Bringing office ergonomics to the home work environment

By: Steve Nikolaou Date: 2020-03-31

Desk Setup

Recently, many of us have suddenly found ourselves working from home.  While it is great to have this  flexibility in your work, you will almost certainly find that working from a home environment exposes certain challenges. Our homes are generally not designed for sustained work, but geared to rest, relaxation and family socialization. So, what can you do to make a successful transition to working from home? Some of the ergonomic considerations we consider most important in setting up productive workspaces are:  

Sitting for extended periods: One of the first and most critical things to consider when setting up your office from home is how you will seat yourself. When sitting for extended periods (or standing or lifting) it is necessary to adopt what is referred to as a "neutral spine position". This alignment is generally robust, optimal for supporting your weight, and is a posture from which we can easily move to other positions. This should be your default. The way you choose to place furniture and equipment in your new set-up will help facilitate or frustrate this aim.

Look after your back. Do more research if necessary. If you need a little reminder of how critical a role in the health of your back and spine play just take a look at your household cat. How much less elegant would they be without the blessings of one of natures most superbly evolved and conditioned spines!

Workstation set up: At home, often the least adjustable critical item is your physical workstation. Most office workstations are in the order of 720mm in height, and as luck would have it, many dining room tables are in that ballpark also. So, If you have an adjustable chair, adjust your chair height so that the natural level of your elbows settles at just above the level of your desk. Your arms should fall from your shoulders in a relaxed fashion and forearms should be able to act freely in parallel over the desktop as they reach to access the keyboard. If preferred, you may incline your seat slightly forward so that your hips are higher than your knees and plant your feet flat on the ground. If your feet end up not reaching the ground, you will need a footrest. Sit up erect and look directly forward. Set your screen so that its top matches your eye level. If your screen height is not adjustable you may have to elevate the screen a little so this can be achieved. You may also need to tilt the screen slightly so that it can be viewed squarely. 

The laptop: Apart from not having an adjustable chair or table at a reasonable height, one of the main impediments to achieving good posture is the pervasive use of laptops and tablets. These devices are designed for portability not for sustained work. The principles of good ergonomic posture do not change, nor can they be discarded because you use a laptop instead of a desktop computer. If you only have a laptop, use a docking station, and elevate the laptop screen so that the optimal seating position is attainable as per the standard desktop setup.  Ideally, you will attach an external keyboard, mouse and larger screen, so the laptop setup can function like a desktop computer. 

Movement: Of course, achieving an optimal workstation set up is far from being a holistic response to the problem of sedentary work. The intention is not to set up something approaching a rigid "Victorian Era" pose and maintaining it for the full work day.  Muscles would atrophy from lack of use. It is important to vary your posture and actions throughout the day as you would in an office. Get up and take your regular 'coffee making' breaks, chat to the cat, go for a walk, have an alternative place in your home where you can perform some of your work on rotation to break things up.  Also, if possible try and find a higher desk you can use as a standing desk for some of the time.  If the budget stretches to it, you can buy simple electronic adjustable standing desks which don't take up too much room. Again, where possible, adopt a posture with a neutral spine.

Lighting, glare and circadean rhythms: Beyond the requirements of correct posture, there are the important issues of lighting and glare. In general, the best lighting is ambient - ie where the source of light is not directly visible. Place your computer screen so as to avoid background glare or from where its surface will receive strong light directly, and so you don't have light shining directly into your eyes. Be aware that looking at the screen is not the same as looking at printed materials which may need to be lit at different times of the day with artificial and/or task lighting. The screen is its own source of light, so in general screens do not need to be lit by external sources. 

The colour of light also plays a significant role in establishing and maintaining our circadean rhythm. One of the advantages of working from home is that you are more likely to have access to natural light through windows. Natural daylight can improve mood and productivity. However, too much change to light conditions through the day can lead to eye strain as eyes constantly adjust to conditions, so using supplementary artificial light as needed is important.

For your home office, also consider the effect of colour temperature. For optimal work performance, it is best that the colour of artificial light matches natural daylight. This can be found generally in kitchens and bathrooms. Where colours resulting from artificial lights tend toward the warmer side of the spectrum (e.g traditional incandescent lights of the past) they will tend to have a relaxing effect (most likely found in dining rooms, lounge rooms and bedrooms). Light sources emitting from the cooler part of the spectrum (ie. blues), which are often the lights found on computer screens and mobile phones and indicators on various other equipment, can have a disconcerting effect on relaxation, particularly as it relates to our circadian rhythm and our ability to sleep.  

Air temperature and noise: As in the office, noise and air temperature levels in the home working environment will affect your productivity.

People are reasonably adaptable to variations in air temperature. Evidence shows that when the temperature varies by even a few points outside of 19-24 degrees this can have a dramatic effect on productivity - more errors are made when the air is colder and when air is hotter it can make you lethargic and unfocused. Be conscious of the air temperature in your home environment, as it may not be as controlled as you may be used to from your office environment. Look for ways to actively control temperature for comfort (eg. strategic use of doors and window drapes if air-conditioning is not available).

At home, there may be competing extraneous noise that may require you to use headphones more often. Be aware that headphones should never be set to levels significantly beyond requirements for clear reception to avoid the possibility of long term problems relating to hearing loss.

Compared to our homes, the offices we work in tend to be better and more consistent lit, controlled in terms of temperature and humidity and devoid of random intrusions of unwanted noises (e.g. dogs barking, kids screaming, television, neighbours mowing the lawn). In other aspects you will have less face to face access to colleagues and others and at the same time you will lack much of the basic business infrastructure you took for granted. Furthermore, you'll notice that furniture you may at the first commandeer for business use is either designed for another purpose (e.g. dining, lounging) or at the least is not adjustable or durable to the degree that you would have access to in the office (e.g. chairs). 

However, be active and look for ways to enhance your work from your home working environment. Modern technology has made flexible working and remaining connected with colleagues more accessible than ever before.  Maximise the advantages.  If the issue is thoughtfully addressed, we can have better control over our own personal environments and set them up not only to meet a particular need but also to inspire our individual creativity.