Ergonomics for Digital Nomads: Working on the Road Without Killing Yourself

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This is a happy chiropractor:

ergonomics and digital nomads

Why is he so happy? Because he knows that in a matter of 5 to 10 years, his practice will be full of remote workers and digital nomads.

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.

remote work and bad posture The archetypical digital nomad posture.

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.

remote workers

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 will eventually lead to more serious problems, including slipped discs, pinched nerves, and tendon degeneration.

It’s physically impossible to have good posture if all you have is a laptop.

digital nomad

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.

remote work ergonomics Credit Joe Loong on Flickr, CC license

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 flat, 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 a keyboard tray to keeps 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:

Therm-A-Rest Lumbar Pillow

lumbar support

The Therm-A-Rest Lumbar Pillow is a self-inflating pillow that can add lumbar support to most chairs on the go. To inflate, you simply open the nozzle and it will automatically start filling with air. Deflating is just as simple, and once deflated, it rolls up to the size of a pair of socks, adding very little weight to your case. These are available on Amazon for $23.

Roost Laptop Stand

This is the best-in-class laptop stand for digital nomads. The Roost is lightweight, sturdy, fits almost any laptop, and folds up to easily fit in your bag. These were so popular that they sold out for a while, but Roost just launched a Kickstarter Campaign for a new version of the stand, and have already raised over $100,000.

StandStand

The StandStand is a portable standing desks made out of birch or bamboo. They range in height from 9 to 14 inches, and weigh only around 2 pounds. If you’re looking for a standing desk that you can take on the go, look no further.

Goldtouch Go!2 Travel Keyboard (Wired)

When using a stand to raise your laptop to eye-level, an external keyboard really becomes necessary. The Goldtouch Go!2 is a portable keyboard which is great for travel, as it actually folds in on itself for compact storage. Goldtouch also makes a wireless version of this keyboard, but many reviews complain that the Bluetooth connection is unreliable, so we recommend going for the wired version. This keyboard runs around $90 on Amazon.

Logitech M570 Wireless Trackball Mouse

One thing that can cause RSI in the wrist of your dominant hand is repeated movements of the mouse. A solution for this is to buy a mouse with a trackball, which decreases the need to move your arm and wrist into awkward positions. Logitech has a number of great products in this space, and we recommend their M570 Wireless Trackball Mouse.

A Dvorak Keyboard

One change that many people find effective in alleviating and preventing RSI symptoms is switching from the QWERTY to Dvorak keyboard layout. The Dvorak is an alternative keyboard layout, patented by Dr. August Dvorak in 1936, that is designed to minimize the distance traveled by your fingers when typing, and to place the most commonly used letters under the domain of your strongest fingers. It has many proponents, including Matt Mullengweg (creator of WordPress), and has been shown to reduce the your fingers’ travel distance by 40 to 45 percent. For a programmer, that 40 to 45 percent adds up over the months and years, and while it typically takes two to three weeks to become fully functional switching to a new layout, many developers may find it worth it.

The above are all accessories 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 work 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 for years.

Moving Forward

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, coworking 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.

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Comments

Nico
Awesome post Casey!, check this out! this also could be useful for us, the ongoing traveler geeks: http://www.werd.com/27575/refolds-portable-cardboard-desk/
Nick McCrea
That thing looks awesome! But $150 to $250 USD? What is this, fine furniture? It's literally a piece of cardboard. http://www.refold.co/international-pre-order
Tim Lundeen
I use a Kinesis Advantage keyboard, very helpful (it takes about 40 hours to retrain your fingers, but well worth it).
shameofcode
I had the mine 2 months ago and still cant type quickly :P
Phillip Gourley
Hmm. I always wondered why the metal was cleaner on the bottom of my pendant! Great post Casey!
Magda Kosinska
Need to check out this keyboard. Getting used to a new keyboard layout sounds quite challenging but at the same time seems reasonable if reduces fingers' movements by 40%. Very interesting article, will definitely link to it in my next post about freelancer health. For the time being I invite you to have a look at the first one: http://galilea3.com/blog/en/58/how-to-stay-healthy-as-a-freelancer
Mike Cavaliere
Fantastic, I've been looking for a post like this for a while. I work from cafes often, so taking care of the spine while looking at a laptop all day ( in different environments which you can't fully control ) is vital. Some helpful solutions here.
Radhika @ FulltimeNomad.com
Great post, Casey. It's so easy to just work out of a bed or couch but it really starts to affect your body, even in a short period of time. We always make a point to work from coworking spaces or cafes with good tables and chairs, so we can maintain a proper posture while working. I've also set myself a reminder so I stand up every half hour and do a small stretch routine or walk around for a few minutes. It really helps!
Amanda Kendzior
Love this post and the ideas! I'm not a digital nomad myself, but as a remote worker with sports massage training, I found myself nodding along to all your tips. Funnily enough I just wrote an article on how to set up a healthy home office, for those remote workers who don't get to travel the world :) Hope you don't mind me sharing: https://carouselapps.com/2016/01/21/simple-tips-for-creating-a-healthy-home-office/
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