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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
February 27, 2015

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Ergonomics in the evolving workspace

Our offices are evolving. Where once we had one-worker-one-desk arrangements, we now have collaborative, fluid, frictionless, and bleisure workspaces. Some boast amazing features like pods for quiet concentration, tables that float away after hours to make room for events, and at Google’s Mexico City HQ, a ball pit.

Innovations in technology are a big reason for the changes. Now that we can carry our work in the palm of our hand, we don’t want or need to be fixed to a single workstation all day.

But every time I see an image of one of these state-of-the-art workspaces, I wonder: why is everyone sitting hunched over their laptop? Have we abandoned ergonomics in the pursuit of cutting-edge workspaces?

As someone who developed a debilitating repetitive strain injury while working (hunched over my laptop) in a collaborative workspace, I think it’s time our approach to office ergonomics evolves right along with our offices.

It begins with designing spaces that suit the tasks being carried out. And then teaching staff how to use the new space and how to use their digital devices within it.

For example, if it’s a graphic design company and most of the staff spend a big portion of their day doing a lot of heavy mouse work, they need spaces that are set up so that they can do the work as safely as possible. In this example, desktop workstations would be the safest.

When they are doing lighter tasks such as surfing the internet on a tablet, they can move to a less ergonomically-sound set up, say sitting in a pod. But they must be made aware that sitting like this should only be done for a short amount of time and not while carrying out any heavy content creation tasks.

As soon as they want to start creating content again, they should move back to the desktop set up or to a set up that replicates one as much as possible. Laptop and tablet stands, detachable keyboards and mice should be available (ready and waiting on all tables) to help users emulate the desktop configuration.

Ideally, every workspace would have a mix of fixed desktop set ups (including some sit/stand desks) and spaces more suited for laptop and tablet use, such as meeting rooms. If we start people off with the basics about good desktop workstation set up and show them how to apply it – whatever desk, table, countertop, etc. they find themselves working at – with whatever digital device they happen to be using – they can set up as safely as possible and continue to do so every time they change location.

It’s not absolutely necessary to buy every piece of equipment for every person as all of it can be shared as users move around occupying different spaces throughout the day. But the equipment does have to be made available and employees need to be trained in how to use all of it, including how to readjust shared workstations and equipment so that it meets their individual needs.

This applies to chairs too. In with the funky designs, there should be chairs that adhere to the minimum ergonomic standards, ie, five legs with rotating castors and adjustable height, backrest and seat pan (preferably adjusting independently of one another).

It’s fine to let your ergo-perfect posture go a bit when doing the lighter stuff, but save the content creation for the better-suited chair and desktop workstation.

Finally, training should stress the importance of taking breaks from static postures. Hopefully, our updated workspaces will encourage us to move more, after all, it’s hard to be still in the ball pit. But employees don’t move more unless they are made aware of the importance of doing so.

So train your employees to keep themselves safe and pain free and bring on office evolution.

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