By Gene Kay, CPE
From the June 2019 Issue
Very often, facility managers are making office furniture choices based on cost, aesthetics, and workstation density. You are probably thinking about efficient use of space and keeping your furniture investment moderate. You may be aiming to provide a collaborative, open floor plan, with the purpose of encouraging employees to share ideas and work together. You may be thinking about ergonomics as well, and think that it’s too expensive to provide, or, if you get an “ergo” device for one person, everyone else will want one. Instead, try thinking about ergonomics as a benefit. Providing a good work environment with adjustable furniture and training on its use can pay big dividends.
Let’s look at how a workspace and furniture options can affect worker performance, well-being, and costs in office environments.
The Workplace Design
The open floor plan, featuring few dividing walls between workstations, has become very popular in recent years. This type of layout can spread natural light into a workspace and allows employees to see each other. The premise is that employees can more easily communicate and collaborate with each other and improve productivity.
However, as reported in a Harvard University study¹, the open floor plan has failed to improve collaboration and may, in fact, do the opposite. Researchers carefully monitored worker movements, interactions, e-mails, and text messages before and after moving into an open floor plan environment. Surprisingly, personal interactions and collaboration with co-workers decreased significantly, while e-mail and text messaging increased. This is opposite of what was expected to be the benefit of an open floor plan.
Another large study of the open floor plan looked at productivity among 40,000 workers at 300 companies.² It found significantly reduced productivity from distracting noise and movements of co-workers, and “uncomfortable feelings” from close proximity and lack of privacy. These negative factors were much more significant than any benefits derived from collaboration.
Based on the research, the open floor plan may not be the best work environment after all. A better alternative may be to provide workstations designed to reduce distractions and noise levels and to increase personal space. Or, provide a variety of workspaces (quiet, open, private) so people can work in the environment that suits them best.
The Ergonomic Work Surface
Spoiler alert! Cheap furniture ends up costing more. Furniture designed based on ergonomics design guidelines has a higher initial cost, but poorly-designed furniture costs more over time.
What determines “good” versus “bad” furniture? The difference in total cost of ownership (initial furniture cost + workers’ compensation costs + personal medical costs for injuries + facility labor costs to adjust furniture to fit) can be very significant.
Earlier in my career, I was the global ergonomics manager for a Fortune 100 financial firm and had access to a wide variety of data on our furniture and our people. When comparing two different locations (with 3,000 employees each) with similar demographics and job types, we found that the total cost of ownership was nearly 13 times higher at the facility with the less expensive, non-adjustable furniture than at the facility with user-adjustable furniture. Sure, the user-adjustable furniture cost more up front, but after a few years of use, it was less costly to own. In this particular firm, the furniture was used for 15 to 20 years, so the benefits of good, adjustable furniture continued to accrue, as did the expense of bad furniture.
Facility managers want to provide good furniture. But, which furniture? A one-size shoe doesn’t work for everyone, and neither does a one-height desk. A typical office workstation is between 29″ and 30″ tall. This height allows most users to work without their knees coming into contact with the underside of the desk and allows space for two file drawers under the work surface. However, this height is too tall for most people under six feet tall.
If the work surface is too high, workers will be forced to key and mouse with their arms and shoulders elevated. This can increase the risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) injury and will most likely increase complaints of discomfort. The proper desk height surface should be at or near resting-elbow height (typically 26″-28″). From many years of experience, we recognize desk height as a significant issue in many workplace ergonomics assessments.
For facility managers choosing furniture, we recommend the following guidelines in purchasing.
Non-adjustable furniture is not recommended for routine use by employees because it doesn’t fit many individuals shorter than 5’8″ or taller than 6’2″. This furniture is acceptable for occasional use by traveling employees or visitors, but it is not appropriate for everyday use.
Facilities-adjustable furniture, while height-adjustable by facilities maintenance staff, is also not recommended for everyday use unless the facilities staff can adjust the work height to match user needs. Adjusting this type of furniture requires staff time and takes extra effort to ensure proper fit.
User-adjustable furniture (sit/stand or, at a minimum, adjustable in the 24″-30″ sit range) is highly recommended and delivers a number of benefits to the employee and to the managers. Enabling employees to adjust the work surface down to their seated elbow height or up to their standing elbow height significantly reduces shoulder and arm strain and improves work performance. User-adjustable furniture also provides everyone with a good fit, and facilities staff members don’t need to make the adjustments. This furniture works for almost everyone and can even make desk-sharing easier.
Compared to chairs, adjustable desks are generally easier to adjust and easier to communicate their use to a user (e.g, adjust worksurface so it is near elbow-height; periodically move and change positions throughout the day).
Chairs And Office Ergonomics
Many discomfort issues can be corrected by providing an ergonomically-designed, fully-adjustable chair to improve comfort and support, and to promote movement. Must-have adjustable features include seat height, seat depth, back height, tension for rock/recline, and arm rest height and width. Taking the time to become familiar with a chair’s features goes a long way in providing all-day comfort and reducing the risk associated with static sitting.
Some chairs on the market have more than 10 different settings and include complicated combinations of levers to move to achieve a supported rocking/reclining motion. Also, some chairs now include “passive” ergonomic features to reduce or eliminate the adjustment options, and these are easier to use but these often don’t provide the comfort and support required, especially if dealing with a back injury.
Some of the best in class adjustable chairs (not the passive ergo) have key tension knobs and levers placed to the side and not hidden deep under the chair.
Training For Office Ergonomics
Unfortunately, most users don’t know the best settings for their sit/stand workstations or how to adjust their chairs to get the best fit. A large number of the issues in the ergonomics consultations we conduct are resolved with simple adjustments to existing furniture. Many find that the chair knobs and levers are too complicated, the instructions are not included, or training is not provided.
Liberty Mutual Insurance conducted a large study³ on the effects of providing new, adjustable workstations with and without training and guidelines on their use. The users who received new, adjustable furniture and ergonomics training experienced the most significant increases in comfort, work performance, and satisfaction.
Here is the advice we provide in ergonomics training and consultations—adjust your chair, adjust your desk and computer equipment, and regularly move and change positions throughout the workday. Ergonomically-designed furniture and ergonomics training will both go a long way toward maximizing worker fit and productivity.
¹ The impact of the “open” workspace on human collaboration
² Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 36, December 2013, Pages 18-26
³ Humantech The Bottom Line: Maximizing Your Investment in Adjustable Office Workstations
Kay, director of ergonomics at VelocityEHS’ Humantech, is a member of the Ergonomics Research team. He incorporates the latest technical and scientific data into Ann Arbor, MI-based Humantech’s software solutions and specializes in office and laboratory ergonomics. Previously, Kay was the director of ergonomics at VelocityEHS where he supported the deployment of the ErgoAdvocate self-help program in large-scale office ergonomics initiatives for clients across North America. A Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE), Kay currently serves as a Director with the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE) and is the past President of the Upper Midwest Chapter of the Human Factors & Ergonomics Society.
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