Working from home safely and effectively

So you’ve been sent home to work during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the setup you quickly put together those few weeks ago now has you concerned about longer-term comfort, safety and productivity — especially as we look ahead toward the possibility of spending additional time in our remote work environments. Fortunately, a little attention to the principles of ergonomics can help to create a safer and more effective work environment. Best of all, you might even be able to use items you already have at home.

Setup and productivity tips

Resist the urge to work from the floor, the bed or the couch

Define your workspace. Set yourself up in an area that mentally prepares you for work mode. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a separate room, however, it does need to be a space that’s free from distractions. If space is limited in your home, you may need to get creative, but make sure you have an adequate number of electrical outlets and use a surge protector for your equipment.

Mind the cords and clutter. Walkways should be clear of cords and other items that could pose a tripping hazard. Excess clutter — whether it be around your workspace or beneath your desk — can restrict movement, interfere with leg room and lead to more twisting and reaching.

Consider the lighting. Adequate lighting is important, particularly if you frequently reference printed documents. To reduce discomfort from the glare on your monitor, shift your screen so it is not directly behind or facing a window.

Take breaks. While you may experience fewer interruptions while working from home, that could mean spending longer periods of time in the same position. Just as you would in a physical office, remember to take regular breaks in your home (e.g. lunch) as well as microbreaks throughout the day. Microbreaks are breaks that consist of one to two minute increments every 15-20 minutes. This time can be used to stand up, stretch and exercise the muscles.

Establish a routine. Try to follow a schedule that is similar to when you physically went into an office. Take a shower, get dressed, make a cup of coffee and go to your dedicated workspace. You’ll be glad you showered after the first time you need to attend an impromptu video conference meeting! Maintaining a sense of routine can also be very beneficial to your mental health and wellness.

Develop a strategy with your family. If you have children, you may be facing added challenges when it comes to working from home. At this point, you may have tried multiple strategies to maintain productivity for everyone, but scheduling really can make a difference. For example, if you’re most productive in the morning, try to get some of your most important or difficult tasks done before the kids wake up. Easier or shorter tasks can be accomplished later, as you have smaller pockets of time throughout the day. During the day, take the kids for a walk, play in the backyard or have them try a kid-friendly online exercise program. Once they've used up some energy, they are are more likely to remain engaged on quieter tasks — allowing you some time to focus. If you are a night owl and have the flexibility to work outside of normal business hours, you may prefer to accomplish tasks after an earlier bedtime for the kids.

Maintain communication. Teamwork and interactions with colleagues may take a bit more effort when you are working from home. In some ways, you might appreciate the lack of disruptions from impromptu meetings or colleagues stopping by your desk, but it’s important that you not become out of sight, out of mind. Be sure to communicate regularly via email and phone and make use of video conferencing technology as well. It may feel awkward at first, but it really can promote greater engagement, collaboration and teamwork.

Ergonomics tips

The recommendations below will help you safely set up and use your workspace. Also, watch the following videos for demonstrations of these tips.

Physical setup guide

While sitting, your thighs should be approximately parallel to the ground. Ensure your feet are firmly supported by the floor or a footrest.

If necessary, use a sturdy box or even reams of paper to elevate your feet.

Ensure your lower back is well-supported by the chair’s backrest or a back cushion. Ideally, you should be able to rest against your backrest rather than leaning/perching forward for long periods of time.

Use a cushion or a pillow if necessary.

If you cannot reach the backrest because your seat is too deep, use a cushion or pillow (or consider a different chair).

Ensure your keyboard and mouse are close to you at approximately elbow height to minimize reaching.

If the keyboard work surface is not adjustable, adjust your chair to achieve an appropriate typing height. Ensure your feet are well-supported by the floor or a footrest.

If your chair is not adjustable and it is too low, prop up your chair seat with a cushion. Ensure the cushion does not push up against your thighs or into the back of your knees.

If you have a laptop, a full-size keyboard, monitor and mouse are suggested accessories. There is more flexibility in the setup if the keyboard, monitor and mouse are independent pieces. If the pieces are set up appropriately, allowing you to work in healthy postures, you should experience less physical stress.

If you do not have an independent keyboard, monitor or mouse, adjust the keyboard to your ideal typing height (approximately elbow height) and tilt the screen backwards slightly so you can view the screen comfortably by looking downward with your eyes as opposed to bending your neck and dropping your head forward.

If you have an independent keyboard/mouse but not a monitor, you can position the keyboard/mouse at your ideal typing height, and then position your laptop so the screen is also at an appropriate height.

If you have a desktop computer, position your monitor(s) so you can view the screen with a straight head/shoulders/hips alignment. You should not be dropping your head forward or tilting backward.

If you want to raise your monitor, use books or reams of paper.

Maintain a neutral wrist posture while typing.

Avoid dropping your wrists on the work surface while typing. Instead, float your hands above the keyboard. If necessary, support your wrists with a wrist pad or a rolled up towel. Make sure the towel is not higher than the home row of your keyboard and that it will not place too much pressure on your wrists.

Avoid holding the phone between your ear and shoulder for long periods.

If you use the phone frequently, consider the use of the speakerphone option or a headset.

Read more about remote office ergonomics on the Sedgwick blog.

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