Ergonomics, or the process of designing an office based on the personal needs of employees, has long been viewed by scientists as the solution to consistent work output for modern businesses. Several studies have linked the practice to increased productivity, reduced work-related injuries and high job contentment.
But according to a new Haworth white paper, researchers spearheading the field may need to update the core fundamentals of the practice to cater to modern workplaces with complex open layouts and collaborative working styles. The timely report identifies numerous problems with outdated ergonomics guidelines (some dating back to the 1970s), suggesting that applying such methods could actually be harmful for today’s establishments.
Pitfalls of Traditional Ergonomics
Ergonomics first surfaced in the 1940s through the Ergonomics Research Society (ERS), which later became the Ergonomics Society (ES) in 1977. During that time, jobs involving human-machine systems were considered to be the future of professional careers for civilians. These nascent employment opportunities required people to operate analog machines for long hours, like large telecommunication switchboards that routed calls manually between two individuals. Military researchers found that such jobs were mentally, physically and cognitively demanding for workers. This realization forced scientists to think of new ways to reduce human error by making adjustments to the following factors:
- Biomechanics: human muscles, levers and strength
- Applied psychology: skills, adaptability and learning
- Social psychology: communication, personal behaviors and group dynamics
- Environmental physics: light, heat and noise
- Anthropometry: body composition, shapes and movement
Common practices, such as periodic stretching brakes, utilizing standing desks and maintaining proper posture, can all be traced to recommendations from the ES. The main issue with conventional ergonomics guidelines (according to the Haworth report), is its ineffective applications for fast-moving offices. Classic ergonomics focuses closely – in some cases solely, on individual workstations with the assumption that individuals are glued to their desks all day.
“If you look back not that many years, you still see these diagrams of people sitting at a computer keyboard trying to get 90-degree angles at the knees and the waist and the elbows, and neutral posture in the wrist,” said Jeff Reuschel, Haworth’s Global Director of Design and Innovation.
Collaboration is a common theme in modern workplaces. Unfortunately, classic ergonomics does not address this type of environment very well. Haworth researchers explained that today’s workers like to engage in tasks around different parts of the office, instead of isolating one’s self in a single location. For example, a programmer could be working on a project with designers in a conference room for hours leading up to lunch. During the afternoon, he or she could be crunching code on a couch in a secondary working space and taking breaks on a rooftop, before sending out a daily report in a workstation and calling it a day.
Analysts have cited that young professionals tend to embrace this type of working method more, compared to older demographics. A 2014 survey from Deloitte uncovered that Millennials prioritize innovation (58 percent), creativity (57 percent) and fun (55 percent), when choosing the type of work culture they want to be part of during their career.
In 2016, researchers released an update to the survey and found that Millennials’ core values are not affected by their progress professionally. This reinforces the collaborative work environment trend, indicating that businesses must step up to meet such demands, or risk pushing away top-quality talent and candidates (the 2016 survey also pointed out that roughly 66 percent of Millennials intend on leaving their current organization by 2020).
Promoting Movement (Active Ergonomics)
Haworth’s solution to this issue involves observing new practices that support teamwork and group workflows (called Active Ergonomics). This revolutionary concept incorporates three major components: anthropometrics (also part of classic ergonomics), ambient elements (such as light quality, noise pollution and temperature), and movement. The last factor is crucial to Active Ergonomics because it addresses how employees transition from one workspace to another without compromising one’s focus and productivity.
The white paper also highlights key approaches to helping people understand the proper use of multiple working environments in the office (also known as “legibility”). Examples of such practices include providing access to power modules in group spaces, avoiding unnecessary use of lounge spaces with unsafe furnishings, and installing signs or landmarks to offer information about how a particular space should be used.
The report explains, “Legibility is a fundamental part of Active Ergonomics because it puts people’s needs first— it is intended to create a positive work experience that makes it easy to locate the type of space needed, and quickly and effectively use each space type.”