Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it took leaps and bounds of paperwork and approvals from Human Resources for employees to work from home. That is no longer the case.
Since the outbreak, our country has pivoted to a work-from-home society, requiring most non-essential service workers to stay home and be productive.
But the reality is most people have never worked from home.
As a result, many workers are unprepared for what it takes to set up a proper workstation with excellent ergonomics.
Most individuals have to figure things out for themselves, like how to be more comfortable and productive while working from home during this new normal.
Common office ergonomics concerns of proper chair postures, best desk height, correct monitor placement, and pain-free keyboard and mouse technique, are all important topics to learn about and address when working from home.
There are significant ergonomic differences between using a standard desktop computer, keyboard, and mouse compared to a laptop computer.
Social Distance Your Laptop
By far, the most challenging work-from-home scenario is working with a laptop because it’s inherently “un-ergonomic.”
Just like social distancing between humans has become a common practice, we should also consider doing the same with our laptops!
Although convenient in terms of mobility, laptops are a difficult ergonomic challenge because the monitor is physically connected to the keyboard and trackpad.
Expert Advice From Ergonomists
Ergonomists recommend separating the monitor from the keyboard and trackpad to position each device effectively. Postural stress and strain is the main reason.
One way is to use a full-size desktop monitor and dock the laptop with a port replicator.
Or, just separate the laptop monitor from the keyboard section. It’s easy to place the laptop on a riser or a stack of books!
Next, plug in an external keyboard and mouse, effectively separating the monitor from these devices.
It’s quite simple, and you’ll be much better off when you “social distance” yourself from your laptop!
Let’s take a closer look at the ergonomics of each component separately.
Laptop Monitor Placement
When placed on a desktop or other surface, the laptop monitor is far below seated eye height. When the visual target (i.e., a monitor) is below your neutral horizontal line of sight, you’ll slump forward and bend your head down.
Given the amount of time spent daily on the laptop and keyboard, this is a real problem.
It doesn’t matter where you sit with the laptop, on the couch, the kitchen table, or at a desk. The resulting posture is the same.
Over time, continued work like this can contribute to neck pain, upper back discomfort, lower backaches, headaches, and more.
Keyboard and Mouse Separation
Even if you can distance yourself from your laptop, the risks to your health can continue.
While using an external keyboard and mouse allows for separate monitor placement, your problems aren’t over.
Most standard keyboards and mice expose you to awkward postures, which can cause discomfort to your shoulders, forearms, wrists, and hands.
Sore wrist and hands from keyboard and mouse use are an early warning of musculoskeletal problems.
Awareness of the four ergonomic risk factors associated with improper keyboard and mouse use is essential. Knowing what to look for can save you from cumulative trauma.
Four Ergonomic Risk Factors
1. Wrist Extension/Flexion Combined with Contact Stress
Work on a surface that is too low for you, and you’ll put your wrists in harm’s way with too much wrist extension.
Work on a surface that is too tall, and you’re likely to flex your wrists in the opposite direction into wrist flexion.
When you have to extend your forearm and shoulder to reach for the mouse, you put unnecessary strain on your forearm, neck, and shoulders.
Either position is accompanied by contact or leaning on the hard surface or edge of the desk. Pressure on the underside of your wrist, causing contact stress, can compress sensitive nerves, tendons, and ligaments leading to pain during or after typing on your keyboard.
2. Outward Wrist Deviation
Using a keyboard that is too narrow for you, combined with improper placement of the keyboard (too high, too low or too close), can result in wrist deviations (bending the wrists out).
Wrist deviations towards the little finger can aggravate the hands, wrists, and forearms on the lateral side, causing tightness or even numbness and tingling.
3. High Key Force/Fingertip Impact
Most keyboards have either “full-travel” or “short-travel” key switches.
Full-travel switches (most standard keyboards) often have higher key forces that require more physical effort to press.
Short-travel switches (laptops and most compact keyboards) usually require less key force and effort to press.
However, short-travel switches lead to hard fingertip impacts where every key press results in “bottoming out” with greater likelihood of cumulative strain to the fingers and hands.
4. Mouse Over-reach
Standard keyboards with integrated ten-key number pads typically push the mouse further away from the body, requiring greater reach with the right arm.
An extended reach to the mouse can place extra strain on the neck, shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Postural stress results from over-reaching to the mouse from the keyboard.
The Right Keyboard at the Right Place
Choosing the right keyboard is critical.
It’s unusual to find one device that helps resolve all of these risk factors. Kinesis Freestyle2 is an ideal keyboard to help reduce exposure to these ergonomic risk factors.
1. Reduce Wrist Extension
The Freestyle2’s thin, low profile and zero-degree slope dramatically reduces the possibility of wrist extension.
Optional palm supports further protect the wrists from leaning on any hard surface eliminating contact stress.
2. Reduce Wrist Deviations
Adjustable key modules that uniquely separate, allowing the arms and hands to be more in line with the shoulders, drastically reduces outward wrist deviations. The result is more relaxed arm postures while keyboarding.
Plus, it’s quite portable and compact because it can separate into two pieces, so it easily fits in your laptop case when you are ready to get back to work.
3. Reduced High Key Force/Fingertip Imapct
The Freestyle2 uses low force key switches, which require less effort to press reducing hand and finger fatigue.
In addition, the switches are full-travel and tactile to reduce unnecessary “bottoming out”.
4. Reduce Mouse Over-reach
The Freestyle2 reduces keyboard length by eliminating the integrated number pad allows the mouse to be more at shoulder width, decreasing unnecessary reach.
If you still need a keypad, there’s an embedded number pad in the right key module.
A stand-alone keypad option is also available, which can be placed on either side of the keyboard or in between the key modules.
The Freestyle2 keyboard can help improve productivity, reduce reach to the mouse while maximizing performance with the laptop.
No Mask Required
When it comes to social distancing your laptop from your keyboard and mouse, it’s a good thing for your health and safety!
Start by sitting fully into the chair with your feet on the floor. Assure the work surface is at seated elbow height. Place the laptop/ monitor within visual comfort and close to seated eye height. Position the keyboard and mouse proximal to the edge of the desk. Within near reach from your elbow to your fingertips. You’re all set. And, no mask required!
About the author
Alison Heller-Ono is a physical therapist and board-certified professional ergonomist. She is the President and CEO of Worksite International, Inc. since 1993. Alison is a thought-leader and innovator in the ergonomics marketplace for the last two and a half decades. She currently works onsite and online. She is the creator of the Worksite International Ergonomics Process, the Chair Assessment System, and the online Ergonomics Training Academy.