Take your ergonomically-sound office with you to the Cafe
Digital Nomad Ergonomics is an often overlooked subject that gets little press in between photos of laptops on beaches and hammocks strung betwixt a couple of palms for the blog images and book covers.
But spend all day working on your location irrelevant business, and your body can easily take a beating.
The great compromise of travel usually becomes one of how little you can get away with carrying and still do your work effectively. Not all work can even be done remotely due to the equipment needed or physical spaces required.
But even obvious remote jobs like coders and writers that seem simple enough to do from any laptop or tablet today is a struggle when you don’t have the ideal ergonomic space to physically be for many hours at a stretch.
I’ve gone over the digital nomad software tools I use in an earlier post, as well as equipment considerations and requirements for many styles of work in cafes and remote offices.
Now let’s cover some things to consider carefully as you plan to embark on your life from a backpack with regards to equipment and comfort considerations.
Size Really Does Matter
The biggest challenge you’ll face is the compromise between comfort and having the very best equipment, versus the ability to move around wherever you like and still work.
I’d love to have a giant iMac and a 2nd monitor, but those 27” screens ain’t gonna fit in my GR-2 anytime soon.
I’d love a sweet, race car-comfortable office chair and an electric-powered adjustable standing desk. But too big to carry on a plane, let alone a taxi.
If I go back to having all those comfy things, I won’t be able to move around as easily as I do.
Everything I own is pack-able, and I can set up my office wherever I want to work from each day. That requires some compromise on what I am willing to own.
All those nice things mentioned above aren’t just nice to have or look at, they actually help you work while they also help with your physical health.
Laptops are the Best of Things and the Worst of Things
Laptops are nice and portable, packing a ton of power into a tiny machine you can run a business or twelve from. But they are not designed for healthy long-term use. Most certainly not while on your lap.
Checking your email real quick? Not a big deal. 12 hour days building a website or busting out chapters of your book? Some part of your body will hate you.
The problem with laptops is that the screen is so close to the keyboard. It’s what makes them nice and small, of course. But if you are using the keyboard and need to see the screen at the same time for long periods, you have to compromise.
Either your head is bowed or hunched down, which is horrible for your neck, or your hands and wrists are up high at funky angles, which will lead to carpal tunnel syndrome if you power through the odd positioning long enough to bang out those last 200 blog posts.
The obvious solution becomes to separate the two somehow.
Most of the long-time digital nomads I know end up with at least an external keyboard as a start. This way, your wrists are at an ideal ergonomic angle and place, and you then use something to raise or prop your laptop screen higher for at least closer to eye-level viewing.
There are a bunch of keyboards on the market now that are very capable for remote working, and still small enough to pack and carry in a laptop bag without much extra size and weight to worry about. Gone are the bulky, USB-cabled IBM-sized keyboards of days past.
Most any laptop can pair with a keyboard using it’s built-in Bluetooth (not the ear-thing that douchey guy from the 2000s in line with you at the store is yelling into). If your laptop isn’t Bluetooth capable, at worst you’ll have to use an empty USB port for a keyboard with a dongle.
The Apple Wireless Keyboard is what I most often see in coffee shops, resorts, and co-working spaces. These are ideal as they are Bluetooth, about as thin as a well-built keyboard can practically get (it’s aluminum), and thus takes no extra room in a bag. You won’t go slipping it into your jacket pocket (pipe down, Scott-E-Vest owners. I’m talking about everyone else in the world), but it’s not a chore to add this to your kit.
An added benefit to this one is that they are almost silent while typing away in places where you don’t want to be that guy with the loudest keyboard in the room while everyone else is trying to focus.
It works with a bluetooth-enabled PC, but the layout has some challenges like no Start key.
If you really need one, you can get one of their Magic Trackpads or a Mouse, but it seems most of the ones I see just use the touchpad on the laptop, or a Wacom tablet if they are designers or artists.
A new contender to this category is a well-thought out folding keyboard from the Microsoft. I have yet to get to try one of these in the wild, but just from what I saw on the press about it and the video on their own blog about it, the keyboard looks to solve a bunch of issues digital nomads face.
Certainly the issue of portability is done well with this one. I don’t know how well the split-keys will be received by heavy users. I think I could easily work with it, and look forward to trying one out.
The quick-switch pairing with two devices, so you can quickly switch back and forth between your laptop and your phone is a great feature, as well as the spill-resistance for those of us who must toil in the dangerous world of beverage houses. mmmmmm ( <— ironically, the m key on my keyboard just broke off as I was typing this description of keyboard issues).
As much as I’ve seen this shared around the community lately, a lot of digital nomads are looking forward to this Microsoft folder.
I have always liked their folding Arc Touch Bluetooth Mouse for travel, and the two of these items wouldn’t take up any room in my bag at all.
WayTools TextBlade is the Best Keyboard in the History of Ever
This is the keyboard that made me actually want to put this guide together. My drooling over the Microsoft folder above got back-burnered when I first saw this amazing new keyboard from WayTools.
The obvious advantage is the size. The keyboard is smaller than your phone, yet has full-sized key-spacing (actually similar to a Mac keyboard), but there is so much more in this fresh ground-up design.
Stacks in 2 small sections.
The ergonomics of the angled keys are something I’ve longed for, as touch-typing on the ubiquitous keyboards is not a natural feel. Your wrists have to bend inward to take their home key spots. Microsoft solved this problem many years ago with their famous ergonomic keyboard way back, but it never got widely-accepted in the office.
So this angled layout is simply ideal for ergonomics. I’m sure when I get mine, it will take a little getting used to, for that as well as memorizing all the powerful key combinations, but I’m already re-learning touch-typing on an alternative keyboard layout (Colemak, since it’s the most ergonomic and sensible of all the keyboard layouts).
Type full-speed on any device.
It’s getting great reviews from the press who’ve gotten their fingers on it so far, and it seems to really be pushing the tech boundaries with so many newly-invented concepts.
I haven’t been this excited for a product in a long time.
It’s one problem to solve with an external keyboard, but you still have to prop your laptop up to eye-level for best case scenario ergonomically. At home you can always find a box or a stack of books to set it on, but if you’re on the road, that becomes less doable.
There are a variety of laptop stands all over Amazon. I have not used any that I care to test or that stand out in any way to me. Most of them have home or office use in mind, and are of little use to a traveler or mobile worker.
These will work in a pinch to at least give you a slight angle change and raise your laptop up for better cooling airflow, but not so much to get the screen to eye-level.
Even more basic, if you want a decent ergonomic compromise over a flat laptop and don’t want to have to buy an extra keyboard, this beautifully simple stand elevates your screen somewhat, while tilting the keys to a more comfortable angle.
It is simple, beautiful wood, and packs as flat as anything else.
This is a new concept stand designed by a fellow digital nomad here in Asia. It’s a concept based on using it as a standing desk to bring the laptop to that height while standing at a regular-height sitting desk.
Many co-working spaces and coffee shops only have seated desks, but standing desks are becoming more popular as more and more studies continue to come out about the hazards of sitting for most of our waking lives.
This health-conscious digital nomad was looking for a solution for himself, and came up with this nice design that also doubles as a hard laptop case. He’s trying to raise awareness of it over here on Thunderclap.
Their Kickstarter was popular for good reason. This is a great product for the digital nomad who needs to elevate the screen with a lightweight, small, and sturdy device.
The Roost is sold out as of this writing, but will reveal a new Kickstarter for Version 2 shortly. They promise some better design changes, as well as compatibility with any laptop. I only know one person who has one of these, and he’s on a different island at the moment, so I can’t test it out. But I have heard nothing bad about them, and intend to grab a couple once they become available again.
What works for You and Your Style of Work
There is something to fit everyone’s needs as tech keeps evolving. My ideal Digital Nomad ergonomics solution looks like it will be a TextBlade and a Roost getting added to my kit soon. But there are plenty of other ways to get your work done in any environment without destroying your neck or wrists in the process.
What type of tools would you like to know more about or suggest for a digital nomad whose desk space may change week to week?