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Why is this interesting? - The Ergonomics Edition
On posture, alignment, and working from home
With everyone adapting to WFH life, a big challenge that is not discussed enough is ergonomics. How can one work all day without destroying their back and shoulders? Some time ago, Noah had the opportunity to speak to a true expert on ergonomics. Gretchen Gscheidle, who worked in innovation and design at Herman Miller (she now runs her own consultancy) and was kind enough to answer a barrage of questions about how to align yourself properly. We are reprinting the interview here with some minor edits. -Colin (CJN)
Noah: So lots of people have told me the height of my chair needs to leave my feet flat on the floor, but what about the height of my desk? Where should that be?
Gretchen: There are a couple of steps to this setup process.
Start with your feet flat on the floor, and yourself sitting upright.
With your upper arm resting at your side, bend your elbow to 90 degrees. Your surface, and in particular your keyboard home row, should be at approximately that height, some advocate a little lower, but no more than an inch. Similarly, some advocate a little higher, but again no more than an inch. Depending on how you’re proportioned (lower leg length + heel height, torso length, and upper leg length combined) this measurement for the North American and European population ranges between 22″ and 32″ off the floor.
Without seeing your particular desk, I’m guessing that the sore neck/ shoulders you describe are a function of you “scrunching” your shoulders, i.e. your surface is too high, which is understandable given that 29″ and 30″ are “standard” desk heights. Really, it endorses the adjustable height approach that is part and parcel to systems furniture. If, however, you work at a conventional desk or say have a filing cabinet under your systems work surface, then you should put your keyboard on a supplemental surface that is at the right height for your body.
Noah: How about the computer monitor? Where should that be?
Gretchen: This is a little bit trickier, because of the effects of corrective vision, like bifocals, that some people require or will likely require as they age and sizes of displays. The rough rules of thumb are:
The display should be about an outstretched, arm’s length (or approximately 24″) away from your eyes, and
The vertical center of the display should be 10-15 degrees below an imaginary horizontal line projecting out from your eyes. Both conditions presume starting again from the upright seated position.
Noah: How have laptops affected posture and ergonomics? I feel like my laptop leaves me constantly hunched over.
Gretchen: Notebook computers are a significant wrench in the ergonomic rules of thumb because of the display and keyboard connection. For the display to be in the right location for the eyes, the keyboard needs to be in a location that is not ideal for keyboarding. The reverse can also be true: keyboard in the right place, display in the wrong place.
You can certainly chalk up that “hunched over” feel to your use of a notebook, but frankly, we see it in desktop configurations too. Herman Miller Research conducted video observation in a range of office settings with a range of office workers in the early 2000s. There were some notebook users in the study, but the majority were desktop users. Subjects’ gross torso postures were measured as being upright or forward–including hunched over–some 75 percent of all time that they were seated at the computer. That is something that really caught the attention of Bill Stumpf and Jeff Weber, our designers, in the early days of development for the Embody chair. One of our regular ergonomics consultants has the theory that “the eyes always win.” In other words, we will contort the rest of our bodies into awkward, even unhealthy postures as we work, unknowingly, even if it means allowing our eyes to get in the right spot to see most effectively. We chalk it up as well to the seductiveness of what is on your computer display. The thing is, we’re not the only ones who’ve taken note of these hunched over postures. I have counterparts at HP who call these postures
Noah: What’s the ideal ergonomic desk setup?
Gretchen: It is as simple as our ergonomic mantra: fit the user, fit the task, allow postural change and movement. So, fitting the user as I’ve outlined above. Fitting the task is taking into account all that you’re doing with your computer–notebook or otherwise–and/or paper-based or other tasks. If you’re doing a lot of visually-intensive work, you’re going to benefit from a larger display, which almost always implies a wider and/or deeper surface. If you’re doing keyboard intensive work, it’s a good idea to use a full-size keyboard, rather than the built-in. Similar story with pointing tasks–opt for a mouse if it’s intensive use, as opposed to a touchpad or such. If you work with paper, make sure there’s sufficient space for that too, and also consider the frequency with which you access paper files or other non-computer reference materials. If it’s frequent, keep it in your near-reach zone–basically, your arms extended and waved in a 3D arc. If it’s less frequent, you can keep it farther away from you. Allowing postural change and movement, at the very least, you want to sit in something that allows you to sit upright or reclined–the changes in posture are very healthy. If you’re all but tethered to your “workstation”–something that is also height adjustable to a standing posture delivers another degree of freedom.
Noah: What are the best practices for working with laptops for long periods?
Gretchen: What I’ve discussed here addresses those best practices in terms of a “conventional” setup of user/ chair/ technology/ desk. Recognize that there is a whole slew of other postural opportunities that notebook computers allow. I’m not advocating any of them, but lying face down on the floor, sofa, or bed while “working” on a notebook are all feasible. Herman Miller belongs to a non-profit research organization, the Office Ergonomics Research Committee, that is starting to study such in the hopes of developing some recommendations or best practices for those situations as well.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
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