Preparing for Long-Term Remote Work: Advice from an Ergonomist Who Works From Home

Office Ergonomics Essentials: Donald MacDonald tries new sit-stand desk standing desk working from home long-term
Most people will be working from home long-term and many of them still aren’t prepared. Donald MacDonald, an ergonomist who’s been working remotely for almost two decades, has some important advice on how to get ready for the long haul. Now that it’s clear many of us are working from home for the foreseeable future, we need to reexamine the home office hacks that gave us a lifeline eight months ago.

Preparing for Long-Term Remote Work

“We’re past temporary now. Most people will probably go back to an office but we don’t know when,” says EWI Works Vice President Donald MacDonald who recently celebrated 18 years with the company. This doesn’t mean the cushions on your wooden chairs need to go; nor does it mean the cereal boxes raising your laptop screen up aren’t effective.
Donald MacDonald Headshot
Donald MacDonald, Vice President of EWI Works
It simply means those were short-term solutions to what has become a long-term problem. The great thing about those solutions, Donald says, is that they first educated people on proper workstation setup. Donald has a wealth of knowledge on ergonomics, but he’s also worked out of a home office for almost his entire career, giving him a unique pulse on the evolution of furniture. “We’re tracking what the trends are and what makes the most sense for people,” he says. His biggest piece of advice? Get “purpose-built” items. The problem for most people and organizations is that office furniture doesn’t always come cheap. So, you need to decide where to prioritize your spending according to your individual needs. Having said that, a decent desk can be relatively inexpensive. It also just needs to satisfy a couple basic criteria: supporting your work equipment at the proper height and giving you enough legroom.

Advice from an Ergonomist Who Works From Home

If there’s one thing to invest in, it’s a chair. “That’s where you’re going to get your most extra features, comfort, and durability. It’s also where you spend a huge part of your life,” says Donald, adding that most people are moving much less since the pandemic started. “We have less interruptions, less in-person meetings, making our chairs that much more important.” Think of it like your bed. You are willing to spend a little more for a high quality mattress because you spend a third of your life there. Well, these days we’re spending another third of our lives in our work chairs. It was actually an article on ergonomic chairs in the Financial Times that first interested Donald, then a kinesiology student at Dalhousie University, in this field. A few undergraduate courses in ergonomics later and Donald was sold. After graduation he was accepted to do his Masters of Science in Ergonomics at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom and the rest is history. “In terms of what I like about it, it’s the helping people, solving a problem. We go in and oftentimes people know there’s an issue but they don’t necessarily understand what the problem is. We identify the problem and find a solution for them,” says Donald. “95 per cent of ergonomic problems can be resolved very quickly and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.” But physical setup is just one of many factors, particularly for home offices, which now account for more than half of the assessments Donald does (up from around five per cent before the pandemic). A key component of any successful long-term remote work space is having a dedicated room. Though, we know that not everyone, especially those with kids, has enough space.

A Dedicated Home Office

If that’s the case, use room dividers or partitions to create a physical barrier to your work area. This will help you build a mental barrier between work and home too, making it easier to maintain a healthy balance. “It’s important to me to always have a door and four walls around you and nothing else in there,” says Donald. “The other thing that’s helpful with having a door is, when you’re done for the day, you can close it and not be looking at it out of the corner of your eye, especially if it is in your bedroom or living room.” That being said, while it’s preferable to have a purely dedicated home office, if you need to use the room for other purposes as well, that’s okay. Just try as much as possible to limit non-work activities to outside of regular working hours. Moving forward, home office spaces are even expected to be a major criteria for home buyers. When done right there are many advantages to working from home. Donald will be the first to tell you he appreciates not having a commute.
Donald at graduation from Loughborough University
He also likes the quiet during the day and having flexibility with his schedule. If he isn’t done writing a report but it’s time to take the kids to hockey, he can do that and then finish the report later without needing to drive to the office. The art of it is how you structure your day, something that can require collaboration between the employee, their organization, and the clients they work with. First, it’s essential to keep a consistent start time and morning routine. Depending on the work you do, you might find it helpful to chunk your day accordingly. For example, Donald typically books his assessments one after the other, then spends another chunk of the day doing reports or handling management duties.

Structuring Your Day When Working From Home

He also needs to work around his family’s schedule, especially since his office is on the main floor. As such, he doesn’t book remote assessments first thing in the morning when his kids are getting ready for school. Similarly, when they get home in the late afternoon, he’d prefer to be working on reports than having a virtual meeting with clients. Of course, there always needs to be flexibility on both ends. Anyone working from home long-term will learn that communication is the key to success. This goes for your family or cohabitants as well as your colleagues, employer, and clients. Donald is fortunate in that his job gives him ample social interaction. Whether it’s doing assessments for or having meetings with clients (both virtually and in-person) or keeping up with colleagues and staff members. At EWI Works, we’ve adopted a buddy system to help keep our social connections strong during the pandemic. At least once per week everyone checks in with their buddy for a call just to see how they are doing and give them a chance to connect in a way that isn’t centred around work. There’s another huge problem that’s only gotten worse since COVID-19 entered our lives: lack of movement. Office workers already weren’t moving enough. Now, they’re barely moving at all. Instead of being called into the meeting room, you receive a Zoom link while your butt continues to warm your chair. Instead of walking to the printer, you reach over to it with a slight swivel of your chair. You don’t walk over to your friend’s cubicle to say hi, you send them an instant message. “The pandemic has shown us that when we are at home, we don’t move nearly as much, and have less reason to get up,” says Donald. Luckily it’s easy to turn this problem into a productive perk of working from home. Everyone who works at a computer should be getting up at least once an hour.

Problems with Productive Solutions

When you’re at home all day, this is a great chance to grab the mail, start the dishwasher, put a load of laundry in, or let the dog out. These are all small, easy tasks, but ones no one loves coming home to. Well, except hopefully your dog. There are other options, too. “Depending what the nature of a call is, sometimes I’ll take the phone and walk around while I talk. That’s an extra opportunity for me to get away from my desk,” says Donald. Another tip: never eat at your desk. This goes for everyone, home office or not, as it gives you a crucial movement break and a mental break from your tasks, helping you be more productive later. Ultimately, a collaborative approach is the key to success. “We don’t just tell people what to do, says Donald. “We work with them to find solutions within their constraints, and it’s one of the main reasons our clients trust us as well” Setting up a home office is never just a matter for the ergonomist and the employee; it involves other staff at the client organization, such as HR people, return-to-work managers, and facilities staff. On a company-wide basis, a great thing an organization can do for long-term remote workers is prepare recommendations on equipment and their features, identify cost-effective options for furniture, provide assessments to those working from home, and distribute movement guidelines. It’s important to keep in mind that long-term remote work will be easier for some people than others. The best thing you can do is be adaptive by trying different things and seeing what works for you. Evaluate your setup and environment and also check in with others to see how they are doing. “It’s about giving yourself the best chance for success,” says Donald. “It’s not only about setup, but about building good habits.” EWI Works offers many services that can improve your quality of life. Find out more about our Online Training, Services, and Resources.  Follow us on Twitter for more updates and offers, or sign up for our newsletter below.