I am writing from something that you would more likely expect to see in the control center at SpaceX than in the sticks of central Virginia. This newly built office getup, in which I now live, has more controls and options and comfort than I even knew was possible. What? I shouldn’t be finishing my work day hunched over and sore? What? I mean, yes, I knew I was supposed to take breaks throughout the day to stand. My watch reminds me with a slight tone of passive aggression each hour. Not the more blatantly aggressive tone that pings me on occasion, typically at 11:47pm and ordering me on a brisk 12 minute walk to close my exercise rings, but still…I typically click dismiss to the stand request and move on. The stand reminder often arrives just after I’ve finally found a comfortable position at my desk and the thought of unfolding is enough to dissuade me from answering the suggestion. Plus, if the reminder comes mid-project, well, forget it.
This is the story of the Ma’am Cave Command Center.
It started in a squeaky wheel attempt to acquire a much needed chair for my home office. In my mind, that acquisition was one that would be handled by and at my company’s expense. It started out as a hill-to-die-on and landed me way out of my ergonomic league. It ended with a newfound comfort and a long forgotten feeling of looking forward to spending time at my desk. Did I just say that I look forward to spending time at my desk? Yes, you read that correctly.
Twelve years ago: In 2009, I was shifted to Remote Employee status by my at-the-time company. That’s what we were called before the pandemic – Remote Employees. That changed during the pandemic when we became rebranded as Work-From-Home (WFH) people. You can actually tell who among us had a home office prior to 2020 by what they call themselves, Remote or WFH. At the time, my company blessed me with a seven hundred dollar stipend (which came with no instructions and was dumbed down by taxes) to set up my workspace. I happily strolled into the OfficeMax for a desk, chair, mouse, mousepad, desk lamp, wrist pad, big plug thing, pens, notebooks, and the best dot matrix printer that money could buy. I strolled out of the OfficeMax with nothing after realizing that my budget would have been blown almost immediately with the purchase of a few nice pens. I strolled into Walmart instead. I strolled out of Walmart with a desk, a regular ribbon printer, and a few office supplies. Eight (ish) years later, we Remote Employees were able to sign up for a monthly stipend to maintain our home offices in the form of around (pre-tax) thirty dollars. Not much you can do with it, but nobody said no. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a fairly decent office chair already which I was able to pilfer from a job that I had resigned from five years (and one job) prior.
It’s an estimate, but I believe that chair was nearly two decades old when I began my quest for a new one.
Three years ago: 2018. Same chair. That aging chair was becoming a bit unwelcoming. I often finished the workday with a sore back or a butt that had been asleep for so long that it had reached coma status. I reached out to my at-the-time manager to ask about ordering a replacement. After a few more pushes, I was reminded that I’d gotten a stipend years prior. Yes. The stipend. For seven hundred (pre-tax) dollars. I wasn’t asking for a lazy boy, mind you. I just wanted approval to expense around a hundred bucks so I could return to the furniture department at Wally World. Could I have bought the chair without the company’s financial aid? Sure. But as I spent at least forty hours a week in my home-office office-chair dedicated to my company, it seemed like a drop in their corporate bucket. Small side note: Just prior to this request, my at-the-time company was purchased by a much larger company. Our new corporate bucket did have much tighter purse strings, but I hadn’t realized yet that unlocking the piggy bank would be quite so difficult.
I was a bit miffed at the total blow off and did push a few more times, but was pushed back with each attempt in a very asked and answered way. I approve of this method when speaking to my children, but not so much in the case of corporate life. Adding salt to the wound were the regular announcements from our internal marketers with exciting news about how well the company was doing financially and how we were having our best month/quarter/year/decade in history. If only those gabillions of dollars could translate all the way to the back office.
Which is how I landed on the hill I would refuse to die on.
I did start testing out different cushions or folded up blankets on my chair. It would work briefly, but never for long. I reluctantly bought a few orthopedic seat cushions. Also, no dice.
Two years ago: When, in 2019, I’d been moved to another new manager, I decided to make another run at it. The timing seemed perfect as 2020 began with most of our company’s employees being sent to work from home due to the pandemic. I heard stories of those gypsies backing their cars up to the loading docks in order to take home office furniture. Surely, this was my moment! Except it wasn’t. I was reminded, again, that I’d been given a stipend ten years prior. For seven hundred (pre-tax) dollars. But all was not lost. I was given the go ahead to drive to a local office for a chair. Eureka! Except the two most local offices were three hours away and were also closed due to the pandemic. I submitted a request to facilities for intel on how to make this move. I had no real interest in a six hour (roundtrip) drive unless I knew that I would be able to get past the front door, leave with a chair, and that said chair would fit in my car. No dice again.
In the meantime, I put a second chair in my office so that I could switch them in and out when my body started collapsing into itself. This was a wooden kitchen chair with zero support or cushioning. The fact that it sometimes felt better than my office chair was a sign as to how dire the situation was becoming. My butt had now made such an (two decade) impression in my regular chair that there were screws pushing through the seat bed. At least my tetanus shot would be covered, right?
One year ago: Light bulb moment! I made a third failed attempt at Chair Gate. Denied, as expected. I had sussed out the Human Resources portion of our corporate web page in preparation for this rejection and learned that it was possible to request an ergonomic evaluation of one’s office environment. I was terrified to push the request button, sure that it would end with a pink slip (okay, squeaky wheel…just hit the road…). I was afraid that I would completely piss off both my manager and their manager and maybe the one above that. I went back and forth with my husband on whether or not to go for it. He was always a yes, reminding me of my histories of both wrist and back problems. I asked for doctor’s notes just to make sure I was really justified to stay on this hill. All doctors agreed that a person of my age should, at the very least, have the evaluation.
I finally pushed the button.
Today: Today I am the proud owner of an ergonomic chair, a sit/stand desk that adjusts to my height requirements with the push of a button, an adjustable footrest, a keyboard meant to give the user a more relaxed typing position, a mouse that could have come from outer space, two monitors mounted on dual arms and sitting at an assigned eye level as determined by the angel who spend a year working through my disastrous ergonomic evaluation. Wait, was I supposed to buy all of this equipment twelve years ago with my seven hundred (pretax) dollars? Or was it to be obtained with my thirty (pre-tax) dollar monthly stipend? Either way, I would have had no idea where to even begin in setting this up.
I learned, shortly after pushing the button, that my company actually has people on staff who are tasked with making sure its employees are comfortable. What the what?! I learned, over the course of nearly a year, that getting comfortable did not end with a simple Add to Cart on Amazon. I have taken dozens of pictures of my workspace (with me as the staring subject) and have had twice as many conversations with my assigned ergo-saint. The first quarter of the process was mainly made up of her repeated what-the-what’s over my current equipment, none of which were even close to be ergonomically acceptable. It was frustrating and time consuming – each picture meant a cleaning up of my workspace so that she could really see my nest without seeing the mess. There were tape measures and rulers involved. There were suggestions for adding more cushions or books under a mousepad or placing my keyboard in my desk drawer to get it to the right height (which, of course, involved emptying my desk drawer). There were many times when I was minutes away from saying you know what, forget it, I just don’t have time to make this my part time job.
But by then, I was firmly planted on that hill.
After six months, we had a finished evaluation. We also had a list of recommendations which included an ergonomic chair, a sit/stand desk, a footrest, a keyboard, a mouse, and two monitors mounted on dual arms. I scoffed when I read it as I knew that none of this would ever be approved for purchase. This woman did not give up. This woman was insistent. My manager was not nearly as excited about the evaluation as I was and I started another shuffle around cost centers to see who would be footing the bill. It was suggested to me numerous times that I buy the equipment out of pocket and then ask for reimbursement or claim it on my taxes. After years of denial on this project, I definitely wasn’t going to bank on a reimbursement. This woman stood by me, demanding to my managers that we get this project wrapped up.
And, eventually, it was.
Today, again: My Ergo-Wonder-Woman and I broke up last week. I was actually kind of sad.
We had spent the better part of a year together in the search for a land of Work From Home comfort. When the equipment was finally ordered and had arrived, I drove her bananas in not putting it together as I wanted to be sure that I was, in fact, reimbursed. In the end, I did have to order it myself. I was permitted to use my corporate card, though, which made me feel a bit more confident in how things might end. Yes, I was reimbursed. Yes, I did throw thirty-two tantrums in the assembly process. Yes, my husband did find me on my office floor in tears at one point, yammering about how I no longer want to be ergonomic while fighting to figure out an Allen Wrench. After assembly, the picture taking began anew. I stopped short of planting one of our children in my office for a day to dedicate themselves to workplace photography. After many shifts and slides and raising this or lowering that, my workspace was deemed perfect.
And it is.
I love it. I have spent more in-a-row time at my desk in the last two weeks than I probably have in the last two years. It’s awesome. It was absolutely worth the fight. Except, really, there shouldn’t have been a fight at all. Right? When you dedicate the bulk of your life to doing well at your job (and I do my job very well), shouldn’t it be a given that it doesn’t have to be physically painful or damaging? The constant push back was odd, yes, but it also gave me a vibe that my managers thought I was trying to pull one over on them. That perhaps I was trying to get a free chair to, what, sell on eBay for a profit? I know I am lucky. If it came down to it, I really would have eventually purchased my own chair. I am lucky because we can afford it. I know that not all of my co-workers are in the same boat. I know of one who, right this very minute, is using a milkcrate for (non) comfort because that was cheap and easy. Even so, if left to my own wallet, I’d have only purchased a chair. I had no idea that ergonomics went so far beyond how one sits while working – that there are sight line requirements and elbow versus shoulder angles and monitor to eye distance recommendations. I haven’t even put on my computer glasses since wrapping up this project because I no longer need them to read my screens. Why? Because they are finally in the right dang place!
This morning, I received my annual notice that the latest training videos on code of conduct and best practices and newly released products would be available soon. At least once per week, I am encouraged to visit our wellness app for tips on eating right or moving more. I wonder, now, why proper positioning at our desks is not included in any of this. Why is the space in which we spend most of our company related time is essentially ignored? The place where being uncomfortable bleeds into our efficiency and output and desire to continue clicking the keyboard or sitting on calls. It seems like this would be a topic that we should put at the top of the health and wellness pyramid rather than extending an oh, you again eye roll when asked for a new chair.
Today, one more time: I feel a little sad at the jealousy in my husband’s eyes. He visits my office several times a day now to ogle my workspace. He thinks it’s funny to press one of the desk height presets and watch me scramble to keep typing while it raises or lowers. His workspace includes a desk with two legs missing so that it can be propped up on one side by a bookshelf. He sits on a mushroom purchased from Ikea five years ago. I feel a little sad at the jealousy in his eyes. That’s a lie. I’m not sad at all.
I just think he should push the button.