Designing an ergonomic home office

1st January, 2015

Ergonomic Home Office

In a recent post on challenges in running a business from home, I included as one of the key challenges the risks of stress, ill health and strained relationships from working excessive hours.

I realise now I could have added the risk of working in a home office space that has not been set up to be ergonomically helpful — in other words, with everything arranged so you can interact with that environment efficiently and safely.

So what would that involve?

Well, in the course of some recent research on the concept I found that:

  • There is no shortage of information on the web about how to do it.
  • There are experts who will, for a fee, advise you.
  • It would be an easy matter to spend thousands of dollars on trying to achieve some kind of ergonomic perfection in your home office.

READ: 4 tech tips for your home office

In fact, you could spend thousands just on a chair and a desk.

But while some may be able and willing to outlay thousands for their home office setup, I’m assuming others will have some degree of budgetary constraint to consider, especially people who are setting up a new business from home and who are probably also looking at significant expenses on computer equipment, a web site, stationery, licensing or association fees and so on.

Adding a state-of-the-art chair and desk might be seen at that point as an unaffordable luxury. However, with some research on the subject and some judicious purchasing, buying furniture that is not top of the line and still achieving an ergonomically satisfactory office setup should be possible without breaking the bank.

In fact, from what I’ve been able to discover, it should be possible to set up an ergonomically appropriate home office for less than $1,000.

Which is a lot less than what many people spend on setting up a web site.

By the way, I am no expert in this field of ergonomics. I’m just sharing from my own experience of being a former senior executive with federal and state government and working from home for over twenty years, together with some basic online research.

Elements of an ergonomically designed home office

From what I’ve observed and been able to glean from various lists in the numerous online sites offering advice in this area, the key elements in designing an ergonomic home office include:

  • A good, adjustable swivel chair
  • A desk with enough space and at the right height
  • Keeping your computer screen at the right height
  • Accessible paper files, documents and accessories
  • Proper lighting, temperature, air and noise

To that general list I would add having a nice view, if at all possible. I much prefer to work in a space that lets me look out on a garden or lawn, rather than looking up at a wall, however nicely decorated it might be.

One of the reasons it’s good to be able to look out on greenery is the relaxing effect that can have on our eyes; it’s no small consideration if we are spending a large chunk of our time looking at a computer screen.

Get a good chair

A good office chair includes these features:

  • Swivel rotation
  • Good lower back support
  • Castors
  • Easily adjustable for height and tilt
  • Able to bear the user’s weight

Helpfully, there are standards available from not-for-profit furntech-AFDRI (Australasian Furniture Research and Development Institute). Their standard for height adjustable swivel chairs is AS/NZS 4438 (levels 4, 5 and 6). Look for their “blue tick”.

So far, I have only been able to find, on Australian and New Zealand retail sites, chairs certified as AFRDI Level 6. That’s specified as “able to withstand extremely severe conditions of use, such as police stations, military installations, control rooms and use in heavy industry”, so holding out for that level seems hardly necessary for the average home office.

From my reading of the specification, a Level 4 would be adequate and Level 5 certainly appropriate for most situations.

It should be noted that those standards are for people weighing up to 110kg. There is a complementary standard for use by people heavier than that, the AFRDI 142 Rated Load standard.

On a practical note, from reading various discussions about office chairs, I have been reminded that as we are all different shapes and sizes it’s probably safe to say that one chair will not fit all.

So actually sitting in a chair you are thinking of buying is surely highly desirable. Buying online or buying a DIY assembly flatpack without being able to sit in a chair of that exact model might be a recipe for disappointment.

With just a quick bit of searching, I have seen chairs advertised with the AFRDI blue tick and a Level 6 AFRDI rating for less than $350.

And if you can’t find the chair you want with an AFDRI blue tick, I recommend that at least you ensure that the chair you get has got those five points above covered (able to swivel, etc).

Choosing a desk

Some checklists for ergonomic office design include having a height-adjustable desk. That’s especially useful if you interested in applying the “sit-stand” approach to healthy desk working—working as much as possible in a standing position or regularly varying your working position between sitting and standing.

It may also be important for people who are not in the 152-157 cm or so range of height that fixed level desks seem to be designed for.

If you like the idea of having a height adjustable desk there is quite an array of choice, including desks with electric or gas enabled adjustment.

I’ve also seen catalogue items online for Australia in the $170-300 range, for manually adjustable desks. Practically speaking, this would be for a “set and forget” arrangement, not for frequent raising or lowering.

If you already have a desk or you have your eye on a particular desk that is not height adjustable and you feel ok about what seems to be the standard 725-750m or so height range, then it is even more important to make sure your chair is height adjustable.

As to the length and width of the desktop, surely it’s only in catalogues, or on the desks of very organised, tidy people, that you see just a computer, keyboard and maybe a paper notebook, and nothing else.

I have to confess that, as someone who long ago gave up on dreams of having a permanently neat and tidy desk, I like to have a desk of good length and depth, so I can spread out a bit and not feel overwhelmed by my clutter.

Computer screen height

I work on the basis that for me to maintain good, upright posture, the top of my computer screen needs to be about level with my forehead.

The increasing use of laptops or notebook computers instead of desktop or tower computers, means that some measures need to be taken to avoid the head bent, hunching position which can be so bad for our posture.

I use a simple stand I purchased from its Melbourne-based maker for less than $50. Of course, for that I need to use an external keyboard, as the inbuilt keyboard is on a steep angle when the laptop is in the stand.

Paper files and other items

I’m including this item because some experts say it is important. Actually, I think it is basic common sense and self-interest, but yes, it’s good to plan your office layout so that paper files, documents and accessories—hole punch, stapler, etc.—are readily accessible.

Manage lighting, temperature, air and noise

Good, even lighting, using a desk lamp if that helps, and making sure our computer screen isn’t reflecting glare, say from an unshaded window, are practical steps for productivity and for protecting our eye health.

Having a comfortable ambient temperature, good air flow and an environment as free from annoying or distracting noise are no doubt obvious elements of an ergonomically supportive environment, but taking such factors into account before setting up the home office can save disruptive changes at a later date.

And when all that’s done, it’s not enough!

No matter how much money we spend on chairs, desks and other items, no matter how careful we are about lighting, temperature and the rest, it can all be in vain if we ignore one thing not covered by that list above.

And that one thing is the need to move—and often.

A recent article in The Age newspaper reported on a recent survey that illustrated why just getting the furniture right ergonomically is only part of the story.

If you work in an office and spend hours in front of a computer, don’t think your ergonomic chair, standing desk or good posture will save you from poor health. You are still just as likely to develop back, neck, wrist and shoulder injuries, while also increasing your chance of heart disease and diabetes.

We need to move.

And do that frequently.

We need to take account also of the fact that for many of us who have WiFi throughout our homes and/or use an iPad or other tablet, any need to sit for hours at our office desk for hours on end has become rather historic.

But that’s another post for another day.

In the meantime, do you have any tips you would care to share on designing an ergonomic home office?