Standing to work

· mumblings · geek ·

WorkFit-A raised

Like many people whose work is primarily office and computer based, I spend far too much of my day sitting. Not only do I sit at my office desk at work for much of the day (when I’m not lecturing and so on), I sit at the computer for long periods at home too. I work or do my own thing on the computer at the weekends and in the evening, and I often work from home for at least one day a week. The Mirra chair I use at home is still supremely comfortable, and I have experienced much less frequent problems with back pain since I have been using it, but the fact remains that I need the opportunity to stand more often to work so that more of my muscles get a chance to actually do something.

I have been looking around for sit-stand desks for quite a while, but couldn’t find anything that really suited me well. Part of the reason for that is that they are all very pricey, and I couldn’t justify that kind of expense. They also tend to have a large worksurface area, which would be wonderful if I had a bigger room for my office. As it is, my ‘home office’ is in our spare room, and also has to accommodate a sofa bed (with enough room left over for the guests to get out of bed once the sofa bed is opened), and now also my tiny sewing table. Another more subtle problem was with the range of heights that could be achieved with the sit-stand desks. Most have a minimum height that is actually too tall for me to use comfortably. That would mean that, when sitting, I would have to raise my chair so that my forearms were at the proper angle to use the keyboard, but then use a foot stool so that my feet were on the floor 1. Since I would be going to considerable expense to get an adjustable desk, this seemed like a silly compromise.

Eventually, I came across a different kind of solution: the Ergotron WorkFit-A. This is an articulated arm that mounts to an existing desk and holds an iMac, keyboard and trackpad or mouse (they also make a model for laptops). It solved many of the problems that I had encountered looking for a sit-stand desk, because it would fit on my existing desk without problems, so that it wouldn’t take up too much space. It sticks out a little more in terms of its depth, but that’s not a problem with the configuration of the room (a longer desk would cause much more of an obstruction). It has an integrated keyboard tray, which you can tilt backwards to provide a neutral angle for you wrists, and since the keyboard tray sits about 5-6cm lower than the bottom of the desk it is mounted on (about 10cm lower then the integrated workshelf on the WorkFit), I can at last adjust the height of my chair so that I can sit with my feet flat on the floor (“Look Ma, no footstool!”), and yet have my forearms in a very comfortable position for typing.

WorkFit-A lowered

When you stand, the relationship between the keyboard tray and the screen is naturally preserved. I have heard some people complain (about the iMac generally), that the stand places the screen too low, but I have always found that it works well for me. Certainly, using the WorkFit now, sitting or standing, the top of the monitor is just below the level of my eyes when I am looking straight ahead (as it should be) and the surface of the monitor is one arm length away from my typing position.

Standing to work with the WorkFit is wonderful. Unlike many sit-stand desks, it is not electrically operated, but is held in place by carefully balanced springs and joints (a bit like a heavy-duty anglepoise lamp), so that you just pull up on the work surface to raise it and push down to lower it. In practice, this feels extremely natural, and just becomes a natural part of the action of standing up or sitting down. This is important, because it makes it effortless to change position frequently, as you need to. In contrast, changing the height of an electrically-operated sit-stand desk takes several seconds, which I think might interrupt your flow of work, and discourage you from switching positions. You can also swing the computer and worksurface from one side to the other (which is handy to show someone something or access the ports at the back). You can adjust the force needed to raise or lower it, and it comes preset to hold the weight of an iMac in balance. I have kept the factory settings, which require a firm hand to raise or lower (but not excessive force), as I like it to feel firm.

That brings me to the thing that worried me most when reading reviews of the WorkFit, and stopped me ordering it for quite some time: wobble. Many of the reviews mention that the WorkFit wobbles, or more precisely, bounces, with the action of typing. Some reviewers said that it was slight and you quickly get used to it, particularly if you avoid bashing the keyboard with force. Others clearly found it distracting and could not get used to it. I thought it might annoy me, but in the end decided to give it a go anyway, with the idea that I could return it if I really couldn’t get on with it. Having set everything up now, it is true: there is a little bounce when you type. However, this is reduced to almost nothing if you type with the heels of your hands resting on the keyboard shelf 2. As the keyboard shelf itself can be tilted backwards (the total range of tilt is about 20°) this is very comfortable and feels more ergonomic than hovering your hands over the keyboard as I used to do. In effect, you are damping any resonance that might get set up in the arm by the action of typing. Without that, it’s a bit like walking on a rope bridge: each footfall makes the bridge bounce or swing, and as you unconsciously start timing your steps to match, you amplify the movement. I think it’s probably one of those things you need to try for yourself. Now that I have got used to resting my hands as I type, I find it very natural, and the very slight movement just makes the whole set up feel more ‘alive’ somehow.

The WorkFit is really nicely made in solid aluminium, and fits the iMac perfectly as it is designed to do. It looks nice, feels secure, and has clever features to tuck cables out of the way as much as possible. Unfortunately, the power cable from the iMac can’t be routed through the aperture in the ’elbow’ of the arm like other cables, as the plastic lug on the computer end of the cable doesn’t allow it to fit through, and our chunky UK power plugs will not pass through either. Since Ergotron is a US company (I think), I suspect that they designed it with slimmer US power plugs in mind. As you see in the pictures, I’ve just wrapped some spiral plastic cord wrap around the cables to keep things neat, and this works well. The other advantage of something that attaches to a desk is that you can switch it to another desk if you want to. I should also say that it is quite easy to fit together and set up. The instructions are admirably clear, and most of the pieces click together without tools. They provide a nice little socket wrench and socket sized to fit the bolts that clamp the arm to the desk.

WorkFit-A side view

The most important thing is how it works, or more accurately, how it helps me work. I’ve had it a few weeks now, and absolutely love using it. At the moment I spend about equal amounts of time sitting and standing, alternating between the two as one becomes tiring. I love writing standing up (I’m doing it right now!), and find that it keeps me much more alert and active. I certainly feel that my body is in a more natural mixture of positions throughout the day, and I feel a lot better for it. Now I just need to try to persuade the authorities at work that I need one for my desk at work too! Ergotron make a variety of these WorkFit arms, and one that holds an external monitor via a VESA mount, and has a platform on which I could place my MacBook Air would work fine for me. I won’t hold my breath though — I don’t think that they are very likely to agree. For now, I can at least work comfortably at home, which is a great improvement.

  1. As I have to do at work. The ‘standard’ desk height is just too tall for Hobbits. ↩︎

  2. The front edge of the shelf is gently curved, so this is actually quite comfortable. ↩︎