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Working from home amidst Covid-19 outbreak

by | Mar 12, 2020 | Advice

The threat of Coronavirus spreading in the United States has forced the majority of citizens to rethink their daily activities. People are avoiding crowds, canceling travel, not dining out and stocking up on essential supplies. Employees of Amazon, Google and Microsoft (among others) have been diagnosed with CoVid-19, forcing many employers nationwide to limit non-essential travel and mandate remote work to minimize the risk of spreading the disease. Companies specializing in web-based communication like Citrix and Zoom have seen their stocks rocket to new all-time highs as the rest of the market is in major correction territory.

Kudos to the employers who’ve been prioritizing the welfare of their employees by allowing and advocating for remote working. As an office ergonomics specialist, I wonder how many of these newly minted remote employees have the resources to create an ergonomic workspace for themselves, or how many employers actually provide an ergonomic workstation for their employees. My guess is few do.

In my experience, many of those new to remote work will setup their home office on their dining room table or kitchen counter. Or even worse, on the couch with their computer on their lap or on the coffee table. Depending on your age, the body can cope with these awkward postures & positions for short bouts of time, but maintained over long periods, musculoskeletal symptoms may soon arise. Hopefully, the coronavirus will become less virulent as the weather warms and employees can go back to work at their offices soon, but if like in China, we are confined to our home offices for a period of 6 weeks or more, we may find ourselves with an epidemic of another sort. It’s with a certain irony that in our efforts to protect against the spread of a virus, we may wind up creating more far-reaching effects for our employees in the form of a vast array of musculoskeletal disorders.

The laptop is typically the center of the remote workspace. At a minimum, the worker should be using an external keyboard & mouse, with the laptop open and elevated so that the screen is properly visible with the neck in a neutral position. Laptop keyboards are notoriously too narrow for most, forcing the hands, wrists and shoulders into very awkward postures.

The kitchen counter or dining table is most likely double trouble. Odds are that the accompanying seating for each positions the user too low, requiring the hands (thus shoulders) be elevated to effectively type & mouse. That makes the traditional keyboard hover typing technique almost impossible, leading to resting of the wrists against the square edge of either work surface. A lap pillow while seated at these worksurfaces is a great way to place the external keyboard and mouse in a position that relaxes the shoulders and eliminates contact pressures on the wrist/forearm.

Consider connecting a larger, external monitor to the laptop to avoid eyestrain from staring at the smaller laptop screen, again making sure the monitor is viewable and in focus with the head and neck in neutral position.

In an ideal scenario, consider a dedicated workspace rather than using a common area of the home. If you have that luxury, a perfect complement is an electric sit-stand work desk. They have come way down in price over the last couple years. For a small space, the LifeDesk LD1 on casters is the perfect remote setup, with a bamboo top that is 23 x 42 wide. I like this particular desk because of its small profile, portability and extensive height range to accommodate nearly everyone. It also comes with a built-in Bluetooth sensor. The companion app (Apple, Android or Chrome) powered by StanData identifies and saves your ergonomic positions and reminds you to alter your posture at a frequency that works best for you. Many don’t realize that frequent transition is the key to successful sit-stand usage, and the app will educate you on the benefits of why, where and when.

Hopefully the virus will die out soon, allowing us to get back to life as we knew it. Perhaps one of the lasting results is that more employers will now embrace remote work as a future model for their business. If so, I encourage them to mitigate ergonomic risk by providing appropriate workstations that encourage proper postures and frequent movement rather than allowing the employees to use the standard landing spots of the kitchen, dining table or couch.

A Guest Post from David Bernardi, MSBE, CEAS
President of Summit Ergonomics and author of “From Pain to Productivity: Fixing America’s Workspaces One Desk at a Time”