Language may be constantly evolving but if you want to see how a word can lose its meaning quickly, there’s no better example than watching the way some companies can misappropriate it in a misguided attempt to help them sell their products. For example, the big problem with the way some people talk about the term ‘ergonomic’ is that they use it to describe the design of stuff when really it’s about a relationship; that between a person and the things around them. It’s an abstract idea, dependent on a number of variables. And when those variables change, what we mean by good ergonomics changes too. Although the idea has been around for a long time, ergonomics first came to prominence in the wake of the intensive growth in the use of computers. That wasn’t really all that long ago, maybe 25 years or so, but already we are encumbered with a fairly fixed idea of what constitutes an ideal workstation and an ideal posture. We know the standards and directives, we know about training users, we know the sorts of environment people need and the products they should use and we know the consequences of failure.
All of these are still valid but the world has moved on. The legacy of this fixed view of ergonomics is that too much of the debate is framed by 20th Century thinking about desk-bound employees with a computer when, in fact, the relationship between people and place is changing all the time and how we work now bears an increasingly scant relationship to how we worked 25 years ago. Give people a laptop and a mobile phone and the way they work changes. Encourage them to use break-out space and it changes. Tell them it’s OK to work from home or a client’s premises and it changes.
One of the factors driving the change in the way we perceive ergonomics has been the growing body of evidence that links workplace design with individual and consequently organisational performance. As is always the case, and as difficult as it may be to see it at the moment, the last economic downturn turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise in this regard. So the same economic pressures that were responsible for driving down demand for office space also ultimately meant the people charged with designing and managing workplaces found there was a renewed focus on getting best value out of what goes on in them. This mindset has endured beyond the recovery.
There are many elements to this, of course, but if you just take the issue of ergonomics, we now see it less as a way of reducing absenteeism and ill-health and rather more as a way of promoting good health. Ergonomics is increasingly about making people more productive and of helping them to be happier at work.
However we can only do that if we accept that it is about a relationship focussed on the individual. The best way I can think of to highlight this is to compare offices with schools. There is already an ongoing debate in schools about ergonomics, similarly based on the increased use of computers in teaching, and in many ways the debate mirrors the one we find in the workplace.
If you compare it to the way the same issue gained prominence in the office market and because children vary in size and shape far more than adults, you might assume that this would be a cause of national concern. In fact, while it is still an issue it has gained nothing like the level of interest that we once saw in the office market. The reason for this is that children have a completely different relationship with their environment to that of the desk-bound workers of the 20th Century office. For a start they move around far more between activities, they use computers in fixed sessions and they vary the way they work and what they do.
Because of this, they give us a perfect example of contemporary ergonomics. Schools may well need to do more about the equipment available to children who use computers, but in many ways they provide a perfect model of contemporary ergonomics. What they enjoy is a holistic solution based on the needs of a mobile and active user. The important thing is that it is not based solely on an ‘ergonomic’ product but on an appreciation of the relationship between people, the way they work, the place they do it in and the stuff they surround themselves with. The kids are way ahead of us.
Similarly, many of us would benefit from frequently varying the position in which we work throughout the day, even working standing up for some periods. This is already commonplace in many European offices thanks to their greater use of sit-stand workstations. At the very least, regular breaks should be taken to stretch and walk about, to avoid all the aches and pains associated with inactivity. Chairs can help by being designed and adjusted to encourage movement, but culture and work patterns are just as important.
In schools, tomorrow’s workers are already embracing these ergonomic solutions. In every classroom in the country, schoolchildren intuitively grasp the concept of stopping work and going for a stroll about.
So, ergonomics is an issue that relies on the entire workspace, not just an individual’s workstation. It is about knowledge, culture and variety. We need to encourage people to move when they are sitting and get up and wander about the office – without having to resort to the favoured idler’s method of walking around cultivating the illusion of activity simply by carrying folder or piece of paper. The options are plentiful. We have already experienced the ubiquity of break-out spaces, cafes and kitchens as a way of escaping the screen. Several companies have introduced ‘no email’ days, which offers the dual advantages of getting bums off seats and encouraging informal encounters between colleagues. But most important in this regard is a culture that understands the complexities of ergonomics.
Main image: Mirra 2 Chair from Herman Miller