Agile workplaces promote movement and variety – but to be effective, office furnishings need to be truly flexible, says Sukhneet Assee, Associate Ergonomist UK & Ireland at Humanscale
The dominance of technology in our daily lives requires office employees to spend much of their time answering emails, writing reports, and participating in web conferences – all of which require prolonged periods of computer use. For the average worker, this has led to an increase in musculoskeletal issues and complaints such as eyestrain, lower back pain and wrist discomfort. In 2017-2018, musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 6.6 million days lost, on average, with each person suffering taking around 14 days off work (1).
More and more organisations are beginning to see the link between worker discomfort, absenteeism, and rising costs. Proactively addressing physical discomfort has become an important business strategy. Enlightened organisations are increasingly looking at the configuration of their spaces to allow for movement, as well as supportive tools such as chairs, sit-stand desks, and flexible monitor arms and task lighting.
It’s not a rarity to see employees tapping away on trains and buses, even walking down the street. Walk in to any coffee shop and you’ll see ad hoc workplaces everywhere, with people hunched over their laptops, flexing their necks to see the screen, bending their wrists to reach the trackpad, shrugging their shoulders to reach the keyboard. You can’t separate a laptop’s display from its keyboard to improve your working posture. However, you can be aware of certain ergonomic rules for coping in varied work environments.
Ergonomics is the applied science of fitting the physical environment to the worker to improve employee comfort, reduce risk of injury and enhance worker efficiency. Typically, the science is associated with the task chair. However, ergonomics is a multidisciplinary approach to achieving a good fit between people, the task they do, the work tools they use and the environment in which they work. In agile spaces there are two fundamental principles that need to be considered.
First, where workstations are shared it’s important to have tools that are easy to adjust, and that the workforce has the know-how to do so. The need to accommodate individual differences with respect to monitor positioning, lighting requirements and chair design are equally critical. Workers should have control over their environments, including their hand and wrist position, monitor position and individual light level. Individual control combined with high-quality ergonomics training will consistently yield safe and productive workers.
Second, movement, movement, movement. The human body is designed to move, and neither sitting nor standing all day is good for us. Moving has obvious benefits: increasing metabolism, using different muscle groups and, most importantly, reducing the load on the lumbar spine (which is greater when sitting than standing).
There are business reasons, too. Last year the University of Leicester found that 43 per cent of those who swapped their usual seat for a standing desk reported their performance had improved after a year. It also found that 52 per cent of those using standing desks felt more engaged at work after a year (2).
So what, specifically, needs to be addressed in order to achieve an ergonomic working environment?
HAND AND WRIST POSTURE
While the postural problems and associated injury mechanisms are complex, design solutions aimed at improving hand and wrist posture are relatively simple to implement. Applied ergonomics research has shown that a ‘hands in lap posture’ is the ideal keyboard and mouse position for those able to type proficiently. Lowering the keys and angling them slightly away from the body reduces shoulder shrugging and helps to straighten the wrists.
Bringing the tools closer to the body enables the user to properly utilise their chair backrest. Installing an articulating keyboard support is the most cost-effective means of achieving postural improvement. Employees may respond negatively to this solution at first, either because they have had a bad experience with a poorly designed keyboard support that interfered with their knees, or because they were never shown how to correctly use the device.
Rejection levels among users without training typically exceed 50 per cent. With training, however, organisations can expect a 90 per cent acceptance rate. Behavioural changes are required to utilise the tray correctly.
Selecting a chair that is easy to adjust, provides support and promotes movement is critical for maintaining healthy body posture. The typical office worker will likely spend more time sitting in their chair than they’ll spend anywhere else, except perhaps for their bed. Frequent postural shifts are recommended to minimise static muscle contractions and fatigue.
The latest chairs feature self-adjusting recline mechanisms which automatically tension the backrest based on the user’s bodyweight. These designs drastically simplify the operation of the chair and have been shown to promote movement critical for maintaining spinal health. Look for a chair that also has an adjustable seat pan, backrest, and adjustable armrests.
Providing computer users with flexibility over monitor positioning is another way to maintain operator comfort. Because we tend to look downward naturally at -15 degrees, our eye line should meet the top two-thirds of the screen, and the device should be positioned about an arm’s reach from the body. Multiple monitor set-ups are challenging from an ergonomics perspective because they impact on body alignment. Adjustable flat panel monitor arms can be used to aid with proper positioning and alignment, and can also help to free up previously used desk space for writing or referencing tasks.
Most office environments are drastically overlit from an ambient perspective, wasting a tremendous amount of energy – yet are also underlit from a task perspective. Monitors are best viewed in dimly lit settings because they emit light. Documents, however, reflect light and require light in order to be viewed. This creates an obvious conflict.
Single-source lighting schemes are not appropriate for computer workstations. Age is a factor as well. As we get older, the corneal lens hardens, and the process of accommodation becomes progressively more difficult. Focusing on near field objects becomes increasingly challenging. By the time an individual reaches the age of 61, they require at least 250 per cent more contrast to view the same documents as they did in their twenties.
To solve this dilemma, many organisations are employing a dual component lighting scheme by lowering ambient light levels and providing users with controllable task lights. This approach has been shown to significantly reduce visual symptoms and reduce energy requirements by up to 40 per cent.
Workstation design changes are often met with opposition because it is human nature to resist change. Improvements should therefore be accompanied by sound ergonomics training. Involving employees in the change process has been shown to significantly reduce injury rates and associated lost productive time.
Challenging your firm to design high-performance work environments that accommodate 95 per cent of the population will not only improve worker comfort and reduce costs, but will also preserve the original design vision of the space. Enhancing the human experience will differentiate your firm from the competition, attracting higher-quality candidates and improving the engagement of existing employees, encouraging them to stay.