Sending emails and taking calls at cafes, curled up on couches, or from park benches... at L&L Consulting we frequently work remotely. Many of our colleagues and friends also work in roles that require working in a variety of settings and frequently travelling. We know the benefits of this flexibility well, but we also know the toll this can take on our bodies and our mental health. Thanks to our friends at Toptal, we are able to share this article with you highlighting tips to use while working on the road by individuals who are out and about working all the time.
Let us know what strategies you try next time you are working away from a desk and how your body feels! Check out previous posts on ergonomics here.
We live in a time where technology has made it possible to work from anywhere, and many people have eschewed the traditional office for the chaotic din of a cafe in Bangkok or a hotel in Prague. Yet, while this trend has opened up unprecedented opportunities, it also brings with it a number of challenges, perhaps the most insidious of which is a lack of ergonomically healthy options in non-traditional workspaces.
As a co-founder and organizer of Hacker Paradise, I’ve worked from a number of these non-traditional spaces around the world, and have witnessed the work set-ups of many digital nomads. Often, nomads will travel with only a laptop, working poolside or from beanbag chairs in exotic locations around the globe.
As awesome as it may be to choose a different beautiful office every day, what many nomads are willfully ignoring is the fact that it’s physically impossible to have good posture if all you have is a laptop. As you can see in the pictures below, working with just a laptop on your knees, without an external keyboard or laptop stand, results in a curved back, a curved neck, scrunched shoulders, and stress on the wrists.
Cafes, hotels, and co-working spaces are only slightly better. While you’ll at least have a table and a chair, you’ll still be hard pressed to find laptop stands, proper back support, or counters at the right height for a standing desk. As a result, you’ll often be left with unhealthy stress on your spine, and your wrists and elbows will be left at odd, unnatural angles.
It doesn’t take long for these postural predicaments to develop into muscle imbalances that put ongoing stress on the tendons and skeleton, even when you’re not working, and prolonging these bad habits can eventually lead to more serious problems, including slipped discs, pinched nerves, and tendon degeneration.
What Can Digital Nomads Do?
However, all is not lost! For those of you with nomadic inclinations, there are a number of things you can do to avoid future back pain, repetitive strain injuries (RSI), and neck issues.
There have been many good articles written on proper ergonomics, so we’ll only cover the basics here. Here are your goals for proper posture:
- Have your screen at eye-level, 12-18 inches away from your face.
- Your arms should be by your side.
- Your elbows should be bent at 90 degree angles.
- Your wrists should be neutral, angled neither upward or downward.
- Your back should have lumbar support.
- Your shoulders should be back and relaxed.
Note that having your screen at eye level and your keyboard at elbow level is not possible on a laptop alone.
In a traditional office space, you can solve the problems above by purchasing a high-quality chair, having an external monitor at the correct height, and having an external keyboard, perhaps with a keyboard tray to keep your keyboard in the right position. However, most nomads are left to make do with whatever workspace they can find, as they move from space to space and work out of places where you can’t really buy bulky hardware and just leave it lying around. Thus, for a nomadic worker, the solutions to the above problems must be as portable and as lightweight as possible.
Here are some ergonomic solutions that are well-suited for the nomadic worker:
1. Lumbar pillow - available in various sizes, some even deflate or fold up for easy travel
2. Laptop stand - to facilitate proper positioning of the neck while using laptop. You can find ones that fold up and fit in a work bag
3. External mouse and keyboard - when a laptop is on a laptop stand, you'll need a mouse and keyboard to be on the desk surface. Consider a keyboard without a number pad for keeping it compact!
The above are all suggestions you can buy to soup-up your portable workspace, but there are other things you can do to stay healthy. Participating regularly in physical activity, such as yoga, abdominal workouts, or a stretching routine, goes a long way towards keeping you strong and preventing chronic pain.
And, even if you do have a regular exercise schedule, consider building a routine of taking breaks from your work position every 30 to 60 minutes. Prolonged periods of sitting in front of a computer may lead to musculoskeletal disorders, eye strain, and obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Getting up and walking around every hour or so will keep your body going and keep you physically and mentally healthy.
While the above should give you some options to stay healthy on the road, I think we need to see increased awareness of this issue, and more products on the market to help people stay healthy.
It would fantastic if you could show up to a cafe, co-working space, or hotel and find a chair with proper back support, an external keyboard, an external mouse, and a laptop stand. In essence, a nomad could drop in on a location with just their laptop, and immediately have a fully ergonomic workstation at their disposal.
While that future is far off, there are some great companies, like the Hubud coworking space in Bali (previously Hacker Paradise’s home base for a month), which are creating healthy workspaces. One of the best parts of working out of their space was the abundance of desks for standing work, and the laptop stands readily available for anyone to use.
There is also an increasing number of products out there that are made by nomads for nomads, such as the Shido Standing Desk and the Stood Laptop Stand. I think as we see more and more people take to the road, we’ll see an increasing number of companies innovating in this space, as well as people creating products that scratch their own itch.
And that’s a good thing, because working while traveling is awesome, and so is being healthy!