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April 19, 2009

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Design of the times

The search for the high-performance

workplace goes back over a hundred years but, according to Neil

Franklin, we are in a better position than ever to fully appreciate how

to create a working environment that not only minimises the risk of

people harming themselves but also helps them feel better and work


The 35th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act this

year may have given everybody pause for thought about the development

of health and safety, but the quest for an understanding of the links

between the places we work and our well-being and productivity has been

ongoing for much longer than that. In terms of office design, it has

its roots in the design of early landmark workplaces such as Frank

Lloyd Wright’s Larkin building, and research such as that carried out

at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago in the late 1920s.

The Hawthorne work has become seminal not only in the study of

productivity and ergonomics but also in wider management thinking, in

that it was initially interpreted as proof that an increase in

illumination in a factory improved productivity levels. Subsequent

experiments at the same site on the effects of such changes as

maintaining clean workstations, clearing floors of obstacles, and even

relocating workstations also yielded increases in productivity. When it

was discovered that productivity fell back to some degree at the end of

the experiments, a second interpretation was postulated — namely, that

the workers were not merely responding to better conditions but also to

the experiment itself; they liked the attention. And so the Hawthorne

Effect was born.

According to Ann Clarke, of Claremont Group Interiors, people like to

feel involved and appreciated. She said: “They don’t like being

disengaged from work, and like to know that their employers are paying

attention to their well-being. Better lighting is welcome and has a

role to play, but there is a complex process going on. The lighting

itself is not enough without management and the focus on the

individual. While nowadays such thinking is the norm, back then it must

have been revolutionary.”

Her point is supported by the work of another researcher, Frederick

Hertzberg, who, in 1966, showed that the workplace was a ‘hygiene

factor’, meaning a poor workplace was a demotivator but a good

workplace was not necessarily an important motivator. In layman’s

terms, it doesn’t matter where you work if you don’t like your job,

your boss, or your co-workers. It all has to fit.

Context is all-important

That this is so means the claims of many suppliers of ergonomic

products are a fallacy, according to Jorgen Josefsson, of RH Chairs. He

said: “People say that such and such a product is ‘ergonomic’ but

really the term is meaningless unless you look at things in context.

Ergonomics is about the relationship between people and their

environment, so that relationship is inherently a two-way thing and,

however well-designed a product is, the benefits of that design can

only be fully appreciated when it is used properly, with proper

training, and in the right wider environment of organisational culture

and management style. At the heart of that must be the belief that you

are looking after people for the right reasons. It’s no longer enough

to try to minimise the risk of harm; you have to improve well-being and

productivity as well.”

We know a lot more about how to achieve that since the time of the

Hawthorne experiments. Since then, a great deal of research has been

carried out, which paints an increasingly sophisticated picture of the

complex relationship we have with our surroundings. These range from

the academic, such as the work of Adrian Leaman and Bill Bordass at the

end of the 1990s, which identified what it called four killer variables

that linked building design to personal productivity, to recent

research from Gensler, to a 2006 report from CABE and the BCO, called

‘The impact of office design on business performance’.

Some suppliers are also doing their own research to make the point in

specific areas. For example, RH Chairs recently fitted a number of its

chairs with ‘black-box’ digital data-recorders at the headquarters of a

Dutch auto-recovery company to measure how people used the chairs in

terms of adjustments and movement. Combining these measurements with

answers given in a subsequent questionnaire, the company’s ergonomists

were able to analyse the impact of chair adjustment on various areas of

work and performance.

That the number of musculoskeletal complaints decreased over the trial

period was expected, but perhaps a more interesting statistic from the

study was the decrease in sick-leave percentage by 2 per cent in

comparison with the same period in the previous year. People also said

they felt more productive and more comfortable at work. While the

Hawthorne Effect informs us that the study may have been influenced by

other factors the results nevertheless provided a useful insight into

the working practices of call-centre workers, and now RH has begun new

research on a much broader scale at a large client site in Sweden.

Levent Çaglar, senior consultant ergonomist at the Furniture Industry

Research Association wasn’t surprised by the results. He said: “The

human body is not really designed to sit down on chairs as we have

known them. We are more suited to moving, or alternating between

sitting and standing. As modern office work — especially the use of

computers — forces us to sit down for considerable periods of time, we

should be able to move and adopt dynamic postures while we are seated.

Over a period of time any static posture, however biologically correct

and ergonomically correct, is never as good as dynamic postures where

the human body is allowed to make movements that encourage blood flow

and slow down the onset of fatigue.”

Let there be light

Another recent study that directly reflects the Hawthorne experiments,

in that it focuses on the impact of lighting on people’s well-being and

productivity, was recently published by the University of Surrey, in

partnership with RS Components and Phillips. The research was conducted

among 104 white-collar workers on two office floors. After baseline

assessments under existing lighting, every participant was exposed to

two new lighting conditions, each lasting four weeks. One consisted of

blue-enriched white light (17,000K) and the other of white light

(4000K). The order was balanced between the floors. A questionnaire and

rating scales were used to assess alertness, mood, sleep quality, and

mental effort throughout the eight-week study.

As well as improvements in all of the assessed characteristics, the

research also revealed improvements in subjective measures of positive

moods, fatigue in the evening, and ability to sleep at night.

Furthermore, the workers reported reduced eye-strain.

RS Components’ Mike Lear called the results outstanding. He added:

“What we believe is happening technically is that specific wavelengths

in blue-enriched white light are more effective because they target a

photoreceptor in the eye. It comes down to something we’ve known for a

long time, which is that people are not ideally suited to a world of

fluorescent lighting. Blue-enriched light is akin to natural light, so

it makes us feel better and work better. What is great is that the

research shows conclusively the way in which good lighting can improve

levels of well-being and performance, even when people are not at work.

It has enormous implications for the way we view lighting design.”

This move towards a more positive view of workplace wellness is now

widely accepted, according to Ann Clarke. Claremont has just finished

work on a post-occupancy study with Pace Micros. Said Ann: “We find

that most firms have clear objectives relating to what are

fundamentally human-resources and management issues when they look at

the design of their offices. These are based less and less on

traditional health and safety issues, such as providing x amount of lux

in offices, reducing the risk of upper-body problems for computer

users, and so on.

“Of course, these are all important, but firms also want to know what

it will all mean for productivity, absenteeism, and staff retention.

Such thinking can only become more prevalent in the current difficult

economic conditions. The important thing is to leverage a small amount

of extra cost in aspects of the way we design and manage workplaces

into enormous benefits in terms of the way we manage people.”

Neil Franklin is a freelance writer   

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