Covid-19: The remote work desk

Above: A couch looks comfortable. Until it isn’t. Photo by HayDmitriy/DepositPhotos

BitDepth#1243 for 02 April

I’ve seen the pictures. Y’all are going to hurt yourselves.

Doing remote work isn’t just about the Internet connection and the software, it’s about how you work where you work and that’s going to need some work.

Those idyllic stock photos of people relaxing with a laptop on their chests? Don’t do that.

Most sensible businesses, with one eye on OSHA regulations, strive to create an environment with chairs that keep you sitting correctly, a desk that meets minimum safety requirements and computer equipment that’s installed to minimise any dangerous impact on your body.

The collective term for all these measures is ergonomics, and you need to be paying attention to if you’re going to do remote work successfully.

If you haven’t worked from home before, it’s likely that the space that’s going to be best for you to set up will be the one that’s going to be the most inconvenient. Your kitchen table.

In most homes, it’s the one working surface that’s large and has chairs that are designed for someone to sit upright for an hour or two.

Barstools, couches and loungers aren’t designed for that type of extended use, though couches can be relaxing for a bit.

If you’re working with a laptop, things can be even more bleak. Laptops are a compromise computing solution that arcs your head down just a few degrees and puts a strain on your neck muscles that increases over time, potentially leading to pain.

The best solution for long-term laptop use is an external monitor, second best is a secondary keyboard, which will allow you to raise the laptop screen the six inches or so it needs to allow you to look directly at it without tipping your head down.

In your work at home photos, I see computer keyboards or laptops right at the edge of a far too narrow desk surface.

That provides no support at all for your arms, which means that in short order, your arm begins to drop slightly, putting subtle pressure on your wrist.

Chairs designed for home use anticipate seating for an hour or two, not the lengthy sessions that work assignments call for.

A proper ergonomic chair provides robust back support, usually in the form of  gently curving support padding that keeps your spine straight while allowing for some flexibility as you adjust your sitting position or move in the chair.

To illustrate these concepts, I’ve prepared a two-page PDF demonstrating the best options for body management during work-at-home sessions (2.4MB)

Because you can’t run out and buy a new desk and chair and your boss probably can’t send you any furniture, carefully consider your options for adjusting your existing circumstances to your best advantage.

Stuffing a pillow behind a stiff backed chair can work wonders for an aching back, a few books under the hinge of a laptop to raise it just a few inches may also help, though you don’t want to force a bend to your wrist by increasing the angle.

When you’re tiired of working on a table and chair and your couch seems really inviting, keep thinking about support for your back and shoulders as well as your arms if you intend to keep typing for any length of time.

Don’t put your laptop on a cushion or pillow as you recline. You will seal the ventilation, and it may overheat. Put a hardcover book under it first.

If nothing else, finding proper, even jury-rigged support, will inform the choices in furniture you make if there’s more remote work in your future.

Next steps

After you try to make a go of it with remote work, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to make this an arrangement that works for both you and your employer or clients.

Top of the agenda will be an excellent chair. You may not think so, but this is absolutely true. I worked with a range of chairs over the last three decades, and the best one I bought was a gold-plated bargain at Dollar Rescue, a pawnshop that once operated in Trinidad. I had it reupholstered, adding padding for back support and it’s still in my office today for guests.

At least three cheap chairs followed. Some just broke. Others seemed to break my back. The pain that a bad chair brings is subtle and almost unnoticeable, but it is long lasting and potentially dangerous.

Two years ago I sacrificed two months of income for my dream chair; the big man’s edition of the Steelcase Leap chair. I have never regretted that investment.

Next up is a good desk. I gave up on regular desks a long time ago. Do not buy one of those rickety “computer desks” for sale at furniture stores. They are flimsy and ergonomically iffy at best.

My current desk describes almost a half-circle around my seated self, giving me an arc of reach for stuff that’s roughly 135 degrees of span.

Most readymade desks are also too short for me, forcing my arms to work lower than is comfortable and sometimes cramping my ability to sit with my feet flat and knees parallel to the floor. For a while, I was working with an excellent woodworking company to build desks to my specifications (a proper desk should have a surface that reaches your mid-thigh).

When I began work on my office at home 22 years ago, the very first thing I did was to have a desk built into a wall that met my needs for height and shape.

I am partial to kidney-shaped desks and my current desk describes almost a half-circle around my seated self, giving me an arc of reach for stuff that’s roughly 135 degrees of span. So almost ten square feet of desk fit into a smaller, squared off area and nothing is out of casual reach.

Working with sensitive data? Your employer may insist on a Virtual Private Network, but you should invest in one if your data needs to be protected. It’s almost mandatory if you are connecting via WiFi, which sends packets of data across the open air that can be intercepted.

The PDF linked in the text offers tips on ergonomic posture for computing. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Speaking of WiFi, it’s a convenient connection protocol, but if you need a  rock-solid, fast connection, nothing beats old-fashioned wires. My cable modem is installed in my office space and both of the computers I work with, a desktop workstation and a laptop, are connected to it via high-speed ethernet.

I can connect to its WiFi signal if I’m pretending to spend quality time with my family in the home, but my preferred connection is always ethernet.

One connection to the Internet? It’s probably time to think about an alternative if  a problem arises with your connection. If you have broadband Internet access with one provider, consider having a mobile broadband connection with another.

While major disconnects will probably cause problems for all providers, smaller scale outages can often be managed by setting up your smartphone as a hotspot to deliver an Internet connection.

Some providers frown on such use, preferring to sell you a dedicated hotspot, so find out in advance if they have a policy that disbars the use of your smartphone as a hotspot.

If you do a lot of teleconferencing, a dedicated headset is a great idea. My own preference is a full headset, with well-padded, comfortable cans and an easily articulated microphone. They may be heavier than earbuds, but a good pair sits comfortably on your head, focuses your hearing and reduces the impact of your conversation on your immediate surroundings.

If you wear glasses, consider getting a prescription for the range that you normally work in. I wear tri-focals, which don’t work well for the movement between screens that I do. Eventually, I went to my optician and got a prescription optimised for the distance between my head and the screens I work with (27 inches) and ordered custom reading glasses online just for that use. Nice big ugly ones that give me wide coverage as I scan from left to right.

Have a backup plan. If you connect to your office with a thin client, the data lives on their end of the connection, but if you work with data on your computer systems or provide services as a contractor or freelancer, the responsibility for backup is on you. I recommend local backups; preferably live backups to a connected hard drive as you work and scheduled backups to an online service.

Get a copy of Take Control of Working from Home Temporarily. It’s a great and free resource for anyone grappling with the challenges of remote work.