Founder Diary

November 15, 2022

Laptops for WFH? Think again.

Laptops for WFH? Think again.

Let’s face it, laptops just don’t cut it for work from home.

A hamster is sitting a desk working on his mobile phone in place of a desktop computer. A keyboard and a mouse are connected to the phone.
A hamster is sitting a desk working on his mobile phone in place of a desktop computer. A keyboard and a mouse are connected to the phone.
A hamster is sitting a desk working on his mobile phone in place of a desktop computer. A keyboard and a mouse are connected to the phone.
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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Laptop /ˈlaptɒp/, noun — a portable battery-powered computer.

Welcome to the age of laptops. The numbers leave little room for doubt.

According to Statista:

  • Worldwide laptop sales surged 28% in 2020 and again 24% in 2021 to 276.8 million units.

  • Desktops, on the other hand, declined from 94 million units in 2019 to just 80.6 million in 2021, and the trend is expected to continue.

  • For context, tablets spiked in 2020, but saw a decline in 2021 to 159.5 million units, with sales expected to keep stagnating.

A table showing desktop, laptop and tablets sales from 2010 to 2025 (projected). Souce:

Judging by this data, it may seem people enthusiastically embraced portability as a key factor for their computing needs. Employers, schools, and colleges wholeheartedly supported this pivot.

But there’s another set of facts:

  • As the pandemic set it, work from home (WFH) has “gone viral.” Depending on how you count, between 45% and 58% of the workforce in the United States now work remotely at least one day a week.

  • According to McKinsey, who came up with the latter number, 35% of people have the option to WFH five days a week and a whopping 87% seize the opportunity to go at least partly remote if given the choice.

  • Finally, Gallup says a quarter of the workforce already works exclusively from home.

In other words, we’re in the midst of a rapid transition to a setting that’s the opposite of portable.

Without getting into the decades-old laptop vs. desktop debate… is it just me or there’s something very wrong going on here?

We’ve enthusiastically switched to a stationary setting, yet our buying choices imply we’re increasingly on the move.

What strikes me though is that two critical productivity factors, health and ergonomics, often get lost in the mix.

Jack of all trades, master of none

I get it, the idea of working anywhere, especially at places like a coffee shop, is irresistibly sexy. It implies freedom and independence. At times, it may even almost feel like not work anymore.

To me, coffee shops are the worst combination of distractions imaginable. If you want cool Instagram shots, sure, but if you actually want to get things done, run Forest, run!

Yet, a quick search on Unsplash reveals a huge collection of images confirming the persistent allure of working in all kinds of non-traditional environments and twisted body positions.

4 people working on laptops with bad posture: on sofas, on the floor and at a coffee shop

If we brush aside the technical and price side of things, why exactly do laptops stack up poorly against a traditional desktop setup?

  • The screens and keyboards on laptops are rigidly fixed, impossible to adjust independently by height or distance. If you attempt to set the screen at an ergonomically sound height (the upper edge just above eye level) and distance (roughly your extended arm), your keyboard is going to be way too high and way too far. Of course, you can connect an external keyboard, but there’s little you can do to avoid straining your eyes once a small screen is that far off. If, on the other hand, you put the keyboard where it belongs, you’re inevitably looking down instead of straight ahead.

  • The constrained posture of laptop use results in increased head tilt, neck flexion, slouched shoulders, and eye fatigue compared to desktops. This has been known since at least early 1990s. Time and again, multiple, and more recent studies, confirmed that, compared to desktops, laptop use is associated with increased risks of musculoskeletal complaints, especially discomfort and pain in the neck, shoulders, and back.

  • All of it affects people attempting to stay in a correct position. But portability also becomes an excuse to work away from your workstation, including sitting on soft surfaces or even lying down (which is arguably the worst posture imaginable). And because of increased fatigue, you can’t stay comfortable in non-neutral positions for long. Apart from the health issues, that in itself becomes a distraction, hurts your focus and presence, impacting overall productivity.

Sorry, just the facts.

So what?

Of course there are other non-technical factors — unrelated to ergonomics — that contribute to the decline of the desktop. For example, some people still associate desktops with bulky towers that make little sense anymore unless you’re serious about gaming. Today’s all-in-ones (all components baked into the screen assembly) or tiny boxes (mini desktops) look nothing like your first monster from the 1990s.

Besides, if I can’t afford both a laptop and desktop, I’ll probably buy a laptop to be able to take it everywhere without too much hassle even if the need arises once a year.

But otherwise… let’s face it, laptops just don’t cut it for WFH.

  • Screens considered large for laptops (i.e., 16-17”) are meager compared to the standard 24” for most desktops.

  • Laptop keyboards have a close-to-zero chance of a high ergonomic score.

  • Even the coolest looking stand or any number of external monitors can’t hide the fact that laptops are simply inadequate for long-term work in a stationary setting.

  • Most importantly, the science is clear: prolonged laptop use has a much greater potential to lead to musculoskeletal disorders.

Some of ergonomic drawbacks can (with extra expense) be countered with the help of peripherals. But they can’t be reasonably negated all at once.

Laptops excel at portability. Let them stay there.

And maybe it’s time to show mercy for your own body.

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