Working in a new reality

By Francie Healy

“Go home, stay home, and don’t come out until it’s safe.”

It all happened so fast.

For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic meant scrambling to create some sort of temporary home workspace.

Now here we are, almost two years later, hunched over a kitchen counter or coffee table, or sitting on a hard chair that belongs in the dining room. For us, it’s time to make real changes. Working from home is probably here to stay.

But before we call a renovator, Sarah Hobbs, an Ergonomist with Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS), urges us to do some research.

WSPS is a not-for-profit organization committed to protecting Ontario workers and businesses. Sarah, a registered kinesiologist, understands better than most the potential of long-term problems if you spend many hours of your day in front of a computer.

She says you probably don’t need a lot of space, but ideally it will be free from distraction. Better still, it should be a space with a door you can close at the end of the day and leave your work behind until tomorrow. The middle of your living room or bedroom or kitchen just doesn’t cut it, especially if you have a family.

Sarah says there are two most-important things to consider.

“Invest in a good chair,” she advises. “You might be tempted to choose a pretty one that looks nice and fits with your decor, but you’ll be sorry after the first week. Be prepared to spend a minimum of $300.”

The other important piece of furniture is your desk. “Don’t get whatever is on sale,” she says. “Find out exactly what height you need.” Standard desk height is about 29-30 inches. “But for shorter folks, that’s going to be way too high, meaning feet are dangling, and shoulders are hunched up.”

She says you should try out the desk and chair before you buy it to see how it feels. When you sit in your chair at your desk, sitting naturally, your feet should be flat on the floor, hips slightly above your knees, shoulders not too high or too low, with elbows at 90 degrees,

“You might think an inch here or an inch there isn’t the end of the world,” she says, “but in a couple of months your body will start screaming at you.” This is especially important, she adds, if your desk is going to be built in.

Chair and desk height need extra consideration when several people in a household will be using them: tall people, short people, children doing schoolwork. The way to get around this is to use adjustable equipment as much as you can: chairs you can raise and lower, footrests, or desks with a pull-out keyboard tray, for example.

Another important consideration, she says, is the light in the room. If you have natural lighting from a window, the best option is to have it perpendicular to your desk and computer ‒ positioned to your side. She explains this means less glare on your screen.
If the light is behind you, she says, the light bounces off the monitor and into your eyes. If the light is behind the monitor, there will be two sources ‒ window and monitor ‒ competing for your attention. “It’s too much eye work,” she adds.

Size depends on the way you work. If you are completely computer-based, you might not need as big a space as you would if you also use paper, printer, and shelves for storage.

“Try to avoid working completely off a laptop,” she says, “because it can quickly create hunched postures. Instead, buy a separate keyboard and mouse that you can connect to your laptop, and then raise your screen to proper viewing height. Or better yet, acquire a larger monitor altogether.”

The decor of your new workspace can be beautiful, but first it needs to be functional.

“Workplace injuries can just creep up on you, because we’re doing all these repetitive things,” says Sarah. “It’s exciting to think about renovation and how to make it look magazine-worthy. But first it’s really important to focus on what you need.”