The most ergonomic way to use a laptop is to set yourself up as if you were on your desktop: Have a separate keyboard and mouse for entry, and use the screen for your view. That way you can use risers to get your screen at the proper height and still maintain a good shoulder, elbow and wrist posture. As well, with the screen in the right position, your sitting posture should improve.
That being said, if you follow those directions, many of you would lose the primary benefit you feel from having a laptop. As designed, the laptop is portable, and it’s size and ‘compactness’ allows you to use it in places you could never operate if you needed a separate keyboard and mouse- such as airports, public transport, your couch, or your bed. In general, these work places are short term and the temporary poor positions should not bother you unless you already have an injury. Tips for business are scattered throughout. All principles apply no matter where you are.
Primary frequent or longer term work is probably done in ‘work nests’ at home. How do you make your work nest (or game-playing nest) a place where you can be comfortable and avoid stressing your upper extremities?
Your position begins with good back support. You need to have your trunk supported so that your sitting posture is no more than 25° in recline. In any case, you need to have good support for your lower back. In a recline, you also need to have your upper back and neck supported in a good posture. Sorry, no beanbag chair.
The next concern is your legs. For a short time, almost any position will be fine. Longer than 15 or 20 minutes you need to consider where the weight of your legs is being carried. Are you touching the floor and weight-bearing through your feet? Is a large portion of the weight carried near the edge of the thing you are sitting on? If this is so, you may run into a problem.
If you notice that your feet or legs tend to ‘go to sleep’, then you are inadvertently cutting of blood supply to your lower legs and feet. OK for a short time. Not OK if repeated frequently or held for long periods. Sitting cross-legged? The same conditions apply (15 – 30 minutes maybe OK: Hours, not a good idea. If you are in an airplane, stand up for a few minutes, stretch, maybe walk the aisle, then sit down.
Next, you need to be able to view the screen without craning or excessively flexing your neck. If you watching the TV during the show and use your computer during commercials, you may actually be fine. For 15 minutes of TV you only have 10 minutes work, maximum – but when you rest, take your hands off the computer and mouse and rest.
Arm and hand positions are the next concern. You need to have sufficient freedom of movement in the shoulders and elbows that your shoulders, elbows, fingers and wrists do not end up in awkward, scrunched position. The best solutions for this are the laptop tables and supports. Some are like short legged small desks. Many are large enough to accommodate a separate mouse.
An alternate style can be very effective if you work in bed. These are more like hospital table, but thin and flexible enough to allow angling of your laptop, bringing the screen higher to minimize neck flexion. Additionally, if you are in a somewhat reclined position, the angle of the keys can be appropriate. (There are some folding tables as small as a music stand that work well for travel).
I’ve included a sample product for each basic type of laptop support at the bottom of this article. These are mid-range prices. The Amazon site this takes you to also carrys cheaper and more expensive models.
Remember, since your goal is to get support, the item needs to be sturdy enough to be steady against the small movement adjustments you naturally make in any posture - as well as the force from your keystrokes and mousing. A little give, OK. A minor earthquake, not so good.
I’ll include the back supports in a general article on back supports to come out soon. I will also be doing an article on Travel Ergonomics in the near future.