Working from home has become the norm for people all over the country, and with many companies telling employees not to expect that to change for the foreseeable future, you may be considering upgrading the home workstation you haphazardly threw together back in March. And now as schools come back into session with students either partially or completely learning at home, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to setting up work areas for the whole family.
One huge concern is ergonomics — stiff necks, sore backs, carpal tunnel syndrome and more can plague people of all ages if workspaces aren’t set up correctly.
Physical Therapist and ergonomics expert Carol Green at OrthoCarolina said her top advice is to remember the 90-90-90 rule. That means when you’re sitting at your work station, your elbows, hips, knees and thighs should all be at a 90-degree angle. This position is ideal for good circulation and avoiding compressed nerves which can be a (literal) pain in the rear.
If you’re looking to invest in some new office furniture, Dr. Alicia Lazeski recommends a good chair and a sit-to-stand desk.
“A good supportive chair will encourage proper spine position, and a sit-to-stand desk makes it easy to change positions while still being productive at work,” she says.
Get choosy with your chairs
The couch, the recliner, the patio furniture — there are so many places at home to sit and work. But which is the best seat in the house? Carol recommends picking a chair with good lumbar support and a cushioned seat pan; if your chair has a hard edge, it can cut off circulation to your legs.
You’ll also want to look for a chair that will allow your feet to be flat on the floor. That might rule out your bar or counter stools but never fear! Carol says depending on the height of your counter or bar, it might make a great stand-in for a standing desk for you or one of the kids.
Does your work require you to switch positions often, turning to grab the phone or other items? You might want to consider investing in a rolling swivel chair. That way your chair, rather than your spine, can do the rotating and moving. Pro tip: if you’re picking a chair that rolls, look for one with five wheels for more stability and ease of movement.
Keep these other tips in mind when setting up your home workspace:
- • Set up your computer screen with the top of the monitor at or just below eye level. This might mean you have to stack books or invest in a hutch if you’re working on a smaller laptop or tablet.
- • Your monitor should be no further than an arm’s length away.
• Your keyboard and mouse should be placed where your arms can remain relaxed with a 90-degree angle at the elbow.
- • Make sure frequently used items such as paper, pens, etc. are within a short reach to prevent excessive leaning.
In addition to setting up your workspace the right way, you may need to make some posture changes to avoid back pain and other issues. Slouching and crossing your legs are both no-nos, but the experts know perfect posture doesn’t happen overnight. They suggest starting slow: focus on your posture for five minutes every half hour at first and go from there. Soon good posture (and all the body benefits that come with it) will occur naturally.
Just for Teens
Although they may think they’re grown, their bones still haven’t fully calcified. And poor posture in front of the screen for hours a day may have catastrophic effects once they reach adulthood.
That means no virtual classrooms from bed. Or on the couch. Or really anywhere other than their dedicated school area.
“They don’t need to be lying on the couch trying to do their homework. It’s a bad habit,” Carol says. “That should be their relaxation position.”
Using our tips above, help your teen pick the correct chair for sitting in while doing virtual learning. If their feet are dangling, get a footstool or some books to prop their feet on so they can achieve the 90-90-90 position.
And don’t be afraid to channel your strict grandmother by reminding them to sit up straight — Carol says most teens are prone to slumping their shoulders forward. Encourage them to pull their shoulder blades back and down to keep their back straight.
If they’re getting antsy and losing focus at their desk, your kitchen counter may be the right height for your teen to mimic a standing desk (even if it’s too short for you to do the same thing).
If possible, have your teens take breaks every 30 minutes to walk, stretch and generally move their bodies before returning to the screen, Dr. Lazeski suggests.
“Because a younger body can tolerate poor positioning for a longer time than an adult, it is more important to set a timer as a reminder to get up, move, change position,” she says. “Even a momentary break from a static position can be extremely helpful!”
Just for Children
When designing our at-home virtual “school,” one of our first questions for Carol was whether it’s worth it to invest in a child-sized desk/table and chair. Her answer, from an ergonomics standpoint, was “absolutely.”
“We don’t expect adults to sit in kids’ chairs so we shouldn’t expect kids to sit in adult chairs,” she says. “But in most homes you’ll end up with children sitting in something that’s too big for them.”
Child-sized tables, desks and chairs will likely help your smaller child achieve the 90-90-90 position but if you’re not ready to buy anything yet (the holidays are coming, afterall), there are a few things you can do with adult-sized furniture to make it more conducive to kids.
Dr. Lazeski says don’t be afraid to get creative to make kids’ workspaces ergonomically friendly. Just like adults, kids need their feet on the ground and their laptops or tablets at the correct height: about an inch below eye level.
“Use shoe boxes or crates to help kids get their feet ‘on the ground’,” she suggests. “Use books or risers to get screens at eye level for taller kids, or raise up iPads/laptops.”
One of Carol’s favorite recommendations for kid-friendly ergonomics? Let them sit on a stability ball.
“A large gym ball is nice for children because it gives them some activity while working,” Carol says. “It makes them work on their posture and engages the core even more than standing, and it will help with focus.”
For everyone: Get moving
The last and potentially most important piece of the work-from-home puzzle is to stop working at all. At least for a few minutes every once in awhile.
“Our bodies are not meant to be sedentary,” Dr. Lazeski says. “Every 30 minutes at the very least, stand up and do a stretch. If your work flow allows it, walk around for a minute or two to increase blood circulation and ‘work out the kinks’.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends taking a 15-minute break for every two hours of sitting.
“That means a break for movement,” Carol says. “Not just to go sit somewhere else.”
Can’t give up 15 minutes at a time? Carol suggest getting up for five to seven minutes each hour and moving.
“March in place, walk up your steps, walk to the bathroom – move!” Carol says.