For many of us, working from home has become such a big part of our lives since last March and it’s been a fantastic change for so many reasons. We’ve got to spend less time travelling to work and more time with our loved ones. We’ve had time to reflect on what is important in our homes and also in our lives as a whole. It would be fair to say that lockdown and the last year have been major contributors for me wanting to start my own practice, taking back control of my working week and ultimately the birth of nicholson.studio.
One, somewhat unexpected, downside to being based at home is a definite lack of appropriate workspace. Most of us will occasionally like to use our laptops from the comfort of the sofa or even from bed, but for long periods of time neither of these are a viable place to work. So, we’ve had to adapt spare bedrooms, repurpose dining tables and even buy new furniture to host a work space at home.
I’m in the very fortunate position of having a spare bedroom where I put an old school teachers desk a year before the first lockdown hit. Before working from home, I used it infrequently for painting, and then for a time I had an office chair provided by my previous job, which meant it worked well as a home office. However, since starting the studio, I’ve been unable to afford a proper seat and have been making use of a (very cheap) replica Eames chair until quite recently. Without really realising, months of being slightly uncomfortable grew into significant lower back pain and prompted me to look for alternative ways to work.
A further five months down the line, here we are, and I find myself writing this article in the hope of helping others after having neglected my own comfort for so long with quite severe side effects. So without ado, let me introduce you to the offenders, the contenders and the questionable notes from my ‘journal’ which I’ve kept throughout this trial/experiment.
Firstly, the replica Eames chair. I bought this as part of a pair when I was considering buying my first house. Despite the price they actually look and function as well as a chair can be expected to. Undeniably, the construction quality and materials that have been used definitely aren’t as high as the original, but then again, neither is the price which can range from £17.99 for a replica up to around £400.00 for the equivalent ‘new’ product (from VITRA).
The primary problem with the chair for me is its height. It doesn’t work well with our dining table downstairs, and it also doesn’t quite get me to correct height to use my desk. This means that I’m constantly in a bad working position and would be likely to fail a Display System Equipment (DSE) workstation assessment if it were in a professional environment. I found that with the chair I was overreaching, causing discomfort around my right shoulder whilst using the mouse and lower back pain from slouching. These might sound like familiar problems and if you’re encountering either of them on a regular basis I’d strongly recommend searching for some tips online to assess and help correct the position you’re working in.
The first alternative I considered was an exercise ball so I invested in a Mantra Sports Pilates Ball (link below). The idea to try this came from an unorthodox (and slightly embarrassing) source. Some of you might remember Dwight from the American version of The Office and his fitness orb – if not, here’s the link to that infamous scene – so I’d hoped this might solve the lower back pain by indirectly strengthening my core. I wouldn’t usually condone taking medical advice from tv but in this instance it actually worked relatively well. Within a couple of weeks I was noticing a physical improvement and the niggling back pain had subsided tremendously. It did have an unusual knock on effect though, which I hadn’t quite anticipated.
In the beginning, I considered the ball as an outright replacement for the chair, so was using it as a like for like substitute. Whether that was using the computer, sketching at my desk or to just to sit on during downtime between tasks. For the most part it functioned really well. The additional height put me in line with the surface of my desk (even a touch too high to begin with, but I was able to deflate it slightly to set myself just right). However, I noticed that when I was sketching, so leaning forwards more than usual, I began getting really tight calves and hamstring fatigue from being on my tiptoes and constantly braced. At this point I realised it wasn’t the fix all solution I’d hoped it would be.
Eerily, and much as phones do these days, because I was having conversations about my predicament, my social media feeds became swamped with advertisements for alternatives. These ranged from other stability ball chairs to adjustable desks and standing work surfaces. It was the latter that stood out as the most appealing, mainly because they seemed to be primarily made from plywood and I had some off cuts from our wardrobe project (link on that to follow) that I could put to use instead of them gathering dust in the loft.
Standing desks made from plywood come in many shapes and sizes, but they all generally share a select number of parts. As you can see above there are two platforms to work on, one for your screen/laptop and a lower one for your keyboard and mouse. These branch from the adjustable support, which usually has a number of slots to enable adjusting the height. And lastly, the base piece, which keeps the whole structure upright.
Two brands which I liked the design of were Humbleworks and Harmoni, which both look very similar and are available online if you wanted to buy a ready made product. For those of you who want to give making your own a go, here is the template I used below. I modelled it in SketchUp to check the dimensions would work and to ensure my pieces would fit onto the off cuts. If you do happen to make one, I’d be really interested to see the results and will gladly share them here!
The tools I used were fairly basic and were originally bought to make the wardrobe I mentioned earlier, although understandably not everyone will have access to a circular saw, jigsaw or sander. If you do, the process is fairly straight forward, and even if you don’t, a friend of mine used his schools CNC machine to create his own – so there’s always that.
Once I’d got the dimensions set up on SketchUp, I started by marking out the templates on each piece of left over plywood before clamping each piece in place to my MacAllister folding work bench and used the circular saw to cut them out. Once I had the rough shapes for each, I wanted to recreate the rounded corners of the professional versions. This was part aesthetic, part functional, as rough plywood corners can give a nasty scratch when brushed against, a lesson I’d learnt from construction of the wardrobe. So, for internal corners I used my jigsaw and for those around the perimeter I simply sanded them with a random orbital sander. Links to each of the products and tools I used can be found below.
Which is best?
Let me start by saying that everyone is unique, so although this review is true for me, it may not be the case for everyone. And truth be told, like so many online reviews, I initially expected the answer to my experiment to be that neither one is better than the other. For a number of weeks I was using both the ball and desk, swapping between the two when one became uncomfortable. Over the course of the past month or so I’ve transitioned to using the standing desk exclusively. So how’s that for a definitive answer. Of course, each person will respond to this in their own way so my main take away points are to experiment, to not push yourself beyond what is comfortable and to wish you the very best of luck finding a solution that works for you!
I’ve included links to some of the products mentioned throughout the article below, although as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases so get paid commission for purchases made through these links.