Ergonomic Design Flaws in the Office Environment

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To err is human, so design for it…but of course that takes planning…

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By now we all have heard about the importance of good ergonomic design in the work environment.  However, we do not always understand or calculate the true costs of a poorly designed work environment.  For example, according to the Society for Human Resources, the average cost to hire a new employee is over $4,000 and that doesn’t account for the training to get the employee up to your work standards. On average, this takes about another six months. Six months of pay for a $60,000 salaried employee could cost companies another $30,000.

According to OSHA, lower back pain and upper extremity Muscular Skeletal Disorders (think neck pain or shoulder discomfort) accounts for 31 percent of all occupational health injuries today. Firms that have well-defined ergonomic plans in place have shown dramatic results in lowering employee turnover (about 34 percent less) and number of lost work days (about 72 percent less). You may think that these types of injuries only occur in manual jobs, but you would be gravely mistaken. Two of the more prominent risk factors contributing to these types of injuries include static postures and repetitive motions – think about sitting all day, typing and mousing on a laptop with your neck and shoulders hunched over in a poor posture!

The point of sharing these statistics is to help us realize that retaining employees and avoiding injuries is more productive and far less expensive than one would assume. Thus, when asked by a client looking to design or remodel, we need to probe further to obtain additional details and peek under the hood to see first-hand what we are dealing with.

What kinds of work are they doing in the office? What work tools are they using and how are they using them?

The advent of many new ergonomic workplace tools in today’s modern office are sometimes as entertaining as they are creative. Today’s work environment is as much about design and functionality as it is about entertainment. But, we need to truly dig deeper into the details to actually support employee ergonomics. What makes them a productive worker? How exactly does that fit in to the work culture and improve productivity of the employee or the office? Below are some examples of when these thoughts and questions were not considered.

Design Horror Stories to Learn From

I once worked with a federal agency that had a beautifully re-designed certified green office building. As such, all of the exterior offices had large windows to allow natural light to enter. My client felt that this was wonderful in the summer, but during the later afternoons in winter, the lighting in the office was too dim and employees needed additional light their work. We were shocked to learn that a traditional task light in the room and or on the desk was not allowed as it would violate the green standards that the office was trying to maintain.

Knowing what kind of work employees are tasked with and the work they need to perform to be productive is critical to a successful design or re-design effort. In this federal agency office, paper was still a critical component of the work and proper lighting to avoid headaches, eye fatigue, and eye strain was essential.  To compound matters, not all eyes are created equal as some need more light than others and it changes at various stages of our life. Lastly, the natural impact of lighting on the building varied greatly on the north side versus the south side, yet the lighting had not taken that into account when the building was designed.

During the re-design of a large call center, I saw employees who were constantly on the phone and needed to complete paper work while also using a computer. To maximize space, the office utilized cubicle workstations that constructed in a way that every other cube had a left-handed return. The employer did not consider that on average only 10 percent of the work force is left-handed not 50 percent, meaning that many employees were going to find it difficult to function in an ergonomically correct position and posture with a left-handed return.

While we can debate the pros and cons of the open office, computer security and confidentiality of information is something that cannot be ignored. A large Biotech firm wanted to demonstrate to employees that even the head of HR and the CEO would sit out in an open office with the rest of the staff. While in practice, this seemed like a good thing, it also presented multiple issues and problems for the company. The CEO began to monopolized a small conference room while the VP in HR often would be working on confidential employee information out in the open for all to see who happened to walk by.

Digging Deeper for Successful Ergonomic Design

By sharing these design horror stories I hope to help everyone realize the importance of digging deeper when when it comes to considering ergonomics in workplace design. We cannot blindly accept a client’s desire to install a new open office layout without first considering how it could impact the ability of employees to function at a productive level let alone be comfortable. Irrespective of community space design or activity based working environments, we need to push further and consider the tough questions that are often ignored:

  • What is the age of the workforce?
  • What exactly are they asking the employees to do day in and day out?
  • What makes a peak performer?
  • Will they be able to maintain higher levels of efficiency with the proposed new workspace?
  • What tools are they using in the workplace and will they still be impactful?
  • Will they be using laptops or desktop computers or both?
  • How many monitors will be used?
  • How will lighting play an impact on the work being performed?
  • Will office noise present an issue?

Architects and designers have a responsibility to look beyond the surface to ensure that they not only provide a beautiful design project for their clients, but also do so with the employee and their work process in mind. An office designed with ergonomics in mind will not only increase employee productivity, but also foster employee wellness overall.

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  1. Too many organizations see ergonomics as costing a lot because they do not include the proper ergonomic principles into their design thinking. The ergonomic interventions become “retro-fixes” which will cost more because they are one-off changes. Ergonomic principles need to be embraced in the early stages of design, not after the floor plan, furnishings and equipment have been selected.


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