The Ergonomics for Telecommuters, Part 1: The Equipment

Telecommuting 101

The nature of work is changing. Work has been completely transformed in recent years from traditional workstations to telecommuting – working from home or anywhere, really. It’s not just a fad. It’s here to stay. In today’s post we talk about Ergonomic risks AND solutions to some of the major telecommuting nightmares. This technology boom has shifted the stereotypical office workstation to wherever the employee happens to be. Telework or telecommuting typically takes place in the home, but may also occur on the road, car, train, etc. Where, telework is defined as a flexible work arrangement away from central offices or production facilities.

‘Thumbs up’ For Telecommuting

Prolonged and static mobile uses has increased substantially. Non-work activities such as personal email, texting, shopping, social media, etc increases the daily and weekend use of the same mobile devices that are already used throughout our busy workday. The average person spends approximately 5 hours of their day using a hand held mobile device, on top of their normal work duties! Interestingly, over half of mobile users choose to use their thumbs to navigate the touchscreen or keyboard on the screen. Ergonomics always has a role to play in identifying risks and ways to improve the set-up. One way to improve the ergonomics of continuous smartphone use is simply to use two hands instead of one! A recent study found that a two handed grip on a mobile phone provides greater thumb performance than just a one handed grip.

working on the train

Telecommunting Ergonomic Risks include: 

  • Users often sit in chairs and work with laptops set-up on non-adjustable work surfaces without the use of external monitors/keyboards/mice. They may also place the devices on their laps, not to mention other awkward positioning (does crossing your legs under your laptop sound familiar to anyone?? Leave a comment if you work in unusual circumstances!).
  • The visual demands of the smaller (and usually lower positioned) laptop, tablet, smartphone displays typically results in increased and prolonged neck flexion. According to recent research, when there is more mobile device use, there are usually much more with musculoskeletal concerns that are reported by the users! Personally, I know after a particularly intense twitter session, my neck is very uncomfortable! Luckily I try my best to break-up my twitter session as much as possible.
  • These less-than-optimal set-ups result in long-term (the ergonomic term is ‘static’) holding of awkward postures of the head, neck, shoulders, and hands when using devices. The long-term holding of postures is considered to be ergonomically risky because there is less postural variation as a person’s typical work-rest recovery cycle can be compromised. Less rest increases the ergonomic risk.
  • The laptop design presents an especially confounding situation for optimizing the work position for the neck and arms. Basically, you might be able to achieve an optimal set-up for one body area (i.e.: neck) at the detriment of the other (i.e.: arms). Let’s take a closer look at this:
    • When the keyboard of a laptop is lowered toward resting elbow height, shoulder, arm, and wrist discomfort is reduced, while speed and accuracy improves (a performance outcome indicating positive ergonomics). But, at this positioning, neck flexion increases and this is assoicated with greater neck discomfort.
    • Vice versa, when the laptop is raised to an optimal eye height (to optimize the neck position), the working position of the shoulder, arm, and wrist would be considered to be too high. This means that there would be a much higher risk for upper extremity discomfort.
  • Smartphones/tablets used on the lap results in the largest amount of sustained neck flexion. From time to time many (if not all) can say that we are guilty of using this type of posture, I know I am. The ergonomic risk increases with the frequency and duration of use. What this means that as long as your smartphone is not your primary device for communication, you should be ‘in the clear’, relatively speaking of course.

Possible Solutions:

  • The use of external devices (or accessories) improve neck and upper extremity postures, and user experiences. Take a look at the picture below!! You will see a smartphone user has paired it to a keyboard. Take another good hard look at the improved posture that she is using! If I were handing out Gold Stars, she would get a nice, big shiny one for ROCKING her ergonomic set-up! Research also supports that using external devices is associated with lower levels of discomfort and better levels of productivity. And, it is interesting to note that user performance is often better with an external mouse compared with an internal touchpad.

ergonomicsHelp.com

  • Laptop: Prolonged positioning of the laptop on the lap should be limited to minimize the impact on neck strain. For laptops positioned on tabletops, a simple solution of placing a 3-ring binder below it can assist to reduce the neck and shoulder demands. PRO-TIP: too steep of an incline can increase risk factors for the wrist.
    • If you use your laptop as your primary device, seriously consider using an external monitor or laptop stand/keyboard/mouse to achieve the neutral postures associated with receiving ergonomic ‘Gold Stars’.
  • Tablet: Tilting the bottom of the tablet towards you at about a 15 degree angle improves the  comfort associate with the downward visual gaze, glare, and use of the virtual keyboard. PRO-TIP: if the incline is too steep, the user’s performance can suffer. Have you ever seen one of those nifty case/covers for a tablet? This would be an ideal ergonomic solution. A case/cover with a built-in tactile (there are keys that can actually be pressed down and the user feels this depression) keyboard can allow the screen to be optimally positioned and quite steep for an ideal downward visual gaze and neck posture.
  • Smartphone: Talk on the phone for long durations? Consider ear buds, phone headsets, and voice activated texting and email options to reduce exposure to awkward postures and repetitions. Dictation software (such as Dragon Software) and use of a stylus can provide more recovery time for the arms, wrists, and hands! Additionally, during a lot of smartphone use, research shows that resting the arms on an elevated surface like a table top or chair armrest can reduce arm fatigue and improve neck position. However, be sure that you aren’t putting too much of your body weight onto this because it can result in soft tissue compression/contact stress that is an ergonomic risk!
  • Right Tool for the Right Job: Smartphones are ideal for quickly checking email and sending text updates. But, extended use of a smartphone as the primary communication tool is better suited for a tablet with an external tactile keyboard (much like our pro-star is using above)…
  • The Right Environment for the Right Job: See Part 2, to be posted in the very near future. In short, the environment must support a productive work scheme!

When designing a comfortable mobile office, it is important to note that there are personal differences in the the sensation of comfort based on the person, product characteristics, and usage/task that is being completed. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the user’s expectations are of great importance for the experience of comfort.

Did you know that we do E-Consults? Anywhere you are, we can help you with the ergonomics of your workstation! Hassle-free. Fast. Convenient. Expert-lead. Check it out!

Coming up in our next post: Part 2, The Working Environment.

 

Sources:

Bentley, T., Teo., S., McLeod, L., Tan, F., Bosua, R. & Gloet, M. (2016). The role of organizational support in telework wellbeing: A socio-technical systems approach. Applied Ergonomics. 52, 207-215.

Dennerlein, J. (2015). The state of ergonomics for mobile technology. Work. 52(2), 269-277.

Honan, M. (2015). Mobile work: Ergonomics in a rapidly changing work environment. Work. 52(2), 289-301.

Kamp. I., Van Veen, S. & Vink, P. (2015). Comfortable mobile offices: a literature review of the ergonomic aspects of mobile device transportation setting. Work. 52 (2), 279-287.

Trudeau, M., Asakawa, D., Jindrich, D. & Dennerlein, J. (2016). Two-handed grip on mobile phone affords greater thumb motor performance, decreased variability, and a more extended thumb posture than a one-handed grip. Applied Ergonomics. 52, 24-28.

Through the administration of countless assessments in both private and public sectors, Darcie has gained a wealth of knowledge and built a successful practice in the field of ergonomics. She has extensive expertise in conducting office ergonomics assessments in large scale workplaces for all different types of scenarios, from simple adjustments to incredibly complex cases. Darcie also has vast experience in delivering training presentations on the various aspects of ergonomics “best practices” in the workplace. Darcie is a Certified Professional Ergonomist through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, as recognized by the International Ergonomics Association. She also has a Masters of Science, specializing in ergonomics. A little known fact about Darcie is that she once scored from half, off a free kick, in a university varsity soccer (football) match!

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