This is the first article in a series covering HumanCentric’s four elements of a great workspace.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ergonomics as “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.” Basically, the science of designing your physical work environment to avoid damaging your body. Ergonomics is also called “human factors”, as it designs the work environment based on the way the human body is designed to move. One might even call it “Human-Centric”. But I digress.

While you might not face the same dangers sitting at your desk as you would as a logger or an airplane pilot (the two most dangerous jobs in the US), working at a desk can cause a wide variety of health problems including RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury), carpal tunnel syndrome, and back, neck, or shoulder pain. And it isn’t uncommon. Recently, people noticed that searches for “back pain” have been trending together with searches for “remote work”. And, anecdotally, the physical therapists and chiropractors that I know have all mentioned that they’ve had more work-related cases since the work-from-home trend increased.

So, in short, it’s really important that you take ergonomics into account when setting up your workspace. Personally, I spent around ten years working for a consulting firm before I founded HumanCentric. Many of those years were spent working 10+ hours per day from a laptop at a small desk in a client’s office, an airplane, or a hotel room. And the neck, back, and shoulder issues that I developed were considerably more time-consuming and expensive to deal with than setting up an ergonomic workspace in the first place. It’s an investment.

While we can’t cover every aspect of ergonomic workspace design in a single article, you can get most of the benefits from following some basic recommendations. Beyond that, you can optimize as much as you’d like.

Here are the steps we’re going to follow:

  1. Learn how to sit properly in a chair.
  2. Learn how to properly position your keyboard and mouse.
  3. Learn how to properly position your monitor.

Let’s get into the details.

In keeping with the principles of ergonomics, your workspace needs to be designed around you. Assuming that your main working position is seated (even if you stand for part of your day), ensuring that you are seated properly is the first key to a healthy workspace setup.

How to sit properly in a chair

  1. Your feet must be flat on the floor. This enables you to relax the muscles in your legs while distributing some of your body weight through your feet.
  2. Your knees must be bent at about a 90 degree angle. This properly positions your sit bones to be properly positioned to hold your body weight.
  3. You should either be sitting upright (if you’ve got amazing posture, or more realistically) leaning back about 10 degrees in your chair with the back of your chair supporting the weight of your body.

Based on this, your chair needs to meet the following requirements:

  1. It must be height adjustable. If not, your feet won’t be flat on the floor.
  2. It must have a back that moves independently from the seat. If not, you can’t lean back without impacting the position of your legs.
  3. It must have a back that properly supports you when in a slightly reclined position.

The good news is that most ergonomic chairs (also called “task chairs”) support all these requirements. The bad news is that they usually aren’t cheap. But if you pay close to a thousand dollars for a mattress that you sleep on for eight hours per night, you should be comfortable (pun intended) doing the same for a chair that you sit on for eight hours per day.

How to properly position your keyboard and mouse

  1. While maintaining the proper seated position described above, let your arms hang down at your sides.
  2. Now, bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle while keeping them at your sides. Your hands should comfortably rest on your keyboard without raising your elbows or shoulders.

If you’ve been following along, odds are you’re a bit confused at this point unless:

  • You’re about 6’ 2”
  • You have a height adjustable desk
  • You have a height adjustable keyboard tray attached to your desk

I wish there was an easier answer, but there isn’t. I need to lower my desk about 3” below the standard 28” desk height to achieve this, and I’m 5’ 10”. But I can tell you that when I bought a height adjustable desk and set it to the proper height, it instantly and significantly reduced the neck and shoulder pain that I would experience after a long day of work. I highly recommend it!

Just note that this desk height is optimal for typing, but will likely be too low for writing or other tasks. This is another reason why a height-adjustable desk can be helpful; you can set various heights for various work modes like sitting or standing and typing or writing.

How to properly position your monitor

  1. While seated properly at your desk (sitting upright or in a slightly reclined position), stretch your arm out in front of you. You should be able to touch the screen of your monitor, and it should be positioned directly in front of you (not off to one side or the other).
  2. Position the top of the screen so it’s just about eye level and you need to tilt your head slightly downward to view the content on the screen.

If you have dual monitors, position your main monitor directly in front of you and your secondary monitor slightly off to one side or the other.

In general, the easiest way to achieve correct monitor position is by mounting your monitor on a monitor arm. In addition to giving you more flexibility in monitor height and depth, it also frees up the space under your monitor and gives it a great aesthetic “floating” look. Alternatively, many monitors have adjustable height stands, or you can use a monitor riser or desk shelf.

It’s important to mention that creating a workspace that follows these guidelines is only possible when using an external monitor (or at least a laptop stand) and an external keyboard and mouse. While working directly from your laptop is convenient when you’re on the go, it’s an absolute must to connect your laptop to external peripherals when at your dedicated workspace. As we’ll cover in other articles, working from your laptop for any extended period of time is bad for both ergonomics and productivity.

Conclusion

While there are other important topics to cover regarding ergonomics, optimizing your setup for proper seating, typing, and monitor positioning will get you at least 80% of the way to an ergonomic workspace. Making these changes can significantly decrease the likelihood of an injury, reduce daily aches and pains, and give you more energy to focus on getting your best work done.

In our next article, we’ll cover the second element of workspace design: designing for productivity.

September 09, 2022