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Home Office Ergonomics: A How to Guide


| By Alex Greig | October 27, 2020

This guide to office ergonomics will help you find the best chairs, desks and other essentials, all perfect for working from home.

Office ergonomics: how to create the best home workstation set-up

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has had many unexpected effects: unprecedented Netflix binge-sessions, a homemade sourdough revolution and copious composting, crafting and cooking endeavours. Another unexpected consequence is many workers leaving CBDs and retreating to home offices, dining tables and – let’s face it – beds. Bad backs, stiff joints and strained eyes have ensued as we discover that what’s fine for the occasional work-from-home day doesn’t quite cut it full-time. And that’s where office ergonomics come in.

Ergonomics is broader than hydraulic desks or desk chairs that resemble pretzels. In fact, the field of ergonomics is a combination of various disciplines including psychology, physiology and design, and, according to the International Ergonomics Association, its raison d'être is “to optimise human wellbeing and overall system performance”. Essentially, it’s to ensure the best physical and mental outcomes for humans in the workplace.

And we’re here to tell you: sitting in that dining chair for seven hours a day is not cutting it. Here, the basics of ergonomics are explained and we tell you what you should look for in a home-office set-up, from chairs and desks to natural light and fresh air.

Choosing a Desk

Tips on how to choose the right desk for office ergonomics.

These days, desks range from simple structures – four legs and a flat top – to complex electronic contraptions that move up and down, allowing the user to sit or stand at will. Make sure your legs fit easily under the desk without knees, thighs or feet hitting anything. If it’s too high and can’t be adjusted, raise your chair and add a footrest.

Stephen Hehir, president of the Human Factors & Ergonomics Society of Australia, notes that it hasn’t been proven that standing for long periods is any more beneficial than sitting, so a combination of the two may be the best option. “Substituting all sitting for standing brings its own health risks,” he says. “Don’t swap one for the other, but try to go from sitting to standing regularly.”

Monique Tanner, a physiotherapist from Movement 101 in Sydney, agrees. “The good thing about standing desks is that most are adjustable, so you can swap between sitting and standing regularly throughout the day,” she says. “I usually recommend one hour standing and one hour sitting and alternating throughout the work day.”

This sleek Matrix desk will take you from sitting to standing via the turn of a handle; while this high-tech Matrix version lifts and sinks electronically and is programmable so you can maintain the same sit and stand heights.

What To Try

Choosing a Chair

Hehir says the most important thing to look for in a work chair is adjustability. A key element of ergonomics is the idea that one size does not fit all. You’ll need a chair with variable seat height, armrest height, seat tilt and back tilt, so you can adjust it according to your own comfort. The curve of the spine should be supported, with both feet able to rest flat on the floor (or on a footrest).

Hehir explains the seat should be tilted slightly – about 105 degrees – to help take pressure off the lower back. A high, supportive seat-back can help with this too. “Rough enough is good enough,” he says. “It’s not an exact science, it’s about having a chair that enables a range of movement so that you feel comfortable.”

“If you have a hardwood floor, consider braked rollers on the chair so that it doesn’t roll away when you stand up – and you don’t end up on the floor,” says Hehir, who also recommends looking for a chair with Australasian Furnishing Research and Development Institute (AFRDI) approval.

“Chairs rated by the AFRDI will have a robustness about them,” he says. “The AFRDI does rigorous testing to make sure they’re not going to break, and that they meet certain anthropometric standards.” Hehir says an AFRDI Level Six rating is ideal for offices where the chair may be used by many different people, but for home use a Level Four is fine and should be appropriate for individuals up to 110 kilograms.

Hot Tip: Check out Officeworks’ ergonomic furniture selection to help find the right chair – and other products, such as backrests and footrests – for your needs.

SEE ALSO: The Ultimate Guide: Tips for (Still) Working From Home

Choosing the Right Keyboard and Mouse

Having an ergonomic mouse and keyboard is important for office ergonomics.

The ideal position for your computer monitor, according to Jennifer Long of Visual Ergonomics, is at or below eye height. Your eyes should be tilted downwards to the screen, an angle – about 15 degrees – that’s been shown to be the most comfortable gaze direction for longer periods of time.

“For anything other than occasional laptop use, always use a laptop stand and an external keyboard and mouse,” says Hehir. “And if you’re doing a lot of detailed spreadsheet work, get a larger external monitor.”

Anyone suffering from mechanical tendon injuries such as carpal tunnel or tendonitis may find a split field keyboard helps, he says. “And for sore shoulders from mouse-work – prolonged reaching to use the mouse – try using a short keyboard (no numeric keypad) and move the mouse nearer to you with the upper arm closer to the body.”

What To Try

Where to Position Your Equipment

There’s more to consider than desks and chairs when setting up an ergonomic home office space. Consider the equipment you use: desktop, tablet, laptop? Do you look at paper or books frequently? What kind of work do you do: largely typing, or more time using a mouse or stylus?

Work out what you’ll be doing most in the space and customise your set-up accordingly. Consider the position of everything and make sure items used regularly are in easy reach. Stand up to reach any items that may be farther away instead of staying seated and awkwardly stretching.

Place your desk near a window if possible, for natural light and air, but don’t have the desk directly in front of the window. “Sitting side-on to a window is a better option,” says Hehir, explaining that it reduces glare and eye-strain. “You want the light to wash in from the side rather than front-on, and every now and then you can stop and look out the window.”

Likewise, desk lamps that diffuse the brightness to wash light from one side to another will better prevent eye-strain than harsh overhead lights, advises Hehir.

Moving Your Body

It is good to stretch and move every 20 minutes when working from home.

“Sitting is fine,” says Hehir. “Prolonged sitting is not.” The only sure-fire way to avoid sitting-related injuries? Get up and move around, regularly. If you have pain associated with sitting, it’s not necessarily the way you’re sitting but the fact you’re sitting for long periods. So while sitting in a supportive chair and standing intermittently to work are both good, nothing will make up for getting up and moving during your work day.

“I usually recommend that every 20 to 30 minutes you should be up and moving,” says Tanner. “Getting up to use the bathroom, make a cup of tea, go for a short walk or to complete a couple of stretches – it all counts.”

She also recommends incorporating a few easy yoga- and- pilates-based exercises such as cat-cows or book openings into your day. “However, just simple, regular movement will suffice, whether it’s just standing up or moving the neck from side to side and up and down.”