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Agile solutions

Darren Hilliker, Architecture & Design Manager at CMD Ltd, discusses the risks of poor ergonomics in hot desking and agile working environments and suggests some solutions

With both the Government and many employers keen to get people back into the office after so much disruption and so many false dawns, the FM sector is grappling with the challenges of what the office needs to look like now. Not only is there a continuing emphasis on keeping everyone safe from the virus, there has also been a cultural shift. Few employers or employees expect a return to old office layouts or pre-pandemic work routines.

The agile office we used to talk about now needs to be a reality. It must provide workers with the flexibility to turn up, plug in and get on with their job for as many days a week as their company policy mandates, or where more choice is permitted, in line with their own preferences. The pandemic and the homeworking revolution it brought about have been the catalyst required to making hot desking more accepted. And at a time when climate change is high on the media and political agenda, hot desking practices must also align with many company’s sustainability goals from the paperless office to reduced carbon emissions due to fewer journeys to work.

For the FM, the task is complex, involving new layouts, changes to building services, desk booking systems and cleaning regimes. Amongst all of those practical considerations, it’s important to keep sight of the employee and what it means for their wellbeing when they are potentially using a different workstation every day.

Emotional and physical impact

With all the stresses and strains of lockdowns and furlough, much of the wellbeing focus for employers has been on mental rather than physical health. The isolation of working from home, against a backdrop of health concerns, financial insecurity and the upheaval of routines has taken its toll on people’s mental and emotional wellbeing, so it’s no wonder this has taken priority.

But when implementing agile working strategies and hot desking layouts to enable employees to combine homeworking with hot desking, FMs and employers need to consider what it means for employees’ physical wellbeing. Workers may have to adjust to sitting at a different workstation each day, potentially involving a different seat, desk and screen configuration. This not only involves cerebral and emotional challenges as each worker adjusts to no longer having a dedicated, personal workspace, it also requires consideration of the impact on their posture as they adapt to a new workstation every time they enter the office.

It may seem like a minor issue after what we’ve all been through during the past two years; after all, many have been perched at the edge of a kitchen worktop or crammed into the corner of a spare bedroom. However, people have had the time and opportunity now to adjust their work area and working routine at home. Conversely, the return to the office after COVID will be the first time many have experienced hot desking, which involves fitting a standard workstation to their own, non-standard dimensions and comfort requirements each time they sit down to work.

Because office workers come in all shapes and sizes and their roles involve a wide variety of tasks, adaptability is the only way to make generic workstations work for all. Consequently, FMs not only need to consider the workstation and seating requirements of hot desking environments, but also the need for easily adjustable monitor arms and laptop stands. Each worker needs to be able to tailor their own workstation to enable comfort and productivity and they need to be able to do it quickly and easily.

Why is an ergonomic workstation so important?

Working at a screen that is too low, too high or in a position that causes the user to twist to see it properly can result in poor posture and, over time, this can lead to musculoskeletal strain and ergonomic injury. Conditions caused by poor workstation ergonomics include neck and back strain, RSI (repetitive strain injury), tendinitis and tennis elbow, and the impact can range from discomfort to pain that results in reduced productivity or time off work. It is estimated that a third of workplace injuries in office environments are due to ergonomic factors(i).

Part of the problem with ergonomic injuries, however, is that people don’t always realise that poor ergonomics at their workstation is compromising their posture and putting strain on their body. They may compensate for an awkward seating position or screen height by hunching over their keyboard, twisting their spine or looking up at their screen, all of which can cause damage. In a hot desking environment, it is not possible to do an ergonomic assessment every time a new user starts work at the workstation, so the only solution is to specify equipment that can be easily adjusted for plug-and-play customisation by the user.

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