With the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus virus more and more people are choosing, or being told, to work from home.
I’ve been working from home since 2006, shortly after I helped develop the Global Work at Home program for American Express. I’ve got my Home Working arrangement pretty well figured out, but for many people this is a new endeavor, and, like other significant job or life changes, it can bring ergonomic, productivity, and social challenges.
Benefits from Home Working – Business Continuity
Following the 2003 SARS outbreak I worked as the American Express Global Ergonomics manager and we had a corporate initiative to encourage and support thousands of people to work from home. We understood the business risks of suddenly losing access to the main office, as occurred when our headquarters staff had to relocate following the 9-11 attacks, when a regional power grid failed, and as occurred with the SARS outbreak. Being able to have staff work from home ensures that essential business functions can continue uninterrupted.
Benefits from Home Working – Quality of Work Life & Real Estate Savings
There are many benefits of having employees who can work from home including; employee retention, improved work-life balance, improved productivity, and business continuity if employees can’t get to the main office. Additional benefits can be realized by reducing the number of workstations required in the corporate offices – if there are no ‘social isolation’ initiatives, then it can be useful to have staff periodically check in at the corporate office, and these Home Workers can usually rotate through one or more shared workstations when in the office. The real estate savings from maintaining fewer desks can be significant.
Ergonomic Risks of Working from Home
Because many people have poor ergonomic conditions at the Home Working location, they often suffer from neck, arm and back pain. Providing basic ergonomic training, performing a risk assessment, and providing proper ergonomic furniture can prevent many of these problems.
Ergonomic Furniture can help
When I worked at AMEX, employees were encouraged to purchase proper ergonomic furniture from our suppliers. The Procurement department arranged for employee purchases of furniture at their deeply discounted rate. This furniture was for both “official” home/ virtual office setups, and also for personal use. Furthermore, employees who gave up a dedicated desk, and moved to a shared desk in the office were given up to $1200 dollars towards the purchase of ergonomic furniture and equipment for their home office. If the employee quit or left the company within 12 months of receiving this money, a portion of the funds were withheld from their final paycheck. These actions helped AMEX reduce its US Work Comp rates by 80% over a 4-year period.
Good ergonomic furniture is available from many outlets. A number of the premium ergo suppliers often have on hand, used furniture that is in good condition for deep discounts. We also work with some ergonomic specialty suppliers who have chairs, workstations, and all the accessories like keyboards, monitor arms, laptop stands, etc.
Ergonomic Educational Resources can help
Here at Ergo Pro Consulting, I have created an online tool kit, and remote telephone ergo coaching support, modeled after the great stuff we had at AMEX, to support employees and managers as they navigated these waters while striving to keep the employees safe, productive and engaged. See item number 10 below to learn more.
Ergonomic considerations in the Home Working arrangement:
Workspace – Where Will You Work?
I don’t recommend camping out on the couch or working from bed. Instead, try to get set up at a proper desk or table. Ideally you will have a room or dedicated workspace that is large enough for the suggested furniture and equipment, while allowing you to move, change posture, and freely exit the work area.
Depending on the particular type of work you are doing, your workspace may need to provide privacy, security, confidentiality, and sound proofing.
- If the workspace is too loud you might need to use good-quality noise cancelling headphones.
- If visual security is required, you may need privacy screens
- And all of us should be using secure network connections
Work surface – Size and Height considerations:
Choose a desk or table that is large enough to hold your computer/ keyboard/ mouse, document holder, and any other required equipment while still leaving enough room for support of your hands and arms. We recommend a minimum work surface size of 24 X 42 inches/ 60 X 1o5 cm. A larger work surface might be necessary if you have more equipment or work with multiple paper files. An “L” shaped desk, or one with a side return can make it easy to switch between paper and computer work.
Consider a sit to standing desk that can be adjusted to your correct work height. Most desks are too high and cause wrist and neck/shoulder strain. I recommend placing the keyboard and mouse low, near elbow-height, with shoulders relaxed or use an adjustable-height keyboard tray to achieve the correct positioning. (I’m 5’ 9” and my comfortable seated work height is 26 – 27 inches/ 66-68 cm).
If you can’t adjust the desk or keyboard height, then the chair may need to be raised and a footrest installed. If you can’t raise the chair, then sit on a pillow or padding to achieve the correct positioning.
An Ergonomic Chair:
If you can, choose a high-quality chair from a respected manufacturer, even if it means you need to buy a used chair to stay in your price range. Some of my personal favorites include the Steelcase Leap & Gesture Chairs, the Herman Miller Mirra or Aeron chairs, and the Hayworth Zody. Avoid the cheapest chairs at discount office supply warehouses. These chairs are often constructed with inferior materials and usually don’t last long. If you need help finding an affordable ergonomic chair we have some trusted suppliers with some great mid-price, high-quality ergo chairs from Office Master and other good brands – check out CSI Ergonomics in Minnesota for more info.
At minimum, the chair should have these adjustable features:
- Proper seat sizing to fit your hip width and leg length
- Adjustable seat height so you can get high enough for proper keying
- Adjustable back rest that fits the shape/curve of your lower back
- Arm rests that adjust for support AND clear the desk allowing you to get close to the keyboard
- Back rest Recline & Rocking features with tension adjustments so you can lean back without feeling like you’ll tip over (Most tension adjustment knobs are found under the seat)
N0 ergonomic chair? Make your standard chair fit better by following these tips:
- A chair that leans back slightly is often more comfortable than a straighter, more upright chair.
- Sit on a pillow or foam padding for comfort or if you need to be up higher for keying with relaxed shoulders and straight wrists (Sit high enough so you can relax the shoulders and let the arms drop down. The keyboard should be near this resting elbow-height).
- If your feet aren’t supported on the floor get a footrest or box for support.
- Consider a lumbar pad or ½ lumbar roll for better spinal curvature when sitting.
Take frequent breaks. If sitting in a fixed-back kitchen or dining chair, regularly get up and move around to keep your back loosened up and happy. Actually, everyone should get up and move more!
Lighting – Beware of the Glare:
The computerized office should generally have a low level of light, with brighter task specific light on your documents. Too much light can cause eyestrain and glare on the monitor. Not enough light can make it difficult to read your documents and can cause you to lean forward leading to neck strain.
Avoid bright lights from in front of you or behind you. Ideally the computer screen is the brightest object in your visual field. Having bright lights in front of you causes direct glare, like when on-coming cars blind you at night, and this makes it much harder to view the computer screen.
Bright lights behind you can bounce off the computer screen and cause reflected glare. This is less troubling than direct glare but is annoying none the less.
If possible, try to position yourself and your computer so bright lights shine on your side, not directly into your eyes. This way the light will be minimally disruptive.
Laptop Computer Set up:
Because the keyboard and screens are connected, laptops can present ergonomic challenges and make it hard to position correctly.
For occasional laptop use, we recommend propping up the back of the computer 2 or 3 inches as illustrated in the image below. This raises the monitor to a better height and allows the wrist to straighten and relax. You can use an empty three-ring binder or purchase my favorite Aviator Laptop Stand that does a great job positioning the laptop.
If you use your laptop frequently consider adding a monitor, keyboard/ mouse, and keyboard tray. This will allow you more flexibility and correct positioning for each component.
Monitor placement is always important:
The top of the screen should be eye-level or slightly lower. The monitor should be angled towards your face and should be about an arm’s length away from you.
If you wear bi-focal reading glasses, place the monitor even lower (I wear progressive lens glasses and my monitor is nearly touching the desktop). Another option instead of bi-focals is to get “computer” glasses for better neck comfort. Computer glasses are designed for computer viewing distances.
Document placement often determines neck posture. If your papers are flat on the desk your neck is probably bent when reading or writing. Using a document holder to prop up your papers allows you to maintain an upright neck posture. It is often best to have the papers placed on a small document holder between the keyboard and monitor. This limits bending and twisting.
It has been said that “your best posture is your next posture”, meaning that movement and changing positions is important for your comfort and health. Changing positions allows muscles to relax, recover, and get refreshed. In contrast, staying in one position too long or holding a “static posture” decreases blood flow and causes waste products to build up in the muscles.
Keep in Touch:
Remote working and working at home removes the social element of going to work at an office. Plan to have other regular communication channels. I’ve worked with remote teams in Chicago and Ann Arbor by using Slack and MS Teams chat programs. It is also helpful to plan regular team meetings where everyone is encouraged to be present with video running so you can see each other. Skype and Zoom are two popular video meeting platforms.
10. If you need more ergonomic assistance:
I’ve created an on-line resource center and on-demand remote telephone support programs to help you and your employees navigate these difficult times. See my:
- Subscribe to our Help Library resource center which provides; Self-Help videos, Best Fit Guidelines, Infographics and Checklists on a variety of ergonomic topics including Laptop placement, Tablets & Mobile Devices, Chair Adjustment Guides, Stretches and more.
- Schedule a Remote telephone consult for any employees suffering with discomfort, pain or injury — make sure they are set up and working at their best.
- See our affiliate, CSI Ergonomics, for Work from Home office furniture and accessory kits available from our affiliates which can be drop shipped anywhere in the US.
- If you need Work From Home policy or program assistance, I can consult with your HR and EHS teams to help set up policies and procedures to help you manage the entire Home Working process.