With Washington’s stay-at-home order extended into May, it’s time to accept the reality that working from your living room sofa isn’t going to cut it. A month, or even a week, is plenty of time to strain your neck and back from hunching over your laptop in awkward positions.

Assuming you are using a laptop computer, here’s how to create an ergonomically sound workspace without spending a bundle.

You need a space

If you live alone, where you set up may not be an issue. Those with a full house, however, should aim for a low-traffic area such as a little-used mud room or alcove. Have a spare closet? Pull everything out and set up a personal cubicle. Weather permitting, you can work in your backyard. Whatever spot you choose, test for steady and consistent Wi-Fi (you may need to buy a signal booster) and cell signal strength. Once you have your office set up the way you want, snap a picture, so if you have to move it for any reason, you can replicate it easily, says Lisa McGreevy, a technology analyst who writes about office goods for fitsmallbusiness.com.

Look for online sales if you need a larger piece such as a chair or desk. (Courtesy of Poppin)
Look for online sales if you need a larger piece such as a chair or desk. (Courtesy of Poppin)

You need a chair

The most important element in any workspace is the chair, says Cat Culver, a physical therapist who conducts ergonomic assessments for businesses in Honolulu. “Once you have the chair figured out, you can set up anywhere,” she says. If you don’t have a suitable chair at home, check mass-market retailers online. Fight the urge to buy the cute chair that won’t give your back and neck the support you need, Berliet says. You should be able to find a decent chair for $50 or so. An office supply store is another option, although furniture will probably be a bit pricier. To save a few bucks, check for sales and promotions — office-supply company Poppin, for example, is offering 40% off its range of desks, chairs, filing cabinets and more.

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You need a desk

Any flat surface can work. Test out your kitchen or dining table. Don’t limit yourself to traditional desks. Side tables, card tables or accent tables may work perfectly in your space. An ironing board makes a good surface because it’s adjustable; you can lower it while sitting and raise it when standing. If you stand while you work, a washer/dryer will do. You can also grab boxes or plastic tubs storing holiday decor (leave the ornaments inside) and stack them to make an impromptu table.

Melanie Berliet, general manager of the Spruce (thespruce.com), a home and lifestyle website, says one option is to purchase a collapsible table that you can fold up after you’re done working from home and later use for spare seating at family gatherings. Another hack from McGreevy: “That mini-fridge your kid brought home from her college dorm when her university closed — it’s perfect for stashing lunch, drinks and snacks that you can easily grab while you’re stuck on your fourth dial-in call of the day.”

Sitting near an open window helps with lighting, while proper posture will keep you from getting sore. (Getty Images)
Sitting near an open window helps with lighting, while proper posture will keep you from getting sore. (Getty Images)

You need light

In the perfect scenario, your makeshift office is near a sunny window with curtains or blinds to shield you and your computer screen from glare. Remember that if you are lit from behind, no one can see you during a videoconference. If you poach lamps from other places, you may need to swap out bulbs (soft white is best) or diffuse the light in some way. It may take some experimentation to find the best location for a lamp. Start with the light next to you, and then move it behind and in front. See what you like best. Night owls who don’t want to disturb others might consider an inexpensive headlamp; McGreevy bought one online for $15.

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You need power

Your best friend in this scenario is a surge protector with lots of outlets. If your workspace isn’t close to an electrical outlet, avoid the temptation to string multiple extension cords together. If you must use an extension cord, buy a heavy-duty one suitable for outdoor use. This minimizes the chance of overheating.

You need the right setup

Even if you create the perfect workspace, all of it is a waste if it’s not ergonomically correct. You must have a setup that allows you to align your posture to work long periods without injury, Culver explains. Start from the top down.

Set the screen at or slightly below (no more than 20 degrees) eye level. Use books or boxes to prop it up. Next, elbows should be at a 90-degree bend and your keyboard at elbow height with minimal bend in the wrists. This is where things gets tricky with a laptop. For most of us, if the screen is at eye level, the keyboard is going to be at the wrong height. If you can borrow a free-standing monitor or are tech-savvy enough to connect to a little-used TV, use it as the screen. Or it may be worth it to buy a detachable keyboard, which start at about $30.

When sitting, hips need to be higher than knees and feet flat on the floor. Lumbar support is critical. Roll up a towel and use it for support. Want something a bit firmer? Try a water bottle or a foam pool noodle (just don’t let the kids see you chop up their pool toy). To find the right placement, sit in the chair with hips touching the back rest. Place the support in the small of your back. If you can slouch or slump, then it’s in the wrong spot. Adjust as needed. Once you get it into position, you can tape it to your chair. Because sitting is the position that puts the most load on your spine, it’s important to take a minimum 10-minute standing break every two hours.

You need to stay positive. “My best advice is go easy on yourself, ” McGreevy says. “It’s difficult to get comfortable with all the bits and pieces in the correct spot. Remember, it takes time. It may not be perfect, but it’s also temporary.”

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