Cognitive Ergonomics | Cognition As It Applies to Office Work

The study of cognitive ergonomics can
The study of cognitive ergonomics can

From Where I Sit: Messy Desk=Messy Mind? Not So Fast!

Cognitive Ergonomics | Cognition As It Applies to Office Work

By Tim Springer
Published in the April 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then is an empty desk?”
—Albert Einstein

Over the past decade, a branch of ergonomics has emerged which focuses on the mental processes of work and how people make decisions. Cognitive ergonomics (CE) studies thinking and applies this knowledge to design—usually design of technology and devices.

But CE also studies the impact of environments on thinking. By studying perception,recognition, memory, attention, reasoning, decision making, situation awareness, and other mental processes, CE strives to make the tools and places of work reflect and support how the mind works. This goal is increasingly important in today’s knowledge based workplaces.

Application of CE has examined high intensity teamwork settings like combat,hospitals, aircraft cockpits, and nuclear control rooms. But increasingly, office work is collaborative and engages many of the same cognitive abilities and processes.

The importance of CE to facility management (FM) stems from the context in which cognitive work occurs and the impact the environment has on performance and outcome of knowledge work.

What do we know about cognition as it applies to office work? And how can we use this to provide more supportive environments?

Three environmental “zones” have been proposed:

  • The micro-environment: the immediate area where a person works.
  • The larger environment: adjacent spaces, team or work group spaces, and the general office environment.
  • The broader setting: the organizational structure and culture.

Here are a few examples. First, consider human memory. People can hold a limited number of “items” in their short-term memory. That number is typically between five and 11. As short-term memory fills (which happens all the time as we move through the day), new data displaces stored items. To avoid losing important information, most people use reminders to offload information. The proliferation of Post-It™ notes attests to the importance of triggers to office work.

Within an individual’s immediate workspace, it is important to provide design features that facilitate this behavior. The design of desks, providing white board displays, tackable surfaces, and other features are important to supporting this basic cognitive behavior.

Beyond the individual space, group displays, such as scoreboards, intranet sites, and message walls help support team memory and identity.Accessible group work files help maintain a shared memory of project sand work products.

Communication of organizational structure and culture occur through branding, signage, award walls, wayfinding assistance, and other broader environmental features by providing cues about the larger organization.

Memory and triggers also affect how people organize and store information. A host of systems exist for storing documents and other work stuff. But each of these solutions fails to recognize a fundamental truth: most messes are not signs of disorganization. They simply illustrate how the workplace fails to support how employees think about—and organize—work stuff.

Nobody exits the womb with the desire or ability to put things in neatly labeled file folders and drawers. That’s not to say those systems don’t have their place. But human memory and cognitive organization are individually specific and change over time.

Humans do naturally group things. Often, like things are physically grouped together. In the office, this leads to what I call “pile filing.”

To the uninitiated, pile filing looks messy, but it is a natural and important behavior. It’s a physical expression of how our minds work.

When stacking or pile filing, people engage a “visio-spatial” mental map to organize physical artifacts and memory triggers. (“I know I put that document on the second stack from the left on top of a pink piece of paper.”) It’s also effective in arranging priorities and gauging temporal importance—how far down the stack something is communicate show long it has “cured.”

Pile filing should not be seen as something to be fixed. Rather, it should be considered as an opportunity for providing workplaces that better support the way our minds work.


Now there is a big difference between pile filing and hoarding. Pile filing is natural and effective. Hoarding is more extreme and much less effective. But even this behavior reflects resistance to workplaces and failure to support how the hoarder’s mind works. Most hoarders are reluctant to release information to the organized document management system for fear it will never be recovered if needed.

How can CE inform workplace design to support the way people think about and store information? Just as there are three environmental zones, there are three ways to organize and use information.

  • Hot files.This is information being used now. It must be within easy reach,preferably below eye height and not outside a worker’s peripheral vision when looking straight ahead. Why? Because it’s true that things that are out of sight are literally out of mind. Hot files haven’t cured long enough to be firmly categorized, so they may get moved,shuffled, grouped, and regrouped as a person uses them.
  • Work files or project files.This is information that is used frequently, but it has cured to the point of being categorized. Usually, work files don’t need the easy reach access of hot files, but they do need to be within one’s workspace. Often, work files will be copied and/or shared with colleagues.
  • Archives.Most available storage products and systems best support archives.Archives enter an organization’s document management system to be filed in neatly labeled folders and put into a drawer. Archives can be some distance from the original worker’s space and eventually moved offsite. Access to archives is still necessary, but recovery within 24hours is usually acceptable.

Providing multiple horizontal surfaces in layers or levels so people can see and easily reach their stacks and piles is one approach. Trays, document stands, and small tackable surfaces may also help. Equally important is communication throughout the organization, recognizing pile filing as natural and acceptable behavior—one that will allow people to work the way their minds work.

Relevant research is still relatively sparse,but results show work environments incorporating CE principles allow people to work smarter. So, while we’ve become proficient at supporting bodies at work by applying physical ergonomics, we need to consider cognitive ergonomics—thinking about how one thinks—to provide workplaces that support minds at work.

That’s what I think from where I sit.

Springer is president and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. and frequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affecting organizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit.

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