From Card Tables to Countertops: A Guide for Creating an Ergonomic Workstation at Home

As your employees find themselves working from home for an unknown period of time, it’s important for them to create a designated workspace. But it’s about more than a spot for your laptop and good lighting for all of those Zoom meetings. Not every home has an office space to outfit for work, let alone two or three of them to accommodate parents who are working from home and distance learning for the kids.

This is where creativity comes into play. Whether employees are using the kitchen counter, dining room table, or even a card table in the basement, it’s about finding a space that works and also affords a bit of peace during the workday. However, it is unlikely employees are giving much consideration to ergonomics of their new workspace.

As you likely are aware, ergonomics is the process of fitting the tasks and tools to the person and applies to all work settings. Whether working with your hands, lifting heavy objects, or sitting for prolonged periods of time, there is a risk of injury in all types of work.

Your employees might know that their space isn’t right (hello, card table desk!), but they have more questions than answers. They may be wondering: What is the proper setup for a home workspace? How can I set up a standing desk in the comfort of my home? And, what are the warning signs that something isn’t right with my workspace?

Ensuring workspaces allow employees to be productive, without causing more problems, is important. Whether employees prefer to stand, sit, or something in between, here are a few tips for setting them up for success at home.

Desk ergonomics best practices

First, remember, employees may not have an adjustable task chair and may be using a folding chair, a straight-backed dining chair, a bar stool, or in some cases, a fit ball in their home workspace. So, I recommend focusing on four elements: the seat height, the seat depth, back support, and the armrests if the chair has them.

The seat height should position the hips level with, or slightly higher than, the knees. There should be some clearance between the backs of the knees and the front edge of the seat. The backrest should, at a minimum, provide fairly upright torso and comfortable lumbar support. The feet should be fully supported on the floor or footrest. If you’re sitting on a bar stool with your feet on a rung, be sure to change positions more frequently to limit localized soft tissue compression on the soles of the feet.

Next, let’s talk about the shoulders. You want your shoulders to be relaxed with your upper arms hanging loosely at your sides. If you’re using chair armrests for support, keep your shoulders, and upper arms relaxed. Some chairs have fixed or non-adjustable armrests. In these situations, they may be a liability if they don’t support you in a balanced posture. If this is the case, you may want to consider removing them if that is possible.

What about the keyboard and mouse? They should be positioned slightly below elbow level and shoulder-distance apart. Ideally, you’re setting up your devices so they support approximately a 90-degree angle in your elbows and allow you to work without bending your wrists.

If your desk or table is too high relative to your seated posture, you can place pillows on the chair seat to raise your body higher. This may mean you will need to place something under your feet to maintain your hips and knees in alignment.

Next, let’s focus on the monitor. Place the monitor as far away as visually comfortable and tilted back no more than 20 degrees. Tilting the screen back more increases the possibility of glare from any overhead lights. Position the monitor and the middle of the keyboard home row to the center of the body; your wrists should not be bent.

Keep the top of visual tasks at or slightly below eye level, and maintain proper head alignment by avoiding tilting your head up or down in order to see the screen.

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Finally, we all tend to blink less frequently when viewing monitors, so taking frequent, short vision breaks is important. I recommend following the 20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, focus on something in the distance for 20 seconds. If you can do this more frequently, it is even better.

What about standing work stations?

If you’re using a standing workstation, start by gradually increasing your standing tolerance, working up to the optimal ratio of 20 minutes sitting, 8 minutes standing, and 2 minutes of walking around.

The soles of your feet should be fully supported, and you should stand with a slight bend in your knees, or one foot slightly in front of the other and slightly elevated. Be sure to avoid locking your knees.

From the waist up, the same relationships for sitting still apply. Keep your shoulders relaxed with your upper arms held loosely at your sides with the keyboard and mouse slightly below elbow level.

In the absence of an actual sit-to-stand desk or desktop sit/stand appliance, many home office workers use a kitchen island or bar as a standing workstation. If you find the keyboard, mouse, and display are too low, you can elevate them by placing a box or books under them to raise them to a comfortable position.

Finally, you should only stand and work for as long as it is comfortable, and you can maintain a good balanced posture. We tend to forget we can slump when standing just as we can when sitting. With respect to standing, I am often asked about using a padded mat for standing work. This is not a bad idea, although keep in mind you will have to move the mat out of the way when you position the chair for seated work and move it back in place when you are ready to stand again. Wearing comfortable, supportive shoes may be a more functional solution.

Warning signs that your work station is not set up properly

There’s no doubt about it—employees will probably experience some minor muscle soreness and tension simply because their at-home workstation is different from what they have been accustomed to. This should resolve in a few days. If those symptoms persist or worsen, it may suggest something doesn’t fit, or there may be a behavioral component at play, like taking too few breaks or working longer hours. If discomfort is persistent, try to identify what it is that provokes those sensations and consider adjustments that may alleviate them.

Your workspace will look different at home than it does at the office, but that doesn’t mean you can’t set yourself up for success. Pain and discomfort from poor posture or screen placement are never fun, and even less so during a pandemic. Don’t wait for warning signs like neck and shoulder pain, stiffness, or eye strain to realize that something is wrong. Taking the time to ensure your workspace is set up for you will allow you to be more productive and efficient. With many working from home for the foreseeable future, it helps to know that you can make the most of the worktime you have.

Phil brings more than 20 years of experience to his role as Program Manager and is responsible for supporting the office ergonomics programs of several of technology and energy clients. His background includes a graduate degree in exercise science, office ergonomics program development, customer engagement, and delivery of professional continuing education.

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