When you work from home once in a while, it’s easy to make do by sitting at the kitchen table or on the couch. But when it becomes the norm, your back and neck will quickly let you know that “making do” won’t cut it.
But who has the space/budget/interest for a full ergonomic setup? Anna Siebelink, owner and founder of Balanced Image Ergonomics Consulting, said there are plenty of ways to hack your space using items you already have on hand. Here are a few practical tips to help make your home office more comfortable.
It’s all about realistic solutions
When space is at a premium, a dedicated workspace is a luxury: Siebelink has heard people talk about retreating to a bathroom or laundry room in order to find a quiet place. Whatever your situation, do what you can to try to stay sane, productive, and comfortable.
“Maybe you’re moving more, maybe you’re moving less,” she said. Everybody’s day-to-day is different, including where they get things done—so work with what you have. “The new normal is ‘ergo in the gray zone.’ You don’t need to be perfectly set up all the time.”
So what’s the goal you’re aiming for? Here’s how Siebelink describes the ideal position for working at your computer:
- Sitting tall with your back straight
- Shoulders relaxed and not hunched up
- Arms even and creating a roughly 90-degree angle between your shoulders and the keyboard, so your wrists don’t need to bend up or down
- Neck looking straight ahead toward the computer, not to the side—and the screen should be as close to eye level as possible
Whether you’re working on a laptop or desktop computer, position the keyboard at arm’s length (approximately 24 inches) in front of you. If you can’t quite see the screen at that distance, Siebelink suggests inching it closer or figuring out how to make the text on your screen a bit bigger.
Decide where to work
A desk, the kitchen table, the kitchen counter, your living room couch—which one is the best option? Siebelink said that all of them are fine, at least for a while.
“I actually encourage people to go from place to place, if you can, while working because it allows you to take breaks and change positions,” she explained. “We’re trying to avoid static, awkward positions for a prolonged period of time.”
On the couch or comfy chair
When you sit in a comfortable chair, Siebelink said that your laptop might be in an OK position but your back is not: you can’t sit tall with your neck looking straight ahead because your screen is too low. “It’s fine once in a while. But over time, we tend to fall [forward] into a really rounded posture.”
To help keep your upper body aligned and minimize neck strain, Siebelink suggested tilting the screen back—away from you—as much as possible. This may give your screen a bit more height and better visual alignment for your eyes to glance down, especially if you add a solid surface to work on.
Lap desks are made for this purpose: they help balance the laptop and add a bit more height to your screen. But you can easily combine other items for the same effect. For example:
- Create some stability by putting a folded blanket or towel on your lap. Then, for a good surface, use a box lid or folded yoga mat. If your laptop slides around, a piece of felt can help keep it in place.
- Raise your lap, which will bring your laptop closer and lift the screen, by putting a stool under your feet. If this isn’t comfortable for your back or arms, another towel or cushion can be used for extra support.
Whatever items you choose, adjust your position as needed to suit your height and preferences.
At the kitchen table
Ideally, you want to sit up straight with your shoulders relaxed and your arms at a roughly 90-degree angle. But when you work at a kitchen or dining room table, you may find that your elbows are slightly lower than the tabletop. This can cause you to hunch your shoulders or put pressure on your palms.
One simple solution is to sit on a folded blanket or cushion. This can lift your body just enough to get your arms to that ideal 90-degree angle. And if your dining chair lacks back support, another cushion can provide extra padding. Improve lumbar support with a rolled-up hand towel tucked into the curve of your lower back.
If you have a separate keyboard and mouse for your laptop, think back to the ideal screen height: What can you do to get the screen close to eye level? Boxes can be a great solution here, but Siebelink recommended that you make sure it’s quite stable.
At the kitchen counter (or another tall surface)
Another option is to set up shop at your kitchen counter. With nowhere to put your chair, it will likely be easier to stand so the challenge will be to get your tools to the same height: countertops are typically 36 inches high, which Siebelink said can be a little too low for many people. A book or thin box can provide just enough height. “You’re always trying to avoid hunching over,” she said.
High counters or high top tables can cause the opposite problem: people often find their elbows sit just below the surface. One solution to this might be slippers or a pair of sneakers: “I can put these shoes on and get a little higher. Now I’m more comfortable [at the high counter], typing with my shoulders relaxed.”
This raises a good question: Should you spend more time sitting or standing?
“If you can set yourself up best sitting, or if you can set yourself up best standing, I would use that as your primary workplace because that’s where you’re going to be the most comfortable,” Siebelink said.
When standing, if you are at a fixed-height desk, she said it’s best to use a tall stool so you can take breaks to sit. If you are standing at an adjustable height desk, alternate moving the desk up and down between sitting and standing.
The ideal, Siebelink noted, is really to alternate between both positions throughout the day. “If you are new to standing, slowly build up tolerance to standing. But again, the idea is not to stand all day.”
And then? Keep moving! Put reminders on sticky notes around your computer or use a timer to help you keep track of time. Wherever you choose to work, it’s always important that you take frequent breaks, stretch, and change your work position in order to give your body a break.