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Basic Ergonomics For Your Home Office

How to set up your desk—even if it’s a kitchen table.

A person sitting correctly at a work from home desk to illustrate basic home office ergonomics.

Correct sitting posture. (Photo: Ergo-Dimensions)

For a lot of people, their new work-from-home situation is less-than-ideal. Aside from the usual productivity killers—kids, a lack of structure, a house full of distractions—a lot of new WFHers aren’t properly set up with ergonomic workstations.

Ergonomics is the scientific discipline that looks to make workspaces fit the worker, rather than the other way around. According to EHS Today, an occupational safety and health magazine, a poorly set up workstation can lead to a number of musculoskeletal disorders, like carpal tunnel and tendonitis.

Thankfully, there are a ton of simple and affordable ways to create an ergonomic workstation at home—without buying a lot of new things. We spoke to Linda Meerveld, an ergonomist, certified kinesiologist and principal consultant at Ergo-Dimensions, an injury prevention and disability management service based in Hamilton, Ont., about basic home office ergonomics—and what you can do to make the best out of your less-than-perfect workstation.

Correct your posture

According to Meerveld, having good posture is the start of a good workstation.

First, the top of your thighs should be horizontal to the floor and your feet should be flat on the ground and relaxed. If that’s not the case, you should get a footrest, or DIY one with a box or a stack of books. “The key is to make sure that not only the legs, but also the back, is comfortable,” says Meerveld. “If you don’t have that, the back muscles have to work way too hard.”

Next, you’ll want to make sure that your arms are at a 90 degree angle and that your wrists are flat. If your forearms are angled too high up or too low, you’ll build up tension in the shoulders and upper back area.

If you’re working on a computer, make sure that the top of the screen is about eye-level, or slightly lower. You also want to make sure that the monitor is close enough: “Usually, it should be at about arm’s length, but if you find that you’re actually leaning forward [to see] it means that the monitor is too far away,” Meerveld says. “That’s when you’ll start to get awkward postures that are hard to remedy.”

These same posture principles can be applied to a standing desk set-up as well.

If you have to work on a laptop, elevate the screen

Though Meerveld and other ergonomics experts advise against using a laptop for an extended period of time, sometimes it’s unavoidable. “[You] have to think of the laptop as just the monitor,” stresses Meerveld. Raise your “monitor” by putting it on a box, or a stack of books, to get that horizontal line of vision and to avoid having to look down. Then, if possible, plug in a separate mouse and keyboard to keep your neck and back straight while using your laptop.

(Meerveld suggests trying to borrow an external keyboards and a mouse from your employer, or considering buying a new set).

Furniture does matter

Though working on a couch is fine for a while, you’ll ultimately want to move your set-up to a more ergonomic-friendly surface, whether it’s a proper desk or a kitchen table. The chair is the most important part of the home office ergonomics equation. “Every kitchen table, every dining room table is way too high,” says Meerveld. To fix this, Meerveld suggests getting an adjustable chair and then adjusting its height so that you can maintain a good posture even if you’re working at a table that’s far too high. An adjustable chair is so key that Meerveld says that if you can only buy one thing, a chair should be prioritized.

Another thing to look out for, according to Meerveld, is the height of your chair’s armrests. “I find particularly for smaller people, say anyone under 5’5’’, their armrests are too high and that can cause elevation of the shoulders.” Meerveld suggests lowering your armrests to make sure they’re not causing your shoulders to shrug up, and only using armrests to help maintain that 90 degree bend at the elbow. If they’re not helping, consider removing the armrests (if possible) to avoid straining your shoulder and back muscles.

Don’t forget about your eyes

Though setting up with proper posture and good furniture is really helpful, it’s important not to forget about your eyes—especially if you’re staring at a screen all day. If you wear bifocals or progressive lenses, you should try switching to single vision glasses when working at the computer for long stretches of time. This will help ease both eye strain and awkward neck positions (that is, looking up or down to see into the correct section of your bifocals).

Take breaks

Take a break every thirty minutes or so to walk around, stretch and rest your eyes. Taking a break will allow you to come back to your workspace and reset. While sitting at your desk, taking an eye break by looking away from your screen to look into the distance.

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