The intelligent office: 14 ergonomic office tools to help you work smarter and prevent injuries

Charles Pappas

THE RULES ABOUT THE TOOLS WE WORK WITH USED TO be: Science discovers them, industry applies them, and people conform to them. In the informed opinion of Donald Norman, cognitive psychologist and author of Things That Make Us Smart (Addison-Wesley), many of the office tools we use are poorly designed. Bad design, Norman argues, “can make us stupid.” (And let’s not overlook uncomfortable, unhealthy, and unhappy.)

But now ergonomics–making the machine fit you, not the other way around–is bringing out the designer in computer equipment manufacturers (who used to make their products as aesthetically exciting as paste), and the result is equipment that’s healthy, functional, even fun.

The following items were chosen because they break the restrictive and arbitrary rules that held sway in the world of office equipment design–they’ll not only help you perform your tasks faster and better, they’ll actually conform to your working habits.

Seats of Power Chairs haven’t changed much since the Puritans introduced the high-backed, narrow-seated settle around 1640. Their one-size-tortures-all design philosophy is now ending thanks to smart fabrics, improved maneuverability, and easily adjusted controls.

The Aeron, from Herman Miller, looks like a postmodern version of a wicker chair. Made largely of recycled aluminum and polymers, the Aeron comes in three sizes–small, medium, and large–debunking to some degree the one-size-fits-all myth of chair design. A chair, the Aeron’s designers assert, “should actively intercede for the health of the person who sits in it.” The Aeron’s meshlike Pellicle composition does just that, changing shape as the person sitting in it moves, improving circulation yet providing firm support. The fabric also lets air and body heat pass through it, which keeps your skin temperature at a cool and comfortable level. For smoother typing, the armrests move inward 17.5 degrees to support your forearms, and outward 15 degrees to make mousing less awkward.

Since Miller’s own research showed that about half of the people it surveyed didn’t know how to adjust a chair’s back height, and one-fifth couldn’t figure out how to change the seat height, the company made sure the Aeron would be simple to use. The tilt system lets your body pivot back and forth with minimal neural activity on your part, and the array of seat-, back-, and arm-height controls is easy to decipher and use. $765 to $1,190, depending on options; Herman Miller, (800) 851-1196.

Just as fascinating (and a whole lot cheaper) is The Knoll Group’s SoHo chair. Adhering to the federal government’s standard for ergonomic chairs, the SoHo (which stands for small office/home office) offers a smooth and controlled back flit, pneumatic seat-height adjustment, and a five-year warranty. Adjusting the chair couldn’t be simpler–the controls for height and tilt are curved in such a way that your hand instinctively uses them correctly. It’s colorful, too–the back and the seat are. available in black, pine, tomato, and midnight blue. How contoured and elegant is it? You can find the SoHo at the Museum of Modem Art Design Store in New York. $299; The Knoll Group, (800) 445-5045.

Visit the Help Desks Where there’s a chair, there’s a desk. The ancient high desks used by clerks and the traditional American rolltop were eventually replaced with desks that were more conducive to extensive writing, complete with side drawers and overhead storage spaces. With the invention of the computer came the computer table, those big clumsy slabs on which we now plunk CPUs, monitors, and so on. No adjustability. No mobility.

Soho Inc. made computer users its number-one design priority with its Adjustable Computer Table. Its easy-to-use knobs allow you to fix the distance of your monitor to keep it at the recommended 20- to 24-inch distance as well as raise and lower the keyboard shelf to keep your arms parallel to the floor. You can fine-tune the keyboard setup by tilting its shelf to a position that helps reduce the stress on your wrists–up to 20 degrees. Using only six square feet, the table takes just eight screws and about 30 minutes to put together. Each shelf supports up to 100 pounds, and the unit itself can stand a strain of about 200 pounds. Better yet, the Soho is mobile: Its casters give you the choice of working it into any space you want, whenever you want. Also, unlike most other desks, the Soho changes colors. One side of each of the shelves (including the main work surface) is black, the other white. Flip them over and you have what looks like a brand new table. $299; Soho, (800) 299-7646.

With 5.4 million notebooks shipped in 1993 (and 9.9 million expected to ship in 1996), it’s astonishing that no one ever designed a desk just for them, especially since a notebook’s diminutive size makes using one on a standard desk a strain. American Business Concepts addresses this need with its Laptop Desk. The main work area is adjustable to 45 degrees in either direction and will hold any laptop up to 15 pounds. The two-shelf organizer on the right neatly stores your papers and work materials, and the 14-by-19-inch printer shelf on the lower right-hand side can handle a printer up to 25 pounds. A copy holder with a halogen lamp lets you direct the right amount of light to fall on either your laptop or your reading material. A storage compartment in the unit’s base holds cables, power supplies, and transformers and comes with a built-in surge protector. Adjustable from 25 to 34 inches high, the Laptop Desk can be used with a chair or even in bed for the late-risers among us. $199; American Business Concepts, (800) 877-4797.

Hold That Thought Neck and shoulder pain can be caused by constantly bending to see what you’re working on, and a built-in copy holder like the one found in the Laptop Desk is a rare convenience. Most separate copy stands are flimsy and can’t be adjusted for viewing your papers or books at different levels. Thankfully, Dainoff Designs offers a heavy birchwood-veneered Ergonomic Book & Copy Holder that strays from the cheesy norm. Sturdy enough to hold encyclopedia volumes, the holder also has a spring-loaded clip that grips documents up to two and a half inches thick. The holder gives you nearly a dozen different heights to always keep your work at eye level, clear plastic page stoppers to hold your copy open, and reversible line guides that help you keep your place. The holder is also available in black lacquer, walnut, mahogany and other hardwoods. $99; Dainoff Designs, (800) 438-2852.

Staying Well Rested Even with an ergonomic desk and chair, certain parts of your body still need some extra support. The Surf Collection from The Knoll Group, is an innovative series of mouse pads, wrists rests, foot rests, and lumbar supports, all made to complement the way humans move. The mouse pad, for example, uses a cushioned Neoprene surface with a no-slide backing and offers a wide plane to give just the right amount of room for mousing.

The collection also offers a wrist rest, one of the most controversial members of the ergonomic world. Although you should never type with your hands on a wrist rest, it’s unrealistic for people not to rest their hands on a work surface when they are not typing. If you’re going to rest them, its better to do so on a soft surface with some give than on the hard, sharp edge of a desk. To fill that need, Surf offers you a soft landing pad. But, remember, a wrist rest is for resting, not working.

Our favorite piece from the collection is the lumbar support. We’ve tried hundreds of other models and found that most wobble around too much to be of any use. Surf’s brainstorm was to make one that basically looks like a saddlebag–drape the wide padded end on one side of the chair, and the smaller, weighted end over the other. Anchored by the weight, the back support stays put.

Although the surfaces of most foot rests are too hard and too small, Surf’s take on this usually humdrum accessory is a wide half-moon with a springy surface that literally takes a load off your feet. $42, mousepad; $42, wrist rest; $105, lumbar support; $126, foot rest; The Knoll Group, (800) 445-5045.

Our only complaint with the Surf collection’s foot rest is that you can’t change its height. That may seem like a mere quibble, until you realize that even when we’re sitting, we’re still on our feet. Ergodyne’s WorkSmart foot rest is vertically adjustable, and a foot pedal lets you tilt it at any angle from zero to 23 degrees until you find the one that’s best for your height and sitting position. You can choose to lock the 19-inch-wide WorkSmart in a fixed position, or keep it loose so it moves when you do. $59.95; Ergodyne, (612) 642-9889, (800) 225-8238.

Is Your Computer Glaring At You? While you’re sitting, you’re also staring–at the monitor. Glare from computer screens can result in sore, bloodshot eyes, blurred vision, and worse. Members of the American Optometric Association (AOA) report about 14.25 percent of their patients–an estimated 10 million in all–have monitor-related eye problems. A quick and simple way to protect yourself is to use a glare filter. The Glare/Guard Maximum Plus, which increases the display contrast to three times that of an unfiltered screen, meets standards set by the AOA. Antiglare coatings are applied to both sides of the shield, and a unique transparent layer suppresses 99.9 percent of a monitor’s electric-field radiation. Glare and static electricity are done away with, and the tempered safety glass prevents the filter (available for nine- to 21-inch monitors) from being easily fractured. $20 to $79; Glare/Guard, (800) 545-6254.

Retooling Your Typing All the tools and accessories described here aren’t likely to do you any good if your keyboard and mouse still act like medieval thumbscrews. The bad news is that these items aren’t going away anytime soon. The good news is that their design is finally becoming human–and humane.

Lexmark exemplifies this market trend toward a kinder, gentler keyboard with its adaptable Select-Ease. Split into two sections, the Select-Ease lets you adjust its height as well as its tilt–helping you find the ultimate personalized typing position. Lexmark recently added a detached 17-key numeric keypad, making the unit as productive as it is comfortable. $179; Lexmark, (606) 232-2000, (800) 438-2468.

Despite an ergonomic keyboard, lack of space is always a problem. You end up squashing together the other devices you need–specially the phone–putting them in awkward places, then twisting and straining to reach them all day long. Although its design is nothing new, the CompuPhone 2000 integrates a complete telephone system within a standard 101-key keyboard–a big step toward easing the congestion on your desktop and the stress on your body. No modem is needed to let PC users make and receive phone calls directly through the keyboard, and the bundled Telephone Management Software lets you merge your own phone directory into a database, make calls automatically, and log all outgoing and incoming calls. Besides its volume, flash, mute, and redial features, the CompuPhone 2000 comes with a headset that lets you type and talk at the same time without incurring serious neck and back problems. $140; Integrated Technology USA, (800) 393-8889.

Call the Exterminator Even if your keyboard did everything but give you a manicure, it would leave half the problem of inputting unsolved–namely, the mouse, whose very design encourages you to flop your wrist down on a hard surface, then swivel it in a way that wrenches delicate tissues. The solution to the mouse is to exterminate it. Get rid of it, and buy a touchpad.

When you use a touchpad, you simply run your finger over a rectangular pad about the size of a Saltine cracker. The best we’ve seen of this kind is the Alps GlidePoint, available now in PC and Mac versions. Its electric field senses your finger’s movements and moves the cursor on the screen accordingly. With the GlidePoint, you never use the repetitive gripping and squeezing motions that makes a mouse so damaging. Instead of clicking, you gently tap the pad’s surface. (For those who need a transition period, the GlidePoint comes with three buttons that allow you to click until you get used to tapping.) The lack of moving parts likely to break down, the small chance of contamination from dirt, the 400dpi resolution, and the software to personalize cursor speed and sensitivity make the GlidePoint an evolutionary leap over the mouse. $87 for PS/2 and serial port; $99 for Mac; Alps Electric, (408) 432-6000, (800) 825-2577.

Design Smarter, Work Smarter Computer designers are finally realizing that it’s better to feel good than to look good. The rash of computer-related injuries (according to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 302,000 workplace injuries of this type in 1993, the last year for which data is available) proves we need well-designed equipment that, first, does no harm and, second, promotes good health. The office product manufacturing industry is now moving in the right direction, but significant gaps still remain in the world of office ergonomics.

For instance, with BIS Strategic Decisions forecasting that 70 percent of all pointing devices will be touchpads by 1998, we’d like to ask why manufacturers don’t get the jump on their rivals and incorporate touchpads directly into their keyboards? This would eliminate the constant reaching over the keyboard to the pad and would minimize the clutter from wires. And why can’t someone make modular desks solely of tough, flexible rubber? The edges could be rounded, the weight would be substantially lighter, and the problems of chipping, spills, and so forth, would be substantially reduced. Last, how about chairs where height and tilt are controlled with buttons on the arms?

But as well as being healthy, your equipment should also be clever and fun. If the tools you use are a pleasure to look at and a delight to use, that means the technology was meant to serve you, not the other way around.

CHARLES PAPPAS, president of Ergo Communications, often lectures to and consults with small and mediumsize businesses on healthy computing.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Freedom Technology Media Group

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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