Including a new WOW factor in workplace design

Professor Alan Hedge, a leading ergonomics expert and consultant with office furniture manufacturer Humanscale, explains how workplace design that encompasses new ways of working is essential for worker well-being.

Where do you work? When do you work? It may not be as easy to answer these questions as it used to be in the past. With the advancements of technology, workers can now adopt a mobile workstyle and do their jobs from several places or outside of the traditional nine to five, Monday to Friday pattern.

Working at a specific place for a set amount of time is no longer a necessity and this new-found freedom has led to rethinking traditional office workplaces. New ways of working (WOW) have emerged and they are now revolutionising commercial interiors, from general layouts through to the furniture used and the facilities that are provided.

What are new WOW workplaces?

New WOW workplaces tend to feature ‘agile working’, ‘hotelling’ and to a lesser degree ’hot-desking’– all referring to the principle that space isn’t ‘owned’ by a single individual and rather employees are encouraged to utilise space as required to address their specific needs throughout the day.

Companies provide a range of activity-based spaces such as quiet zones, team working areas and breakout spaces. At the same time employees are encouraged to move between locations throughout the day to enjoy a more varied workday and combat the perils of a desk-bound job.

Furniture too needs to be fully flexible and adaptable to suit the needs of each individual worker, whether this includes adjustable chairs, sit-stand tables and intuitive monitor arms or laptop trays.

The downside

Despite the benefits, there is a serious potential downside to new WOW. The freedom handed to employees to work from anywhere can see them working in places in the outside world that do not always provide ergonomic solutions.

In traditional office spaces, the Health and Safety Executive provides guidance on the ergonomic design of computer workplaces, including the relevant furniture. But for ‘office nomads’ working in a variety of places, no such clear-cut guidance exists.

Walk into any coffee shop, airport, library or modern office and you’ll see people sitting on poorly designed chairs, hunched over their devices. Their backs are rounded like turtle shells, their necks flexed forwards putting strain on the back muscles, shoulders and neck, restricting free blood flow to the brain. One new disorder has been named as a consequence of sustained and prolonged working with poor posture: ‘iPad neck’.

Poor neck postures can also contribute to developing carpal tunnel syndrome – a painful condition of the hand and fingers caused by compression of a major nerve. In the case of ‘iPad neck’, the median nerve is compressed as it exits the spine at the base of the neck and passes through the shoulders.

Incorporating new WOW into ergonomics

So what do we do to stop this? The answer is that in any new WOW design, any location and its office furniture needs to be designed to facilitate an ergonomic, neutral body posture. To combat the perils of sedentary work, employees should also be encouraged to change their posture frequently throughout the day. Cornell University has developed an ideal work pattern which calls for employees to:

  • sit and work in neutral posture for 20 minutes
  • stand and work in a neutral posture for eight minutes
  • stretch and stroll around for two minutes
  • repeat this cycle throughout the working day

To realise the benefits and ensure they are protected, employees need to be trained in ergonomics so that they learn how to maintain good posture. At the same time, ergonomic design strategies must be applied to every place in a building where an employee is likely to interact with technology.

To encourage the adoption of office ergonomics on a wider scale, the newly-established International Well Building Institute has launched the WELL building certification standard which gives credits for good ergonomic design and addresses issues of mental well-being.

WELL is hailed as the world’s first building standard to focus exclusively on human health and wellness. It sets performance requirements in seven categories relevant to health in the built environment – air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Instead of meeting sustainability standards in building design or construction, it does so from the perspective of the occupant.

Ergonomic strategies are also being integrated into wellness programmes run by HR departments, with organisations recognising that ergonomic designs can reduce physical and mental stress.

While new WOW are here to stay, when these new methods are also combined with good ergonomic designs the result is a healthy and productive workplace for all employees – which also delivers economic benefit to the organisation.

Alan Hedge is aprofessor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University, USA.