What do you do when you first get into a car to drive it? You adjust the seat so you can reach the pedals, see the road well, and feel comfortable. They move the mirrors to ensure you have a clear line of sight behind you and to either side. You can even change the position of the headrest and move the seat belt so it’s at the right height on your shoulder. These customizations make driving safer and more comfortable. If you work from home(Opens in a new tab)it is important to make similar adjustments.
With a few ergonomic tips, everyone can set up their workplace safely and comfortably. This reduces the risk of injury and increases your comfort, which helps you stay productive(Opens in a new tab) and focused.
You don’t have to spend a bundle on a special chair. The right office chair(Opens in a new tab) will help some, but you also need to think about how your feet touch the ground, whether your wrists bend when you type or mouse, and other factors. You can make many of these customizations with items from around the house or with cheap purchases.
Do you have neck or back pain? Here are some tips(Opens in a new tab) for a better office, courtesy of PCMag’s Jill Duffy.
Make do with what you have
To learn how to set up an ergonomic home office, I spoke to Alan Hedge, a professor emeritus at Cornell University in the department of design and environmental analysis. I originally interviewed him in October 2020 when this article first appeared.
He asked what setup I use in my home office and I sheepishly admitted I was probably in a terrible position. At the time, I had just moved into a new apartment and had nothing but a laptop on a kitchen table with a straight-backed chair.
“If it happens that you can put your hands flat on the table when you’re sitting in this chair, then this laptop with a fairly thin keyboard is probably fine,” he said. He added that home desks are often a few inches lower than office desks, making something like a keyboard tray unnecessary for some people working from home.
Whether the table is the right height is of course relative. It depends on how tall you are. Hedge also had some tips for using inexpensive items, like a rolled-up towel for lumbar support and a laptop stand, to make any home office more ergonomic. It doesn’t take much.
According to Hedge, there are four areas to focus on when setting up an ergonomic home office, but before you get started it’s just as important to consider what kind of work you’re doing and what kind of equipment you’ll need(Opens in a new tab).
What equipment do you need? What kind of work do you do?
What equipment do you need to work? Do you have a desktop, laptop or tablet? How many monitors are you using? Do you often look at books and physical paper? Do you need other peripherals like a microphone or stylus?
Also, what kind of work do you do with this equipment? “The posture of the seated person really depends on what they’re doing with their hands,” Hedge said. So before you make any changes, consider how you spend the majority of your work time. Are you typing for hours at a time? Are you a graphic designer who relies heavily on a mouse?(Opens in a new tab) or pen? If you’re going to be doing a task for a long period of time, adjust your setup to make it safe and comfortable for that task. For example, if you read physical paper, you may need to add a lamp to your desk.
4 focal points for an ergonomic office
Just as you make many adjustments to your body in a car, you should also finely individualize your home office. In fact, good ergonomic posture for an office isn’t all that different from sitting in a car, with flat feet but straight legs and a body that’s not vertical but slightly reclined.
Focus on making adjustments to these four areas to get a good setup.
1. Head and Neck
To protect your neck, shoulders and back from injury, your head should be perpendicular to your neck. According to Hedge, this position generates the least amount of stress.
“Unfortunately, if you’re working with a laptop on a kitchen table, this screen is way too low. You’re going to bend your neck forward,” Hedge said.
It’s probably harmless for a short time, he added. However, for a long-term setup, consider mounting your laptop on a laptop riser and using an external keyboard(Opens in a new tab) and mouse. If you have a monitor, use books to raise it to a comfortable eye level that will keep your head and neck in that neutral, stacked position.
2. Hand and wrist position
Your hands and wrists should be in a neutral position, similar to your head. Extend your arm and hand forward to place them flat on the table. The hand, wrist and forearm are practically flush, which is what you want. What you don’t want is a hinge on your wrist.
“Make sure you can use whatever input devices you’re using with your hands in what’s called a neutral stance for as long as possible,” Hedge said. So adapt your workspace accordingly. You may need to change the height of the table or chair if possible, or move your keyboard and mouse closer or further away from you.
Hedge says to keep your arms and wrists nice and straight. The arms should not bend to the side or over the midline of the body.
3. Sitting posture and back support
“There’s a myth out there that you should sit at a 90-degree angle,” Hedge said, meaning the torso of the body is perpendicular to the ground. “The most of us [ergonomics experts] I’ve spent a lifetime trying to tell people not to sit like that.
Better: Find a posture that allows you to view the screen while leaning back so that your lower back is supported. You’ll find that it’s similar to sitting in the driver’s seat of a car and leaning back slightly.
If you don’t have a fancy office chair that rocks backwards, try placing a cushion, pillow, or towel behind your lower back. This will do some good. You can buy inexpensive chair cushions that are designed for lumbar support. Hedge also suggests looking into orthopedic seats (see BackJoy’s line of posture seats for an example).(Opens in a new tab)). These saddle-like products work with any chair and position your pelvis in a more ergonomic position. Shorter people might also find that a footrest helps them achieve proper posture.
Additionally, Hedge warns about making sure the seat doesn’t hit the back of your knees, as this can reduce blood flow and cause swelling in your feet and ankles.
The final focus has to do with behavior. Take frequent but short breaks(Opens in a new tab).
“According to our research, the ideal routine is about every 20 minutes, take a short break where you stand up, maybe stretch out a bit for a minute or two. Or better yet, go and make a cup of tea or coffee,” Hedge said. Exercise improves circulation, comfort and performance. It also reduces the risk of injury.
Hedge also recommended other changes you can make to limit the amount of time your body performs a repetitive action. For example, if your job involves excessive typing, consider using a voice-to-text app or dictation software. This way, you can reduce the total time your fingers spend on the keyboard.
I asked Hedge about standing desks(Opens in a new tab) and sit-stand desks (which can be raised and lowered), and he said while there’s no harm in having one, you have to use it properly.
“Standing puts more strain on your body than sitting. The reason we have chairs is because it’s a lot harder on your body if you have to stand all day to do your work than sitting all day to do your work,” he said. “Sitting isn’t bad for you. What’s bad for you is sitting all day, just like standing all day without moving is bad for you.”
If you’re using a sit-stand desk, the optimal cycle is 20 minutes of seated work, followed by 8 minutes of standing, followed by 2 minutes of exercise. Standing for longer than about 8 minutes, Hedge says, causes people to start leaning. Additionally, whenever you change your desk height, you must be careful to adjust all other components of your workspace, such as the keyboard and monitor, to bring your posture back to a neutral position.
Hedge said creating an ergonomic office is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. He said a common mistake people make is to buy an expensive chair and finish it.
“If you don’t do all four [of the recommended customizations], you will never get the best results. If you adjust the computer screen to a good height but never adjust your sitting position or your keyboard or mouse, you’ll never get the best results,” he said. “The combined effect of everything to get you into a neutral stance and keep you moving throughout the day is much greater than the effect of a single change.
The right equipment for your ergonomic home office
Here’s a summary of some of the gadgets and tools mentioned that might help you make your home office more ergonomic:
For more advice on working remotely, see How to make meetings more accessible(Opens in a new tab) and what employers can do to make hybrid work policies a success(Opens in a new tab).
This article originally appeared on PCMag.com(Opens in a new tab), Mashable’s sibling site. PCMag.com(Opens in a new tab) is a leading technology authority providing labs-based, independent reviews of the latest products and services.