After years of slumping at a desk, I’ve begun to suffer the aches that come from having a poor work-space setup. The stiff chair, the desk that’s too tall and the cramped laptop keyboard have all become literal pains in the neck (and shoulders and back and elsewhere). If your home-office setup is less than ideal, it may be time to upgrade the space ergonomically, especially now that most nonessential businesses plan to keep employees working from home indefinitely.
Experts agree that an ergonomic workstation — one that supports your body in a neutral position — can reduce the risk of discomfort or pain that these stressors cause our bodies. This means: Your neck isn’t bent back or down or contorted, your arms aren’t lifted or extended out to the side of your body, your wrists and hands aren’t bent up or sideways, and your spine isn’t twisted. An ergonomic workstation will help you sit comfortably at a computer, even for long stints. (But you should still remember to take breaks and move every hour at least.)
Here’s how to set up a work space that fits and supports you best, based on advice from ergonomics experts and what we at Wirecutter have found over years of testing home-office furniture and gear.
A comfortable chair that supports your spine
Take a seat at your desk. With your back pressed against the backrest, do your lower and mid-back feel cushioned, or are there gaps between your spine and the chair? The best office chairs support the natural S-curve of your back, offering what’s known as lumbar support. Cornell University ergonomics professor Alan Hedge told us that if your lower back isn’t supported by the chair, you need that support.
After our latest round of office-chair testing, we recommend the Steelcase Gesture for most people because it’s highly adjustable to fit a variety of body types and sizes, with a supremely comfortable cushion and adjustable lumbar support. It retails for as much as $1,100, but you might be able to find one at a huge discount at a local office liquidation store or Habitat for Humanity’s Restores. (Our budget pick is the HON Exposure, which sells for less than $300.)
If you’re not ready to invest in a new chair, a lumbar-support pillow and a seat cushion can transform even the most basic non-padded chair into something you can sit on comfortably for a few hours. A lumbar support pillow, which you can get for about $30, is especially helpful for encouraging you to sit properly, with your back against the backrest, instead of leaning forward or sitting at the edge of your seat.
A desk set at the proper height for using your keyboard
When you’re typing on a keyboard at your desk, your arms and wrists should be in a neutral position: parallel to the floor or angled down toward your lap to reduce strain. Typical desks are between 28 and 30 inches high — a good fit for people who are about 5 feet 10 inches or taller, but not ideal for anyone else.
There are a couple of solutions to this. You could mount a keyboard tray under your desk to lower the keyboard, or try raising your chair so your wrists are above the keyboard. If you raise your chair, make sure you can still keep your feet flat on the floor; if not, you’ll need a footrest to give proper support to your legs and feet.
Because there are so many moving parts, getting a just-right ergonomic setup is tricky. Cornell University’s Ergonomics Web says it’s impossible to set a work space — including your desk, chair and monitor — at the optimal height for all five main office tasks: Typing, mousing, writing, reading documents and viewing your screen all require different heights. For about $650, a good adjustable-height standing desk offers the best fit because you can raise or lower the desk in half-inch increments, and you can switch between sitting and standing at regular intervals throughout the day.
Here’s another exercise: Place your hands over your keyboard as if you’re going to type. Now move your hands apart so they’re by your sides, shoulder-width apart. That should feel relieving and more relaxing, with less stress on your shoulders. Most keyboards aren’t designed for this position and instead force your hands inward so your shoulders are hunched.
An ergonomic keyboard is one that either has a low, flat profile or that tilts forward (the space bar is higher than the top row of keys) to keep your wrists in a neutral position. Peter Keir, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, told us, “If there are feet to pop up near the edge of your keyboard, do not use them. They act to extend your wrist — and most people have some extension to start.”
The most adjustable ergonomic keyboard is a fully split one, like the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB, for about $210. It lets you space each half of the keyboard so that your hands are shoulder-width apart and your shoulders are relaxed. There’s a steep learning curve to typing on a split keyboard, so instead you might opt for a partially split model, like the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard (about $65), or at least a keyboard that doesn’t have a number pad, such as our favorite mechanical keyboard, the Varmilo VA87M (about $140). Keyboards without a number pad (also known as “tenkeyless keyboards”) keep the mouse closer to you, reducing the stress of having your arm frequently extended.
A mouse that fits your hand
Using repetitive motions on your laptop’s touch pad or a standard mouse can stress muscles in your fingers and wrists in the same way that repetitive typing can cause fatigue or pain. At the minimum, most people should look for a mouse that is comfortable to grip and smooth to maneuver. We’ve found the Logitech M720 Triathlon Multi-Device Wireless Mouse, for about $50, to be the best wireless mouse for a range of hand sizes and different types of grips.
If using a mouse causes pain or fatigue in your wrists, consider a type of input device that reduces fine wrist movements, such as a stylus with a graphics tablet or a trackball. Either can be useful for keeping your hand in a neutral position.
A display set at a comfortable height, within arm’s reach
To protect your eyes from strain and fatigue, make sure you can see what’s on your monitor or laptop screen clearly, without having to crane or bend your neck. Place your display so your eye level is about two to three inches below the top of the screen and about an arm’s length away.
You can raise your laptop or monitor as needed with just about anything that’s flat and wide, like a stack of books. But for more sturdiness and control, consider a laptop stand, like the Rain Design iLevel 2 (about $55), or a monitor arm, such as the Fully Jarvis (about $100). Both are highly adjustable.
Ergonomics experts recommend good lighting to reduce eye strain and avoid craning your neck. An abundance of natural lighting in your work space is ideal because it can boost your sense of well-being and energy while reducing eye strain — daylight and access to outdoor views give your eyes opportunities to relax and recover from the strain of staring at a monitor. If you don’t have windows in your home office, or when you’re working late or on cloudy days, pair overhead lighting with task lighting for the best balance of lighting to help you focus. The Franklin Iron Works Bronze Turnbuckle LED Desk Lamp goes for about $135.
Anything that helps you reduce stress while you work
Any type of stress or anxiety can cause your muscles to tense up. So include things in your work space that will help you relax. These items might include:
Most important, you should play around with your setup. Try raising or lowering your monitor, adjusting your chair, or alternating between sitting and standing. Then note how your body feels after 30 minutes or more, and continue fine-tuning until you get to that Goldilocks level of your work space being “just right.”
Melanie Pinola is a staff writer at Wirecutter, a product recommendation site owned by The New York Times Company. A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.