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Work From Home Office Ergonomics

After more than 30 years of gaining acceptance and adoption in the corporate office environment, along comes COVID-19 to disrupt office ergonomics. Millions of employees left their desks and moved to their couches or kitchen tables to work from home (WFH). In fact, according to Stanford University, 42 percent of the U.S. labor force was working from home full-time by June 2020. As a result, in the span of about 100 days, office ergonomics likely changed forever.

Consider recent statistics from May 2021, published by USA Today. Based on a Harris Poll survey, three out of four Americans surveyed would like to either continue working from home full-time or go with a hybrid model of part-time at home, part-time in the office.

For decades, facilities directors, HR leaders, vice presidents of operations and CEOs worked hard to improve and safeguard the health of their employees with ergonomic chairs, adjustable workstations, eye-friendly lighting, comfortable climate control and on-site fitness centers. Much of this in-office work remains essential and highly effective. Unfortunately, starting in the spring of 2020, far too many employees had to make do with what they had at home.

Recognizing the Dangers Early On

Ergonomists and environmental health and safety professionals saw the potential pitfalls of home office ergonomics nearly as soon as traditional offices emptied out in early 2020. Boston University published this list on April 1, 2020, “10 Ergonomics Dos and Don’ts for Those Now Working from Home.” A few months later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued this overview, “Working from Home: How to Optimize Your Work Environment and Stay Healthy.

All of this information gives employees accurate, informative insight into best practices for working from home comfortably and safely for hands, arms, legs, back, eyes and more. And yet, even when the CDC posted its list above in Q4 2020, the idea and possible reality of a long-term hybrid model splitting time between home and the office was just beginning to emerge as an in-depth conversation for post-vaccine, post-COVID planning.

A Five-Year Hypothetical By The Numbers

Let’s say COVID had never happened or that everyone who ever worked at home during COVID will now return to the office at pre-COVID levels. A full-time employee — working five days a week, eight hours a day, 48 weeks a year for the next five years — will spend 9,600 hours at work in an in-person office environment, which thanks to three decades of ergonomic inroads, most likely addresses major biomechanical issues such sitting, standing, lifting, seeing and other specialized job functions.

Compare that to a hybrid model of two days at home and three days in the office. The home office — same numbers as before but now starting with a two instead of a five (2 x 8 x 48 x 5) — now accounts for 3,840 hours or 40 percent of the five-year total.

The kitchen table just became non-viable, if it was ever viable in the first place. That comfy couch starts to look like a wicked backache in the making. Squeezing into the laundry room, furnace room or biggest closet might have worked in a pinch, but please, no more.

Think Positive. There Are Upsides.

Mary Williams is a professional ergonomist and president and founder of Corporate Health Alliance, LLC. Yes, employees are now going to be more responsible for their health and well-being in a home office setting. Yes, how-to information published by universities, government agencies and industry consultants provides valuable tools for evaluating risks and detailing opportunities. And once you have considered home office ergonomics there are definitely advantages for working from home. She identifies five:

  1. “Ergonomics is all about connecting your body to your work environment. We’re made to move. If you’re looking at a long-term hybrid model, now is the time to figure out how you can incorporate movement during the day and avoid being static for long periods of time. You might have heard the saying, ‘Standing is the new sitting.’ Does that mean standing desks all day, every day? Not necessarily. There are other options too.”
  2. “Video-conference calls, unfortunately, lock you into one spot, unlike phone calls where you can walk around. So consider something called a ‘wobble chair’ or ‘wobble stool.’ Staying balanced or wiggling around on a wobble chair keeps you moving even on really long video calls from a fixed position.”
  3. “Take mini-breaks. This is something you can’t do as easily working 8:00-5:00 at the office. But if you’re at home, it’s perfectly fine to do a couple quick, useful tasks just to get away from your desk. Mini-breaks can help you stay fresh and energized instead of working hour after hour at your desk.”
  4. Here’s a big one. “Those hours you used to spend commuting? Take a walk. Go for a run. Take a walk or go for a run with your dog — or a neighbor’s dog. Have coffee with a neighbor, and go for a swim or to the gym. A walk around the block to start the day is a great ritual to try. When you come back, it’s like going to work. The workday begins.”
  5. “One of the best parts of working from home is you can eat better,” Williams concludes. “Sure, you can pack a lunch and take it to the office, but that often gets complicated trying to get out the door in the morning. So instead of going out day after day, here’s a chance to enjoy simple, healthy lunches you can make on your own. Relax. Enjoy.”

In much the same way that COVID-19 disrupted everyday life in nearly every way imaginable, so too will the post-COVID workplace change for both employers and employees, as all parties respond to new demands and take on new responsibilities. It’s time to reserve the kitchen table for meals and game nights and the couch for binge watching (that’s not going away). Working from home at least some of the time calls for new strategies for comfort, health, safety and well-being.

Published on: June 17, 2021