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The Economics of Ergonomics

Let it not be said there are no downsides to living in the Bahamas (though if you’ll permit a little boasting, a shortage of fantastic venues if you’re lucky enough to be in a band is not one of them).

The desk where I work is too high, plain and simple. So much so that I’ve recently abandoned my Kinesis keyboard because it is not what you might consider “low form factor”. I’ve started feeling some twinges in my lower forearm that my unscientific diagnosis is attributing to the height of my hands while I type. Dumping the Kinesis has helped but it has also led to the return of stress in other areas of my hands. And no amount of raccoon skinning seems to alleviate the pain.

Getting a lower desk is easy enough but I’d actually like to do a little experimenting with two alternatives. Alas, neither are easily done in the Bahamas. The underlying problem is availability. The desks/equipment I want to test are not available here so I would have to order them in. Which means both shipping charges and import duties, the latter of which is a major source of income for the Bahamian government to offset the fact that there is no income tax. So returning said equipment is just not practical if it doesn’t work out. Nor is there much of a reseller market.

So I’m hoping I can get some comments from people who have done something similar.

Adjustable height desk

These are, of courses, desks where you can adjust the height easily. I like the idea of these for two reasons:

  • They can be set low
  • They can be set high

I’ve never tried a desk that you stand at but I’ve always wanted to. Working on my own, I tend to get up and wander a lot while I’m thinking. I also pace when I’m on the phone with someone for any length of time so it would be more convenient to walk up to the computer during the conversation should the need arise. (“You want to know the right pattern of plaid for a first date with your second cousin? Let me look that up.”)

I went desk-shopping over the weekend and the closest thing I saw was in an office supply store. And it wasn’t on the showroom floor. Off in the corner of the store were the employee desks. They were all essentially plywood based, laminated desktops all mounted in warehouse style shelving frames. They sat on brackets in the frame which means you could set the height to whatever you want. It wasn’t something you could easily adjust on the fly and my wife wasn’t too thrilled at the industrial look so it was a fleeting idea at best.

Command centrecomputer workstation furniture MYPCE Computer Workstation Furniture

This is an idea I’ve had ruminating in my head for a while now. I would get rid of the desk altogether in favour of a comfortable command-centre style or gaming chair. In front of it it, I’d mount my monitors on a couple of flexible arms somehow, possibly on the armrests or on stands on either side of the chair. The important thing is that I can slide the monitors out of my way when I want to get out of the chair, and slide them back in when I sit down.

The keyboard would rest either on my lap or on some flat surface on my lap. Or maybe go with a split keyboard (though one without a wire between the two) and have one piece mounted on each armrest. Haven’t quite worked out how the mouse would fit in though. A trackball on some little platform on the side makes sense but I’ve got one now and it doesn’t feel as productive as just a regular mouse.

I feel like this would be more comfortable and would reduce much of the muscle stress that seems to have become more prominent since hitting 40 earlier this year. All of this kind of makes sense in my head but the logistics of getting the stuff here is such that I don’t want to make the investment unless I’ve had a chance to try it out at least for a few days. There’s a chance my tendency to get up and wander might make this impractical. Or maybe cord management would be an ongoing problem.

The device shown at right, which I discovered while researching this article, is essentially what I’ve described. It’s some US$2750. Duty would add about 50% and shipping would likely bring the total price above five large. There’s another potential hurdle in that it may not be available anymore given the company’s domain seems to point to a parking spot. But even building my custom version will cost enough in non-refundable cash dollars for me not to head over eBay.

Instead, I hunt for a standard desk about four to six inches lower than the one I’ve got. Not as exciting, possibly not as ergonomic, but easier to replace.

So my question to you, my honorary hillbillies, for anecdotal evidence. Have you tried either of these devices? What’s good and bad? Good return for the money or does it sit in the garage next to the Bowflex you bought in a fit of New Year’s anxiety?

Kyle the Unreturnable

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  • Don Bartlett


  • Frank Tricker

    can pretty much get all that! I bought a new car that is much bigger I never
    thought they would make a huge difference but it has noticeably cut down
    the little aches and pains I get from driving so much, and has also
    upped my driving ability in the process. I bought a Audi Audi used cars for

  • Don Bartlett

    Good story

  • Sean Carter

    I really was surprised at all the good this new ergonomic keyboard did for me. I never thought they would make a huge difference but it has noticeably cut down the little aches and pains I get from typing so much, and really upped my productivity in the process

  • WillT

     I’d love to see how you used the car jack, sounds like a cool adjustable cheap way. I don’t think I’d be embarrassed that I save a bunch of money either.

  • Steve Py

    I don’t know if this isn’t harping the bleeding obvious, but have you exhausted the option of raising your chair and using a footrest? I’ve fortunately never suffered from discomfort due to typing, but I can occasionally get an overly tense shoulder if I get lazy with mouse placement. As a contractor I don’t get much say in my work environment from client to client, and generally the setups I get to work at are afterthoughts.

    I have always used fairly standard height desks, but probably keep my chair a bit higher than most people. The key for me is not using arm rests and using keyboards that sit flat on the desk surface. (No wrist rests) My thumbs generally rest below the spacebar when not in use keeping my hands comfortably hovering over the keys with no inverse wrist flex. At work I use the generic HP keyboard which gets the job done easy enough, at home I opted for the Logitech Illuminated which is a beautiful low-profile board. (Unfortunately it appears to be discontinued.)

  • Jim Sowers

    I have a standup desk at work with a under mounted keyboard tray on it. I like it so much that I am getting the same setup for home.
    This has been a really comfortable setup for me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alexdresko Alex Dresko

    Make your own desk! :) I started with a standing desk about a year ago. Took me a while for my feet to get used to it.. then I bought a $500 treadmill and converted my desk to support that. Turns out, my feet hurt less when I’m walking than when I’m standing still. I’ve been walking for months now while I write code and I love it! 

  • Brendan Tompkins

    Just as an aside.  To me that gyroscopic contraption pictured above is absolutely the worst setup I could imagine, as the main benefit to standing is increased blood flow, energy and concentration… That thing would seem to have the opposite effect, if there is one.  As information workers we need to artificially modify our environment so that it’s more inline with what our bodies were originally for (*pulling food in reach of us and us out of the reach of lions)…  standup desk isn’t perfect, but much better than sitting. When I have to sit for long periods now, even in the best chairs, I actually begin to hurt worse!

    You should setup a standup rig for a week or so and see how you feel.  

  • Rune

    I’ve got a desk where I can stand or sit. And I’ve had so for years. The answer to me is simply. I would not work without

  • Ben Schoenfeld

    To be honest, I just got tired of standing up. The carjack worked well and was not at all embarrassing. I was planning to motorize it, which would have made Brendan really jealous, but never got around to it. The desk was problematic though. The surface was too small, and it didn’t go down low enough to sit comfortably. If I was offered a professional stand up desk, I would gladly take it and stand 10 – 20% of the time.

  • Brendan Tompkins

    +Ben Schoenfeld, who stands next to me at work tried this one for a time, but it was too small, and didn’t adjust from sit to stand very well.  He ended up rigging up a carjack, but that was clunky and embarrassing for him (since I was pointing fingers and laughing every time he adjusted up or down).  Mine doesn’t adjust well either, which is why I’m considering a move to a real one.


  • http://kyle.baley.org Kyle Baley

    How do the cheap ones suck? I was looking at the ones at geekdesk.com as a potential option.

  • Brendan Tompkins

    Kyle,  about a year ago I switched to a full time standup setup and I’ll never look back.   The key for me was getting a good gel mat to stand up on.  It’s surprisingly easy to stand all day, and when I work from home I miss it frankly.  The problem is cost.   Any of the decent ones I’ve seen are upwards of $2000.  The ones that you can get for $250 or so online really suck.  I ended up making my desk out of two desks that I bought at a thrift store for $25 or so, welding the base together out of parts from the first desk, but it’s a bit shaky, and I’m considering an upgrade.  

  • http://twitter.com/gibbsonn gibbsonn

    not sure if its feasible or not for your office but have you thought about using an adjustable bar stool as an alternative to the lower desk?

  • http://kyle.baley.org Kyle Baley

    Holy hillbilly, I completely misread what you meant by using the phonebook…

  • http://kyle.baley.org Kyle Baley

    That’s not a bad idea as a complementary plan for the new desk. One of my strategies as a remote worker is to leave GotoMeeting open all day with the team and just turn the mike on whenever I want to ping one of the team. I do this only once or twice a week so I think the software would still be helpful. Thanks for the tip.

  • http://kyle.baley.org Kyle Baley

    Forgot to mention that in the post. That’s my current backup plan.

  • http://kyle.baley.org Kyle Baley

    Very much so. It’s an island of some 250k people in total, the most populous one in the country by about an order of magnitude. Import duties are 40% on furniture, I believe, and being an island, transportation costs are significant. Because of this, only inventory that will regularly turn over ends up in the stores. Buying online and shipping things in directly is extremely common. I have a car battery bracket and media player currently on order as I type this because they aren’t available locally.

  • Eric Gunn

    I have a Workrite Sierra adjustable work station at work and really like it. It goes up.  It goes down.  Motor controlled and programmable high and low settings.   Simple and effective.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose the Bahamian phone book isn’t very thick…

  • http://twitter.com/gibbsonn gibbsonn

    I recently developed some problems in my arms (which are hopefully temporary) and I’m currently trying out Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I’m still in the free month trial period so I’m not sure how this is going to pan out but I have found it very useful for certain repetitive keyboard combinations. For instance I switch between windows constantly so I have the words “another window” which then presses alt+ctrl+tab so that i don’t have to hold down those keys. I’m not convinced that it can be used to dictate programming but like i said it can take away some of the more troublesome / common key presses that you might make. If your interested try out the premium version and then install http://vocola.net/v2/default.asp, from what i can see the professional version which is six times more expensive than the premium doesn’t seem to offer much more than these 2 combined. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=542521833 Asaf Mesika

    Why not order a board from a carpenter and a just buy the legs (ship them) from IKEA?

  • Chris Tavares

    Rather than replacing the desk, have you tried just using an undermounted, adjustable keyboard tray? I’ve had one for years, and it’s worked really well.  The one I had (which I got about 10 years ago, so don’t ask me the details) had a slide out tray for the mouse as well, moved in all directions, and let me leave the desk at the right height for writing, and have the keyboard at a good height for typing. And it’s got to be cheaper than a whole new office setup.