When you get into a car to drive it for the first time, what do you do? You adjust the seat so you can reach the pedals and see the road easily, as well as feel comfortable. You move the mirrors to make sure you have a clear line of sight behind you and to either side. You might even change the headrest position and move the seat belt to be at the right height on your shoulder. These customizations make driving safer and more comfortable. When you work from home, it's important to make similar adjustments.
Anyone can set up their workspace to be safe and comfortable with a few ergonomic tips. Doing so reduces your chance of injury and increases your comfort, all of which helps you stay productive and focused.
You don't need to spend a bundle on a special chair. The right office chair will help some, but you also need to think about how your feet hit the floor, whether your wrists bend when you type or mouse, and other factors. You can make many of these adjustments using items from around the house or with inexpensive purchases.
Making Do With What You Have
To learn how to set up an ergonomic home office, I spoke with 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 ran.
He asked what kind of setup I was using in my home office, and I sheepishly admitted that I was probably in a terrible position. At the time, I had just moved to a new apartment and had nothing more than a laptop on a kitchen table with a straight-backed chair.
"If it so happens that when you sit on that chair you can put your hands flat on the table, then that laptop with a pretty thin keyboard is probably going to be ok," he said. He added that home tables 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 relative, of course. 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 riser, to make any home office more ergonomically friendly. It doesn't take a lot.
There are four areas to focus your attention on when setting up an ergonomic home office, according to Hedge, but before you get started, it's just as important to consider what kind of work you do and what kind of equipment you need.
What Equipment Do You Need? What Type of Work Do You Do?
What equipment do you need to work? Do you have a desktop, laptop, or tablet? How many monitors do you use? Do you look at books and physical paper often? Are there other peripherals you need, such as a microphone or stylus?
Additionally, what type of work do you do with that equipment? "The posture of the person sitting down really depends on what they're doing with their hands," Hedge said. So before you make any changes, consider how you spend the bulk of your work time. Do you type for hours at a time? Are you a graphic designer who relies heavily on a mouse or stylus? If there is a task that you do for extended periods of time, then customize your setup to be safe and comfortable for that task. For example, if you read physical paper, you might need to add a lamp to your desk.
4 Areas of Focus for an Ergonomic Office
Just as you make many adjustments in a car to fit your body, you should customize your home office to a similarly fine degree. In fact, good ergonomic posture for an office is not all that different from sitting in a car, with your feet flat but legs extended and your body not vertical but tilted slightly backward.
Focus on making adjustments to these four areas to get a good setup.
1. Head and Neck
To keep your neck, shoulders, and back free from injury, your head should be vertical to your neck. This position creates the least amount of strain, according to Hedge.
"Unfortunately, if you're working with a laptop computer on a kitchen table, that screen is going to be way too low. You're going to forward-flex your neck," Hedge said.
For short periods of time, it's probably harmless, he added. For a long-term setup, though, consider mounting your laptop on a laptop riser and using an external keyboard and mouse. If you have a monitor, use books to raise it to a comfortable eye level, one that keeps your head and neck in that neutral, stacked position.
Best Ergonomic Keyboards
2. Hand and Wrist Position
Your hands and wrists should be in a neutral posture, similar to your head. Extend your arm and hand forward to lay 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 at the wrist.
"Make sure any input devices you're using, you can use with your hands in what we call a neutral posture for as much of the time as possible," Hedge said. So adjust your workspace accordingly. You might have to change the height of the table or chair if possible, or move your keyboard and mouse closer or farther away from you.
Hedge says to keep your arms and wrists nice and straight. The arms shouldn't bend out to the side or across the midline of the body.
Best Ergonomic Mice
3. Seated Posture and Back Support
"There's a myth out there that you should sit at 90 degrees," Hedge said, meaning with the trunk of the body perpendicular to the floor. "Most of us [ergonomics experts] have spent a lifetime trying to tell people that's not how you should sit."
Better: Find a posture that allows you to see the screen while sitting back in a way that provides lower back support. You might find it's similar to sitting in the driver's seat of a car, slightly leaning back.
If you don't have a fancy office chair that rocks back, try putting a cushion, pillow, or towel behind your lower back. That will do some good. You can buy inexpensive chair cushions that are designed for lumbar support. Hedge also suggests looking into orthopedic seats (for an example, see BackJoy's line of posture seats(Opens in a new window)). These saddle-like products work with any chair, and they tilt your pelvis into a more ergonomic position. Shorter people might also find that having a footrest helps them achieve the right posture.
Additionally, Hedge cautions to make sure the seat is not hitting the back of your knees because it can reduce blood flow and cause your feet and ankles to swell.
The last area of focus has to do with behavior. Take frequent but short breaks.
"From the research we've done, the ideal routine is about every 20 minutes, take a short break where you stand up, stretch out a little bit maybe for a minute or two. Or even better, walk and make a cup of tea or coffee," Hedge said. Movement improves circulation, comfort, and performance. It also decreases the risk of injuries.
Hedge also recommended other changes you can make that limit the length of time your body will be doing one repetitive action. For example, if your job involves excessive typing, consider using a voice-to-text app or dictation software. That way, you can cut down on the total amount of time your fingers are on the keyboard.
I asked Hedge about standing desks and sit-stand desks (which can be raised and lowered), and he said while it doesn't hurt to have one, you have to use it properly.
"Standing puts more strain on your body than sitting. The reason we have chairs is because if you had to stand all day to do your work, that's much harder on your body than sitting down all day to do your work," he said. "Sitting is not bad for you. What is bad for you is sitting all day long, just the same as standing all day long without moving is bad for you."
If you're going to use a sit-stand desk, the optimal cycle is 20 minutes of seated work followed by 8 minutes of standing, followed by 2 minutes of moving around. Standing longer than about 8 minutes, said Hedge, leads people to start leaning. Additionally, every time you change the desk height, you must make sure you adjust all your other workstation components, like the keyboard and the monitor, to put your posture into a neutral position again.
Hedge suggested that creating an ergonomic office was like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle. He said people commonly make the mistake of buying an expensive chair and calling it a day.
"If you don't do all four [of the recommended customizations], you'll never get the best results. If what you do is adjust the computer screen to a good height, but you never adjust how you're sitting or you never adjust your keyboard or your mouse, you'll never get the optimal results," he said. "The combined effect of everything to put you into a neutral posture and to keep you moving throughout the day is much greater than the effect of any one individual change."
The Right Equipment for Your Ergonomic Home Office
Here's a summary of some of the equipment and tools mentioned that might help you customize your home office to be more ergonomic:
Cushions and pillows
Like What You're Reading?
Sign up for Tips & Tricks newsletter for expert advice to get the most out of your technology.
Thanks for signing up!
Your subscription has been confirmed. Keep an eye on your inbox!Sign up for other newsletters