow the golden rule of ergonomics, which is to take frequent microbreaks. Get up, stretch every half hour, and obey the 20/20/20 law: Look about 20 feet away every 20 minutes for about 20 seconds. “I always tell people that your next posture is your best posture,” Barnwell says. “Movement is important.”
Now that you know the 5 essential tools to master home-office ergonomics, remember that it’s not about frivolous creature comforts, but about safeguarding any worker’s number-one asset – their health. The art of designing a workspace for efficiency as well as comfort is the best office investment you can make.