How-To Geek

What You Said: How You Increase Workstation Comfort

Computers may have evolved mightily in the last century but we haven’t; read on to see how your fellow readers increase their computing comfort.

Machines have gotten smaller, screens brighter and thinner, and peripherals more varied. With all this change, however, the human body has stayed the same. In order to use technology effectively and safely, we have to make adaptations to our environment to save our wrists and backs. Earlier this week we asked to share the workstation tweaks and tricks they had adopted to increase their comfort. Clearly we hit on a topic that many readers had invested some serious thought into.

Steve-O-Rama shared a lengthy response that covers everything from keyboards to chairs:

After having gone through several keyboards, mice, desks, monitors, chairs, etc., here’s what I’m running with at my main workspace:

1. IBM Model M keyboard from 1993. This is #1 for many reasons, but most of all, my hands don’t hurt after an entire day of using the keyboard anymore. :)

2. A comfy mouse – for me, it’s currently a Logitech m705 Marathon Mouse. Just like a keyboard, a mouse can make or break your computing experience. Since this one’s wireless, it also helps keep the desk more clear of cables. Alternatively, I like my old old old IBM USB optical travel mouse; its small size is great for times that I have to constantly flit between the mouse and something else.

3. A freakishly-large L-shaped desk, which I’m in the process of converting (at least a section of it) to a stand-up. Nothing irritates me more than small desks, or running out of work space. I need to be able to have data sheets, notes, and reference materials spread out in front of me, and still be able to type and mouse around. The L-shaped desk ensures that I’ll always have a great amount of space, with the side benefit of being perfect for running three monitors at once — and I still have enough space for the PC and printers!

4. My three monitors are large (I think…) and high-resolution, but on a budget. They’re all Acer H233H LCDs I picked up about two years ago on sale (the lot for not much more than $300, IIRC). Since I’m staring at monitors for up to a dozen hours a day, this was a good investment for me. I’d advise others to look closely at the pixel pitch of any prospective monitor, no pun intended; the difference between one with 0.265 mm pitch and another with 0.311 mm pitch (as common with 23-inch and 27-inch LCDs, respectively), can be significant to many users. Your eyes will thank you for spending the extra money on a better monitor (some days I wish I had spent even more, but these are still getting the job done). One item I REALLY wish they had is height adjustment. I should probably just buy some 3M monitor arms….

5. The chair should be comfortable, but IMO, only for working. That is, I don’t think I should be able to lounge back in it like it’s a La-Z-Boy. I’d advise a small or no backrest, as well. No armrests, as they only get in my way. Since I’m trying to go stand-up, I think my next ‘chair’ will be an architect stool, with maybe one of those foam hunter’s cushions on the seat. A rubber floor mat will probably be on that roster, too.

6. Cleanliness and organization! Second only to my earlier-mentioned pet peeve of running out of space is not being able to find things when I need them. A bookcase and a cart of plastic drawers work for me to keep binders, books, and office supplies close at hand yet in designated places. I also use old glass jars for pen & pencil storage, and a really large lag-screw hook to hang up my headphones. Regular vacuuming & dusting keep everything looking great – NO furniture polish, only clean water, or a mix of alcohol, water, and vinegar. Piles of papers are nowhere to be found, but they sure used to be common. :) I’d highly recommend investing in a good label machine (NOT one of those $20 cheap-o models) to help you find everything once it’s put away, but a Sharpie and a roll of masking tape can also work.

7. Speakers – use whatever floats your boat & budget, but having a desk and PC with a decent sound system really make breaks feel like breaks, and listening to music while I work much more enjoyable. I only use the headphones when it’s really late at night, or something I want to listen to in detail.

And finally….

8. The PC itself. Having to put up with a sluggish, old, piece-of-crap PC would be torture for some (most?) of us; if it can’t play a YouTube video at high resolution without tripping over itself, rotate parts in SolidWorks or Pro/E [Creo] without ‘stutter’, boot in less than about 30 seconds, or open and close programs relatively quickly, it’s gonna drive me nuts. The investment into hardware that makes a PC truly enjoyable to use – for work AND play – is worth while if you’re stuck using it for hours on end. Otherwise, it’s as irritating as wearing a pair of shoes two sizes too small. I’m not sure about other users, but I get stress headaches, make stupid mistakes, and get downright grumpy using a crappy computer. That said, every user’s application will be different, as will their ability to influence the choice of hardware they’re using. I mean let’s face it, a graphic designer will need a much different PC than someone using Excel or Word all day.

Other than that, just stay healthy, take frequent breaks, drink plenty of water, move around, and get completely away from the desk regularly.

While many people wouldn’t think of the capabilities of the computer itself as a key to computing comfort and ergonomics, the reality is that if your aging computer keeps you at your work station an extra hour a day because it isn’t up for the tasks you throw at it, that’s an ergonomic issue–you’re logging hours at the terminal you needn’t.

DiAnne highlights how, when you’re on the shorter side, you need to pay special attention to your workstation because it was designed for a person of average stature:

I sit at my desk a ridiculous 12+ hours a day. There are a few requirements for comfort:

1. Keyboard drawer – a keyboard sitting on a desk surface is a horrible thing to do to your body.

2. External keyboard and mouse – as a big-busted woman (but not in the good way, unfortunately), an ergonomic split keyboard is critical. I’ve tried several and the best for me is the Microsoft Ergonomic 4000 (wired) or 7000 (wireless). It takes a day to get used to but it has eliminated all of my arm, wrist, hand, and even back pain and I’ve been using this keyboard for about 6 years.

3. Good posture. This is easy to say but hard to practice. I’ve noticed that when I’m actually working, my posture is perfect. My back never touches the chair, I’m sitting erect with my shoulders back and I can work for hours like that. However, as soon as I switch from typing to reading, I find that I slouch or lean on the desk. It’s usually a twinge of discomfort in my back that reminds me that I need to get back to sitting properly.

4. A foot stool. I’m short (5’3″) and my upper thighs used to get a small cramp in them because of pressure from the edge of the chair (it wasn’t the chair, it was that my thighs would slope downwards in order for my feet to be on the floor). I finally made a short foot stool on casters and now my legs are at a good 90-degree angle and it solved the problem. If I was 6 inches taller, this probably wouldn’t be a problem, but for someone short like me, this was a surprising fix to a problem I didn’t realize I was having.

Dragonbite shares some tips for working at a standing desk:

I just recently set up a Standing Desk which, although it takes a little bit to get used to, is actually quite comfortable.

I have a monitor raised to eye level, and my laptop is on the shelf that holds my keyboard, mouse, speakers and most importantly, my coffee. The shelf is a little low (1-2″ below elbow level) but sufficient. I know I need to try and avoid resting my wrist on the desktop while typing or using the mouse.

I have a box on the floor I put one foot on and alternate feet so my lower back doesn’t seize up on me.

Using a block to alternate raising your legs is really helpful, so it walking in place–you might look kind of silly but it’s very refreshing!

For more workstation comfort tips and tricks, hit up the full comment thread here.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 02/3/12

Comments (13)

  1. Anonymous

    You know, some furniture manufacturer might make a lot of money if they just made adjustable desks! I mean, how hard would it be to put gas shocks or something in place of legs? Shocks, like you see on many desk chairs but on a desk. I’ve actually done this to a table once, but to get 4 shocks to work all at once would be the challenge for a regular office desk. Even legs with simple hole-and-peg one-time adjustments would be an improvement. I figure if desks could be even semi-adjustable with regard to height, people who also come in many shapes and sizes could then easily adjust their desk along with their chair and any other devices to meet their needs. Seems like such a logical and simple thing and yet no one makes adjustable desks – none that are affordable, that is.

    And for gamers, I still haven’t seen a Lazy-Boy-like desk chairs either. That picture at the beginning of the article is sort of like what I have in mind, but rigs like that don’t even come close to affordability (which is pretty much the key if manufacturers want to sell more of them – hello-oh!). Therefore, I wounder how many people would buy a simple desk chair if it just had a simple flip out foot rest like you see on many living room recliners. Of course, it would have to recline too. So far, the best solution I’ve seen is to take an actual Lazy Boy recliner and put it on coasters (tiny wheels under it). The only problem is that you still can’t adjust the height of the chair which is why there’s usually also a hospital tray table involved since that’s about the closest you’ll find to an adjustable desk! (Of course, you could get a foot stool, but then you have two pieces of furniture that might end up separated at the most inopportune times too.)

    Finally, what is up with regular office chair seat padding these days? Holly cow!!! Seems like I end up throwing out perfectly good office chairs every year or at least every few years just because I can’t tolerate sitting on a cement block any more. And I doubt I’m alone here either. You might think that re-padding /re-covering would be an option but to do that would cost way more than to just add to the landfill and get a new chair. Talk about “e waste”! I have to wonder how much “o waste” (office furniture waste) there is.

  2. Steve-O-Rama

    @ Anonymous: I fully sympathize with you, regarding modern office chairs. Purely cheap chinese junk is what most of ’em are, or at least that’s all that the modern “office supply” stores are carrying. If you want something that’s going to last much longer without your intervention, you will typically have to go to a good name-brand, US-made chair, e.g. Herman Miller, headquartered in my neighborhood (West Michigan). Of course, these are going to cost much more than your office supply store chair, but you’ll likely find that it will last several times longer — the higher initial investment will typically pay for itself over time.

    There’s a simple interim fix for your office chair’s seat cushion problem: remove and completely disassemble the seat, and re-stuff it with a foam cushion of your choice. Many fabric stores carry seat-sized pre-cut foam pieces for just this reason (well, actually they’re made for ANY seat that needs a new cushion), and pulling the staples out of the seat isn’t terribly difficult. Just use the right tools. You may also find it advantageous to wash the seat cover while it’s off, using plain soap and water – what other opportunity will you have without making a soggy mess?

    Anyhow, once that seat cover is detached, get all of the cheap-o foam out of there using whatever means necessary. I’ve seen some that are glued rather stubbornly, and others where the entire insert comes out in one piece. After that’s out of the way, you’re now free to use whatever padding you choose. Most stores will offer a polyethylene foam, either off-white or turquoise in color. Thickness costs money, and I’d recommend that you get a cushion that feels a little more firm that what you’d think would be good. Your entire body weight will be on it, and it will break in over time.

    Then, simply cut it to size with a fresh, sharp utility razor, and/or scissors. It’s up to you whether to glue it or not, but I prefer not. Reattach the seat cover with a staple gun (I recommend Arrow’s guns), making sure the staple length is appropriate (short, in this case). Your seat cushion should last another five years now. I’ve yet to have the factory cushion last more than two years before turning into useless mush.

    If all of that seems like too much, just take the seat part to a local upholstery shop. They should be able to help you for much less than a new chair.

  3. DiAnne

    Anonymous – I’ve thought the same thing about desks for years! I’m short and with every desk chair I’ve ever had raised to the highest pneumatic setting possible, I still need a booster cushion just so I can use the desk in a comfy position. If I had a regular 4-legged desk, I’d totally cut about 2 inches off of the legs just so I could use it properly. My desk is on pedestals (with built in file cabinets) so that’s not possible.

    If you make the pneumatic desk, I’ll be your quality tester!

    About the desk chair – it’s ironic that you mention La-Z-Boy. I know you were joking about having the comfort of a typical recliner, but that’s actually the brand of desk chair I have and it is by far the most comfortable chair I’ve ever used. It just fits me perfectly. It’s comfortable, it leans way, way back (my cat insists on using my belly for her bed when I lie back on the thing) and this is the first time I haven’t had to replace my chair every year. I got it at Sam’s Club back in 2005 and it is still in perfect shape. It wasn’t even all that expensive (less than $200).

    I’m not sure if links are permitted, but here’s a side view of the comfy chair from my Flickr album

  4. Janey Samson

    Thanks for the info, I’ve been interested in this for quite some time, and it’s great I found your blog. Thank you, my back is killing meeeee!

  5. Rae

    For a very comfy chair for cheap – get a car seat from the junkyard, mount it on a piece of plywood, and mount the plywood on an office-chair base. Nice fabric or leather, headrest, adjustable angles. Watch where the center of balance is so you don’t fall over backwards. Also watch the thickness of the bottom cushion; the reason they are so comfortable is that they are much thicker. Mine is actually just a bit tall for me, I’m going to cut down the vertical pillar in the base.

  6. Tuna

    Working a lot at night, I often have to deal with tired eyes. There’s a simple way to make staring at your monitor easier, although it doesn’t really have to do with ergonomics: a small program called ‘F.lux’. This program adjusts the hue and brightness of the screen according to your location and time. It doesn’t require much CPU while running, and makes working much more comfortable.

  7. rob anderson

    gunnar glasses will get rid of your dry eyes,cut down on eye fatigue alot. i don’t get tired at work anymore. and they can be ordered in perscription.

    for comfort get a chair that lines up with your desk. for keyboard and mouse get evoluent keyboard and mouse and say glod bye to carpel tunnel pain.

  8. rob anderson

    or say good bye. darned Android phones

  9. wardog

    For me the Microsoft Natural wireless Ergo 7000 keyboard w/ MS Natural wireless laser 7000.
    Those cut the carpal totally from developing. Kb can be programed. Also use Hot Keyboard s/w to assign keys like ESC key to exit program. So much easier on body that trying go to upper right corner all the time.
    24″ monitor LCD LED ViewSonic makes ton of dif. Good chair with adjustable back that can be locked into place upright, or loose as a rocker but locked is best for back forcing sitting up straight.
    I’m 6 foot but use an sdjustable tilting foot rest for circulation and keeps long legs in the proper
    90 degree angle (L shape of butt & feet). Moving around every 15 minutes so don’t stiffen up.
    Lots of liquids – coffee then tea. Fruit juices also a help. Eat well.
    Have a decent fast system so don’t get annoyed, stressed over response times. Enjoy some
    comedy time away from the beast.

  10. DBigWoo

    Adjustable height desk… OK, I’m just brainstorming here, so I haven’t worked out ANY details. I was just thinking that if someone wanted a desk that could adjust in a manner similar to a chair, how about this… Make the legs out of two pipes – one inside the other (close fit), so that they can telescope out. Possibly add a series of holes so that you can pin them for added stability when you get to the desired height.

    As for how to adjust the height… Find a common point where the desk can be jacked up (Initial thought is center rear). Build in two cross-members and install a bottle style hydraulic jack between them. Just pump it up to raise it, and ease it down by the release valve. If it can lift a car, it can lift a desk. They can have a throw up to about a foot to a foot and a half. A floor jack would give more throw, but be bulkier. If you want to get real fancy, use a transmission jack.

    Also could be handy if your desk gets a flat tire. ;-)

  11. Doc

    The “workstation” pictured looks less like “comfortable work” and more like “intensely painful oral surgery”…

  12. DiAnne

    Wardog – You and I feel the same on almost everything! I even have the same keyboard. Well…HAD the same keyboard. Thanks to a pesky cat and a glass of water left on my desk overnight (with a lid, I swear!), my keyboard was ruined. Since I seem to go through these keyboards about once a year because of liquid dangers (damn cat!), I decided to downgrade this time to the 4000 which was only $25 as opposed to $120 at Staples for the wireless version.

    I really appreciate the comment you made about setting ESC to be “quit program.” While I’ve got my shortcut keys set, it never crossed my mind to set ESC for quit. I’m doing it right now. What a great idea! Thanks!

  13. sooopy

    DiAnne – it may be cheaper to just put the cat to sleep.

    just kiddin, DiAnne, just kiddin’ (wink-wink). :-D

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