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Mobile working requires better ergonomic adjustment

Thinking about the task, not only the kit


Small, all-in-one devices are booming. In terms of sales, small laptops and tablets have now overtaken traditional desktop computers. This is in line with modern trends. People want to be more mobile, be able to work more efficiently and have their tools with them wherever they go. According to Hugo Bos (see right), this is a logical trend - yet one that comes with new challenges. In particular, are the devices sufficiently geared to their users and the jobs at hand?

Some countries use the term 'Human Factors' to refer to ergonomics. This does in fact provide get much closer to the intrinsic meaning of ergonomics, compared to how most companies approach this discipline.

Ergonomics is not just about setting up specific workplaces with comfortable chairs, tables adjusted to the right height and ergonomically shaped computer mice, in other words: the adjustment to the user, in terms of physical aspects. The playing field is much wider than that.

Ergonomics is about the human factor as a whole in different work situations and environments. This therefore includes the adjustment to the task of the user. Hence ergonomic experts assist staff to ensure that specific work tasks are carried out with a maximum of efficiency, effectiveness and comfort.

Within that framework, smaller devices such as smartphones, tablets and mini laptops put ergonomics in an altogether new perspective. These devices certainly contribute to a better adjustment towards certain tasks, but in many cases they do not. After all, editing an Excel worksheet on your iPad is not particularly efficient or even easy.

All-in-one equals convenience ...

The huge popularity of small devices can be attributed to their all-in-one character. A smartphone, tablet or mini laptop has simply been made to carry out any feasible task a user can wish for: emailing, surfing the internet, agenda management, navigating, word processing, listening to music and making calls via the standard telephone network or the internet. All these features have subsequently been cast into a format that you can simply take with you to a meeting, which you conjure up out of your bag in a roadside restaurant, or which you can put on your bedside table to check your emails immediately after you wake up.

In addition, all the 'old' controllers have been integrated in these smart devices at the same time. After all, a touch screen serves as screen, keyboard and mouse in one. And as a finishing touch: its user-friendliness is also extremely high thanks to three-button or even single-button operation. To sum it all up in one word: fantastic. Still, every benefit comes with its downside. The truth is that a device that can do it all is not necessarily the right choice for all tasks.

... but there is a flipside of 'can-do-it-alls'

Take this very moment in time, for example. I am not writing this article on a smartphone or tablet, but on a laptop supported by a laptop stand. And I am typing the text on a separate keyboard, using all my ten fingers. Why? I want to do the task in hand - writing a proper article - as efficiently, effectively and comfortably as possible. That is my current objective.

And not only is typing a 1000-word article with two fingers on a tablet touch screen wholly unproductive, it also leads to physical complaints. This is because my body was not built to write long articles with a tablet on my lap. Yet a lot of people more and more use their mini laptop or tablet as a can-do-it-all device than is deemed healthy, thereby largely ignoring the ergonomic departure point of 'the right tool for a specific task'.

Empirical research demonstrates that such irrational work behaviour leads to discomfort and inefficiency. It is the latter aspect in particular that you do not expect when thinking of these small smart devices. Yet the weakest link in all this is the human being. We are not sufficiently aware of the health effects. Typing on a tablet, for example, takes longer and generates more typos, as is clear from research conducted by Chaparro (2010). And when the tablet is flat on its back, the neck and shoulder muscles are put under considerably more strain, as concluded by Shin & Zhu (2011).

So the key question is: what can you do to provide staff with maximum support in the execution of all their tasks when they frequently use small devices?

Ergonomics for the small ones

The first problem-solving approach is staring you right in the face. As an employer, you can make quick gains if you provide staff with compact mobile auxiliary devices that are compatible with their new devices. Examples include an integrated laptop stand. This stand is mostly hidden from view, is mounted underneath your mini laptop and simply unfolds. This considerably increases work comfort when taking an hour to answer emails.

Such accessories certainly make mobile working more comfortable and efficient, yet do not altogether convert your device in a fully-fledged workplace as required by law. More is needed for that. The screen of a mini laptop is simply too small for a lot of tasks and it is better to connect a separate (large) VDU. In addition, you need a separate keyboard and mouse.

Inline working

Working ergonomicallySometimes a laptop stand with document holder is desired, particularly for users frequently working with paper documents. This stimulates so-called 'inline' working: working on a single horizontal view line, as the paperwork is aligned to your VDU viewing height. This promotes the effectiveness of the job and ensures you maintain a natural working posture.

These days, laptop stands with document holder come in fully foldable versions for 12" laptops, which you can simply bring along as they are made of lightweight materials. Note: this option does also require a separate compact keyboard. I would recommend heavy-duty tablet users use a special tablet stand that you place upright on the table. This enables you, for example, to view YouTube from a convenient angle.

If you want to do more on your tablet than surfing the net and watching videos, a Bluetooth compact keyboard compatible with multiple Bluetooth devices (iPad, iPhone, laptop, etc.) is the answer. The above auxiliary devices become an integratd part of your device, enabling you to simply increase effectiveness on a lot of the jobs you carry out on it.

Fully-fledged workplace

A second approach to improve the ergonomic aspect of small devices is offering a fully-fledged workplace as an extra: flexible, at home or fixed. This will support doing all those tasks for which a tablet, mini laptop or hybrid laptop is less suitable. Such tasks include writing long articles or frequently switching between multiple applications.

You can choose between two variants:

  1. in addition to a mini laptop, the staff member is given a home-based device such as a desktop computer; or
  2. the employee uses a docking station instantly converting his laptop into a fully-fledged workplace with large screen, comfortable mouse and separate keyboard.

A cloud-based IT infrastructure may be desirable to support either option i.e. all necessary data and software can stored in a secure internet environment, and available to you whever you are .

More adjustment needed

To summarise: new devices certainly offer additional all-in-one options. Yet at the same time they force us to carefully consider as to whether a certain configuration is indeed the most suitable for a specific task. Ultimately, users want to do their work while enjoying the highest levels of effectiveness, efficiency and comfort.

 


 

ergonomics - working with laptop stand
 

June 2013

 

About the author

Hugo Bos - ergomics expert

Our guest author is Hugo Bos, chairman of the Dutch Ergonomics Society and advisor of ergonomic specialist BakkerElkuizen.

For further information, please visit www.bakkerelkhuizen.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

posture diagram

 

 


 

 

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