Workplace Ergonomics Matters
  • Last updated on 11th Oct 2019

This post has a message to everyone sitting excessive amounts of time in front of computers: take care of your hands!

In the last two months I’ve had to learn this message the hard way — I began to notice an annoying, hard to describe feeling in my right hand. I have had similar issues about 6 years ago and switching the mouse to the left hand for a few weeks made it go away. But not this time. And interestingly, that issue reappeared for me after I went almost “keyboard only” and ditched my regular mouse for the built-in Trackpoint of my Thinkpad, for the rare occassion where I really need a pointing device and hotkeys or vim-like controls are either unavailable or less efficient.

I loved my Trackpoint. Never having to move your hands away from the keyboard was really awesome and being forced to use a regular mouse on other computers soon felt slow and inferior. But now I am quite sure that this evil red dot, requiring some amount of pressure, is the reason for what I call my first real RSI episode.

In the last few weeks I did quite some research on RSI, after finding out the name of my strange symptoms. If you didn’t hear of repetitive strain injury yet, then please do yourself a favor, inform yourself about it right now and come back later. I think I did everything wrong that I could and naively thought that my body must be somehow special and can handle this, as probably many think, or don’t think about it at all, until it hits them.

My symptoms are not gone yet, but it feels like it is getting better very slowly and I consider my hand/wrist pain to be a warning from my hands: either I start caring about a healthy, ergonomic workplace, or I can already prepare for serious problems and serious medical treatment. I’d rather choose the first, as having RSI symptoms at the age of 21 seems like a very bad sign to me.

UPDATE 2019: For over a year I also had some problems with my knees hurting when I started my life in an office environment, and no doctor could tell me what’s wrong. I am sure this was also an RSI issue from bad posture and after a year of avoiding knee strain it very slowly went away.

After this long prequel, now I want to list some best practices and advice I found which I try to implement:

  • Put your monitor orthogonal to the light source / window and in a way that you don’t need to move your head in any direction while working.

  • Avoid using the mouse. If you need to, think about investing in an ergonomic mouse or get a Trackball. Try to find a pointing device that fits you and give it a fair chance, non-mainstream mice will feel strange at first. I got a Logitech M570 for 30€ at Amazon and after some getting used to, I never want to go back.

  • Think about buying a simple standing desk so that you can alternate between standing and sitting. Both is unhealthy for extended periods of time, but alternating will distribute the strain on your body better. I have the SKARSTA desk from IKEA for about 220€ and I think it is an adequate solution. I would not go for electric solutions that are twice as expensive.

  • Position the mouse as close to the keyboard as possible.

  • Position your keyboard in a way that your elbows have an angle of ca. 90-100 degrees.

  • To achieve that you might need to adjust your chair up. If your feet can’t touch the ground, get a foot rest (I got a cheap one for 7€, anything will do, as long as your feet stand on something with the knees in a 100 degree angle).

  • Watch your sitting posture, try sitting straight. If your chair does not assist you, get a so called lumbar support which will stabilize your back (I got a cheap one for 4€).

  • Take regular breaks, stand up and move around. Exercise to strengthen your muscles, especially your back.

  • Don’t let your wrists hang while typing. Move your hands away from keyboard and mouse when not typing.

  • Especially think about getting an ergonomic keyboard (many suggest the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 as an affordable and good option) and remap some hard to reach but often used keys to better positions.

  • Do not ever use the feature of normal keyboards to tilt them up. This upward tilt of the upper side is bad for your wrists. You actually want to have negative tilt away from you, by lifting the bottom part of the keyboard up, if at all. This leads to a more natural wrist angle.

The keyboard hunting

In my quest for the perfect, efficient and healthy work setup I spent most of the time learning about keyboards, as this is my primary interface to computers and it better be good. I never expected it to be such a science for itself, not even starting to talk about alternative layouts (QWERTY is not optimized for human beings, but for old mechanical typewriters!). The main points are:

  • 90% of the keyboards you come across are cheap, crappy rubber dome keyboards, but most people, especially who do not type a lot, rightfully don’t care.

  • Keyboards of higher-class laptops are using so called scissor switches, which can be quite decent, like on better ThinkPads of the T and X series.

  • The most expencive keyboards use mechanical switches, register a lot of keys pressed simultaniously, are very durable, but are generally more noisy.

  • Aside from switches there are factors like split/non-split, symmetry, thumb keys, normal vs matrix style, etc.

I read about a lot of keyboards, each one being a different set of up- and downsides:

The mentioned MS Natural Ergonomic 4000 seems to be a fine entry choice, but is a rubber dome keyboard and some people complain about a hard space bar. It features a split layout and a lot of media keys for < 50€.

The Typematrix is a symmetrical, split keyboard with scissor switches for about 100€, it is the cheapest matrix-style keyboard I found, but it does not have an angle between the keyboard sides and thus is not optimal for the wrist position.

There are keyboards with mechanical Cherry switches with at least 6-key-rollover in a price range from 60-200€, like the more prominent Das Keyboard and many others, but they are pretty regular formed keyboards without ergonomic optimizations. As I am doing it mainly for the ergonomics, this is not an option for me.

What I knew soon was that I wanted a mechanical, symmetrical, split, matrix-style keyboard for an affordable price. Well, it turns out, there is no such thing.

There is the Kinesis Advantage — it has everything I demand, but looks kind of clumsy. Many people seem to like it a lot, but you can only join the club for > 300$, way too much for a radical keyboard I am not even sure is my thing.

There is the ErgoDox, which looks like almost exactly what I want, is Open Source, but is only available as a DIY-kit for 250€ and right now not available at all. If it was available and a bit cheaper, this would be my choice.

And then there is the also very good looking, self-proclaimed Truly Ergonomic Computer Keyboard (TECK). It is not completely split like the ErgoDox (which is not necessarily bad) but has also most of the features I want, only lacking special thumb keys, like the ErgoDox or Kinesis Advantage have. While not Open Source, it still is reprogrammable, which is a nice feature to have. Downsides are: The 250$ price tag, people complaining about doubled key presses and rather crappy support from the manufacturer.

The end of the story

“Screw them all!”, I thought, and was almost about to buy the MS Natural, looking for cheap ones on Ebay. And then — what a fortunate twist of fate — I saw a guy from Ireland selling a new Truly Ergonomic model 207 with brown Cherry switches! I’d rather have the 209 with 2 more keys, but after a few minutes of thinking my first bid was placed and long story short — now I own a TECK for 150€ including shipping costs! This seems finally like a fair price for a good keyboard I could pay without having any regrets.

And I think it has been the right thing to do. I can’t even describe how right it feels to type on a matrix-style keyboard! And the switches have a nice, light feel and aren’t too loud. I also decided to learn a new, sane keyboard layout, as the TECK needs some time for getting used to anyway. So I am typing with the Neo2 layout, which is ergonomically optimized for German, English and special symbol entry for programming. If you type various braces and parenthesis a lot and ocassionally need greek symbols, do yourself a favor and give it a fair try.

I also did experience the double-keypress issue, but was solved by flashing the newest firmware. I tweaked the layout of the TECK just a bit, for better modifier access with Neo, which has six(!) different layers. I like typing with Neo on my TECK and for now the only downside I see is, it spoils having to work with “normal” keyboards forever.

UPDATE 2017: I still use Neo2, it’s heaven! Please, do yourself a favour and check it out! Also, already for some time there exists the awesome ErgoDox EZ, a prebuilt ErgoDox with 2 years warrenty. I got one for work, with blank black sculpted keys, crispy-clicky blue Cherry switches, including “tenting kit” (to create a negative tilt) and wrist rests. After tweaking the layout for a few hours I can confirm – it’s the best keyboard I know of and is exactly what I wanted all along! The TECK is now my keyboard for home and travel, as it is quite portable after removing its attached wrist rest.