Learn how to set up your new keyboard, pointing device, chair, desk, and monitor. Plus get tips everyone can use to make their workspace more ergonomic, without breaking the bank.
The keyboard is every modern worker’s most powerful tool and our interface to the world. But did you know the conventional keyboard is based on a 19th-century typewriter design optimized to prevent the physical jamming of the key mechanisms?
It was never designed or optimized to be comfortable for the human body!
Conventional keyboards place unnecessary stress on the fingers, wrists, forearms, and shoulders. When building an ergonomic workstation getting a proper ergonomic keyboard should be one of your top priorities.
Investing in the best ergonomic keyboard you can afford will pay dividends as it can make you more comfortable and boost your productivity. But beware, just because a keyboard is labeled “ergonomic” doesn’t mean it will address your specific symptoms. Do your research and test out the keyboard.
No matter the make or model, a true ergonomic keyboard should be adapted to fit your body, and ideally the ability to have electronic and/or physical configuration options (see our guides on Split Keyboards and Programmable Keyboards).
Many people are nervous about switching to an ergonomic keyboard for fear of having to “re-learn” how to type.
However, the best ergonomic keyboards are designed to work with our bodies and the learning curve isn’t nearly as steep as you might think. In our experience, most individuals can adapt to a well designed ergonomic keyboard in as little as a few hours to a few days depending on the person. And many of those using a Kinesis ergonomic keyboard experience increased typing speeds as well.
QUICK TIP: Never use the built-in feet on the bottom to lift up the back of your keyboard. Raising the rear of your keyboard promotes painful wrist extension!
The only computer input device you use as much as a keyboard is your pointing device. Touchpads, trackballs, and other alternative pointing devices can be well suited for specific users or computing applications, but nothing beats the power, precision and versatility of a high-quality mouse.
But if you’ve ever used a conventional mouse for an extended period of time, you have probably experienced some degree of wrist, forearm, elbow or shoulder pain. Or maybe all of the above. A conventional mouse forces your hand to rotate face down towards the desktop, which over time can cause muscle tension and stress soft-tissue.
The best ergonomic mice on the market have a “vertical” design intended to put your hand in a more neutral position than a conventional mouse in order to reduce strain. Many people mistakenly think that the optimal, neutral position is the “handshake grip”, but as it turns out the true neutral position for the hand is what doctors call the “position of function”. This is the position that is used if your hand needs to be immobilized by a cast or splint because it places the least amount of tension on your tendons and muscles. To read more about the “position of function”, read this article from our friends at City Ergonomics.
There are many ergonomic variations of the vertical mouse design available and typically you get what you pay for. Basic vertical mice get the general posture correct, but the very best vertical mice take it a step further.
For example, one vertical mouse we highly recommend is the DXT2, which was designed by City Ergonomics. City Ergonomics was founded jointly by an ergonomist and a physiotherapist in the UK. Their DXT2 mouse design adopts the “position of function” and alters the traditional contact points on a mouse to reduce “grip force” for improved comfort and accuracy.
Choosing a comfortable, ergonomic mouse is only half of the battle. Properly positioning that mouse is just as important, and the type of keyboard you’ve chosen has major implications.
To maximize comfort, you want to position the mouse as close to your keyboard as possible, while still allowing enough freedom of movement so the cursor can cover your screen. This is where having a compact, tenkeyless (“TKL”) keyboard comes in handy. A TKL keyboard eliminates the traditional numeric 10-key thereby reducing the keyboard’s footprint, which allows you to bring the mouse in closer to your body and reducing painful over-reach.
Heavy numeric 10-key users should look for a keyboard with an “embedded” 10-key or consider purchasing a standalone keypad, which can be positioned optimally when keypad intensive tasks are being performed.
A keyboard tray is an essential, but often overlooked component of an ergonomic workstation. The optimal ergonomic workstation requires that your keyboard, chair, desk, and monitor are all working in harmony with your body.
Your keyboard should be positioned so that your shoulders are relaxed and forearms are parallel with the floor when you are sitting up straight. If you have an adjustable desk, monitor arm, and chair, then you might be able to get everything in alignment. But it’s much easier (and cheaper) to just invest in an adjustable keyboard tray.
A keyboard tray may not be a sexy purchase, but it should be the first addition to your ergonomic workstation. And make sure you get a tray big enough to accommodate your keyboard and mouse so you aren’t moving your arms between different heights.
The ideal ergonomic chair should be adjustable and support your back in a relaxed, upright position. Maintain good posture when working and sit all the way back in the chair. Contrary to popular belief, it’s okay to recline a little to find a comfortable, neutral posture. Keep your knees at or below the level of your hips. Adjust the armrests so your shoulders are relaxed and forearms are roughly parallel to the floor. Don’t be fooled by “luxury” furniture designers who emphasize form over function, and only pay lip service to ergonomics. No matter how great the chair looks, if it’s not adjustable, then it can’t be ergonomic.
Position your monitor so the top is slightly below eye level and roughly arm’s length away, and center it in front of your keyboard. Also, tilt the monitor slightly back (5 to 15 degrees) so that when you are looking at the center of the screen your line of sight is perpendicular to the screen. To reduce eyestrain, clean your screen periodically and adjust the brightness and contrast settings. If glare is a problem, tilt the screen down slightly or position the monitor (and your desk!) at a right angle to the window.
Humans come in all different sizes but most desks are 28-30” tall, which is great if you’re average height (5’8” – 5’10”), but not so great for everyone else. That’s why ergonomists prefer height-adjustable desks. Height-adjustable desks are especially important as we transition to move shared workstations. Just remember, configure your chair height first, and then adjust the desk height.
The next evolution in height adjustable work surfaces is the sit-stand desk. Sit-stand desks are great because they encourage dynamic postures to keep you from being static at the office. Sitting all day is unhealthy but so is standing; finding the right balance is key. A sit-stand desk can keep you healthier but it only works if you are willing to commit to adjusting it throughout the day. Some sit-stand desks require manual adjustment and some are powered. Some sit-stand desks are even smart enough to remind you when to adjust it.
Also, keep in mind that some tasks are better suited for sitting while others are better for standing. And when you do shift positions, take the time to re-position your keyboard, mouse and monitor so you aren’t introducing other forms of strain. And definitely invest in a wireless ergonomic keyboard so you’re not having to fuss with any extra cables as your sit-stand desk moves up and down.
Laptop and Tablet Users
Laptop and tablet users should read our guide on Mobile Ergonomics for specific tips on how to stay healthy even when using these devices.
The Best Position is The Next Position
Office work, especially the time spent working on a computer is highly sedentary. Make it a habit to take micro-breaks every 15 minutes or so to stand-up and stretch. Refill your water bottle, visit a colleague, or just take a lap around the building.
A quick break can recharge your batteries and keep you working at peak levels throughout the day.