By now, you may have spent months working in a makeshift home office after the COVID-19 pandemic required many employees to take their work home and shelter in place. And even as states allow restaurants, bars, and retail stores to reopen, many employees are planning to keep working from home for the foreseeable future.
Those who may initially have expected their slapdash home office to be a short-term solution may be starting to notice some discomfort from sitting in an unsupportive chair or hunching over a laptop all day.
If you’re making any of these mistakes, you’re not alone—but you’re also not out of luck.
We asked the experts what you can do to improve your home office setup and stave off aches and pains, and here's the good news: You don’t need to invest thousands of dollars on new office furniture to give your workspace an ergonomic upgrade.
Mistake No. 1: Staying in the same spot for hours at a time
If your calendar is stacked with Zoom meetings all day, you probably aren’t moving much from your workspace.
“From a health standpoint, sitting too long, standing too long, and even walking too long are all bad,” says Ron Wiener, CEO of iMovR, a company that sells sit-stand desks, treadmill desks, and other office furniture. “What you want to do is spend 30 to 90 minutes in one mode, and not more than that.”
Use an ergonomic sit-stand workstation so you can easily switch between sitting and standing, Wiener recommends. But if you don’t have the budget or space for that kind of setup, simply getting up and moving—or switching up your work location—can help.
“It might be that you’re at your kitchen table for a period of time, then maybe you take your laptop and put it on a higher surface and stand for a little bit, then maybe you go sit in your recliner,” says Gary Allread, ergonomics program director at Ohio State University’s Spine Research Institute.
“In each of those situations, you’re positioning yourself in different ways and allowing the body to get a little bit of recovery.”
Mistake No. 2: Sitting in a crummy chair
Back at the office, your employer might provide you with a chair that has an adjustable height and lumbar support. But that folding chair you found in your basement? Probably not so supportive.
“You’ve got to be comfortable, and you’ve got to have support for your body,” Allread says.
If an expensive office chair isn’t in the budget, think about how you can work with what you already have and improve your current chair’s support.
“Take a small bath towel, roll it up, secure it, and put that in the small of your back,” Allread says.
“As you lean against the seat back, that helps reduce pressure in the lumbar spine.”
Mistake No. 3: Using only your laptop
Laptops are great for portability, but not for long-term use, Allread says. At the start of the pandemic, many people rushed into the office to grab their laptops, but didn’t think to take home all their office accessories.
“Like a lot of people, I didn’t bring my external keyboard or my monitor or my external mouse, so it really limits how you can set up your work, if you only have access to a laptop,” he says.
Leaning over your laptop can be a literal pain in the neck. If you don’t have an external monitor, try propping your laptop up on a small box to keep your neck and spine aligned in a neutral position.
If you’ll be working home for the long haul, you might want to go back to the office and pick up your workstation accessories or purchase your own external keyboard, mouse, and monitor.
On a tight budget? Prioritize the accessories that will help you do your job.
“If you’re a designer and you want to optimize accuracy, maybe you need to invest in a mouse or trackball,” Allread says. “If you do a lot of typing, maybe an external keyboard that provides support.”
Mistake No. 4: Putting your desk in front of a window
You might want some natural light in your home office, but don’t put your workstation right in front of a window: The backlighting can cause a distracting glare on your screen.
“That can reduce the contrast on your monitor and may cause you to squint more or have eye fatigue, and may cause you to lean forward because you can’t read the screen,” Allread says.
Luckily, there’s an easy (and free) fix: Rearrange your work area.
Mistake No. 5: Sitting on an exercise ball
Every office has at least one person who swears by their exercise ball chair, but sitting on an inflatable ball all day can do more harm than good, Allread says.
“The reason people use exercise balls in a gym is to try to stabilize the core and put you off balance,” he says.
“That’s great for five or 10 minutes, but you don’t want to activate your core for eight hours. That activation puts more pressure on your back.”
Save your exercise ball for the gym and opt for a chair with a back during the workday.
Mistake No. 6: Shoddy DIY solutions
You have a treadmill. You have a desk. And now, you have a bright idea: Why not make your own treadmill desk?
“A mistake people make is trying to convert an existing running treadmill [into a desk],” Wiener says.
“That will burn out. I built a treadmill desk 12 years ago, not realizing the ergonomics involved with standing and walking are very different from the ergonomics of sitting.”
In addition, “The research isn’t very good on those,” Allread says.
Treadmill desks, he says, throw you off in a number of different ways.
"Productivity goes down, errors go up, and discomfort goes up in many cases.”
However, a treadmill desk could be a good option for someone who spends most of the day on the phone rather than on the computer, Allread says.
But it’s not a good solution for everyone—and it’s not something you should attempt to DIY.
Is WFH your new normal? Ask your employer for support
“There’s been a lot of rumblings that there’s going to be people who end up working from home for a long period of time,” Allread says. “Then it’s going to call for the company to provide better equipment.”
If working from home is likely to become your new normal for months to come, ask if your company offers a subsidy or reimbursement for employees to purchase office furniture.
Wiener at iMovR says he’s noticed an uptick in customers receiving financial assistance from their employers.