The Future of the Ergonomic Workplace

Our workplaces are rapidly changing. But according to a recent report, ergonomic design is simply not keeping up. The report published by the US office furniture giant Haworth claims most company's offices still resemble the cubicle farms from 20 years ago.

But it's not just our workplaces that are changing. The very nature of work is too. Modern technology has enabled us to work from anywhere, and a growing portion of that work is social and collaborative. And that's a problem, says the report. Traditional ergonomics does not speak to group spaces or even work groups. This has led to collaborative spaces developing without ergonomic guidance and employers are failing to provide high performance, safe workplaces for their workforce.


Collaborative work

has now reached the same levels as individual desk work, which means employees are moving between a wide variety of spaces, both formal and informal, much more frequently than ever before. Especially younger workers expect a variety of interactions in their workspaces, rather than what they consider to be the old-fashioned 'heads-down desk work' from days gone by.


Ergonomics is a design discipline which focusses on the creation of environments, processes and products that provide physical support to the people that use them during their work. Traditionally, ergonomics concentrates on solo workstations an assumes the employee will more or less stay in one place throughout the entire work period. Ergonomics concerns itself with seating posture and includes factors like the height of an employee's desk, the position of the hands and wrists on the keyboard, and the distance between the eyes and the computer screen.


It has long been accepted

that correct posture can improve employee health and productivity, while poor posture is associated with eye strain, back pain and many other problems. But in our modern workplaces standing desks, hot-desking, the casual couch and calm spaces for short but intense bursts of focused work, plus collaborative, more noisy spaces are becoming more and more common.


Today's ergonomics, says the report, is stuck with the image of people sitting at their desks with knees and waists at 90-degrees, and their wrists in a neutral position. Little has changed, and ergonomics certainly doesn't talk about people actually moving through buildings. The result is that with regard to design education and regulation, the ergonomic discipline is falling behind, and should be replaced with something called Active Ergonomics. This new approach applies a wider range of ergonomic principles across the entire office space, instead of concentrating on individual work spaces.


Ergonomic design has always

played an important role in employee wellbeing and performance. Active Ergonomics focusses on three main areas: anthropometrics, ambients, and movement. The first area looks at how our bodies react to our immediate environments. Ambients relate to the condition of our environment and take into consideration factors such as light, air quality, temperature and noise levels. The final area, movement, covers everything involved in how an employee moves from one space to another, and how they adjust their posture to suit any given task.


For example, seated work in a collaborative setting can often involve sudden postural changes, like twisting in your seat to hand someone a document. Active Ergonomics will address such issues and strive to ensure that casual furniture and accessories support these movements. The report claims the new discipline can also be applied in the workspace and office design process by examining the legibility of a space.


Legibility is how easy it is to understand and navigate a workspace. A factor which is key when employees move through different office environments and is in strong contrast to the archaic cubicle farms with monotonous floor plans in regular layouts.


Poor legibility of a floor plan

has been linked to poor employee health, says the report, and is a fundamental component In Active Ergonomics as it puts employee's needs first, and creates a positive work experience where it is easy to locate the right workspace.


Above all else, an office layout should create a predictable flow that makes it easy for employees to find their way around and actually find the right working space for the task they need to perform. The approach will result in an office that can offer different types of furniture, textures, signage and other architectural features that can double as landmarks for workers to make a mental map of their spaces. These elements can also be used to indicate quiet environments for increased focus work, private areas for formal meetings, and collaborative spaces with a more boisterous yet relaxed atmosphere.


Industrial designer, Carlo Shayeb of ITO,

the German design studio, is convinced that good ergonomic design can work hand in hand with Active Ergonomics to make people happier and healthier in their working environments. ITO are ergonomic office chair specialists and have been collaborating with Haworth for quite over a decade.


Both parties still insist, however, that there is still a place for the classic office format. But workers should be given multiple seating options, and a choice of in-house work environments to choose from. Physical comfort is, after all,  a fundamental part of an employee's well-being at work, and should come before any other performance-enhancing characteristics are introduced into his or her space. The report also cited research into general happiness at work and drew the conclusion that if the definition of happiness is feeling comfortable and relaxed in your working space, then Active Ergonomics could definitely help create happier employees.


But like other initiatives

that have tried in the past to create a better, safer and more enjoyable environment for workers, it remains to be seen if the companies and businesses who have to pay for the improvements and modifications are as committed to the task as the report suggests they should be.


Haworth is one of the largest office space designers and furniture manufacturers in the world. Based in Allegan, Michigan, the company's sales topped $1.8 billion dollars in 2014. Haworth employs 7000 workers and is the world's third largest manufacturer of office furniture.

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