So many office workers across the country have been thrust into working remotely for what may be the first time. Even for those who worked from home on occasion before the novel coronavirus changed our day-to-day existence, the idea that WFH is now the only option can present challenges—especially if you didn’t have a permanent setup for more regular use, or your situation is further complicated by sharing space with whomever’s stuck indoors alongside you and surfaces are serving, at a minimum, double duty.
Keeping some basic ergonomic principles in mind can prove useful for approaching your home office setup, minimizing discomfort in the short term but also preventing the risk of incurring more serious musculoskeletal disorders in the long term (even more important right now, since healthcare services are generally spread pretty thin).
Ergonomics is, quite simply, the concept of fitting a job to a person. Certified professional ergonomist Alan Hedge, a design researcher, professor emeritus in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, and the National Ergonomics Conference chair, emphasizes two main ideas to keep in mind to make your home office environment work best for you.
The first of these is to maintain what’s known as a “neutral posture,” aka “the posture you would naturally adopt as a relaxed posture.” In other words, explains Alan, when sitting, “you won’t hunch forwards, you won’t bend your neck down… you won’t have our arms up high or too low” and your “feet will be out in front of you, which opens up the back of the knees and promotes better circulation.”
As maybe your body has been telling you these past couple of weeks, a laptop used for extended periods of time is never going to be a comfortable situation. Alan recommends using a separate keyboard and mouse, and elevating the screen so that your eyes are “in line with a point that’s about a third down.” Received a lot of deliveries lately? Keep the packaging. Boxes can be great for raising your laptop; so can a stack of books.
Working from your dining table? “Most of the time you’ll be putting things on a table that is not at the optimal height for you to work at, and depending on your size, you may or may not be able to get your feet on the floor,” says Alan. Boxes, cushions, and books can help achieve this. And if you’re working with a chair that isn’t meant to be used for more than the length of a meal, a rolled towel or a pillow can go a long way in providing lower back support if and when you find yourself hunching forward out of habit.
Positioning your tools is one part of the equation, but movement is the other. When we have, quite literally, nowhere to be, it’s easy to remain in a single position indefinitely. Try to avoid this as much as you can—muscles fatigue very quickly, and postural change is necessary to keep them active. Alan warns that it’s only once the body starts to hurt that they we tend to pay attention, if at all, and recommends trying to avoid static work postures by moving at least twice an hour. Setting a timer on your phone can be a great way to make sure this happens.
If you’re talking to someone on the phone but don’t need to be looking at anything, walk around while you’re on the call. Opting for a voice-only option also means using less bandwidth on a possibly slow or unstable internet connection, too. Alan also strongly recommends voice recognition software for simpler tasks that don’t require complex formatting, like writing emails, because you don’t have to be sitting down to use it.
Alan encourages taking advantage of your device’s mobility to achieve short bursts of movement. “The research shows that if you’ve been sitting all day and then you’re exercising in the evening, it doesn’t have the same benefits as if you break your day up by moving throughout.” Consider relocating your laptop to a kitchen counter or breakfast bar for a few minutes at a time to change up your posture and get a short walk in between there and wherever your desk is.
Alan also shared some pro tips regarding lighting. If possible, position your laptop so that it’s perpendicular to a window, instead of directly in front of one. The contrast between a bright window and your darker screen can make it difficult for your eyes to focus, and leads to reduced visual function over time. Another helpful tip: try to establish boundaries by consciously minimizing screen time after a certain hour, as too much blue light exposure from screens can mess with your sleep quality and, in the case of women, possibly increase your risk of breast cancer by suppressing melatonin production.
But remember, says Alan, there’s “no one way of working perfectly all the time.” It’s “hard to give universal advice because people are using devices in non-universal ways.” Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t make all of these changes, or only a couple are feasible; so much has changed in so little time that the thought of anything more than autopilot can feel daunting right now. Even minor positive changes can have significant impacts, though, and save you aches and pains, both metaphorical and literal, in just a little bit of time. So anything you can do to help yourself feel better in this unprecedented situation we’ve all found ourselves in can go a long way.
This article was originally published on AD CLEVER
Feature Image: Unsplash