It’s now become familiar: Get up, get your coffee and hunt for a comfortable spot to work for the day. One that isn’t already taken.
You might settle in at the kitchen table for the morning, only to realize you haven’t moved in hours, your neck aches, your legs are cramping and every sound the kids make has become a major distraction.
As most Minnesotans shuffle into another week of working from home, the minor aches that come from less-than-ideal conditions can become major pains, said occupational therapist and ergonomics specialist Nikki Weiner.
A well-designed workspace can foster concentration and productivity while preventing injuries. But not all of us have such a work space (or spaces) at home. Experts offered some ergonomic strategies to make even a makeshift home office work for you.
Designate a work space
If you’ve been bouncing from the basement “office” to the living room sofa, select the best spot and stick with it. That will help create a work-focused mind-set, Weiner said.
An ideal workspace is one that is free of distractions and not commonly used for relaxation. (Beds are a no-no, couches can work in a pinch.)
While quiet spaces are best, a little noise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. White noise (from a machine or a fan) can block out unpredictable sounds and improve concentration.
And there’s no need for your work space to be empty to minimize distractions. Plants, knickknacks and photos can keep your mood lifted.
If you can, find a spot near a window. Natural light helps regulate circadian rhythms.
“It takes some time to develop, but find things that work for you and fit yourself to your environment,” said Weiner.
Keep a consistent schedule
Your home environment is likely quite different from your work environment. Keeping to a set schedule can help maintain productivity.
That doesn’t mean you can’t build in some flexibility. When you make lunch, throw in a load of laundry, walk the dog or do a few stretches. It’s best if you can take a break every 30 minutes and get away from your computer to avoid holding static postures that may cause pain.
If your spouse or other family members are also working at home, you might be juggling multiple timetables. Try to sync your schedules a couple of times a day, perhaps having a meal together.
And don’t work around the clock. Be sure to block out times that you are unavailable to your job so you can take care of yourself and your family.
Get some support
Whether you’re sitting on an office chair or a couch, keep your back and feet supported.
If you’re working on a laptop, Weiner suggests keeping the top third of the screen at eye level to avoid neck strain. And make sure you don’t have to reach too far to use your mouse and keyboard.
You can also try to create a standing desk at home, but it’s a little trickier. The ideal height is just above the elbow, so make sure you’re not reaching up or bending down to work.
“There are always creative solutions,” Weiner said. “You may not be perfect in everything you do ergonomically, but use what you have.”
Make a few investments
If you’re working at a standing desk, consider getting an anti-fatigue mat for extra comfort. Opt for a lap desk if you work from a couch. It provides a flat, stable surface without putting weight on your legs. If nothing else, invest in an external mouse and keyboard if you’re working on a laptop. An external monitor can also help, as long as it’s kept at eye level.
It may take some time to create an efficient work environment at home. But it’s worth the effort.
“Our mental health can be affected by a work environment that is not nurturing to us,” Weiner said. “You need to feel good and be comfortable at work, so when you’re done with your day, you can still engage in activities that are meaningful to you.”
Audrey Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.