Integrating Ergonomics in Activity-Based Office Design

Traditionally, ergonomics focused on the process of designing or modifying office equipment to suit the person using it. This typically involved adapting individual workstations to ensure they were comfortable and the equipment was safe to use. By having ergonomic furniture in place, employees can feel more comfortable in the workplace, and it can help to reduce aches, pains and workplace injuries (such as repetitive strain injuries).

However, the trend for activity-based working now means that ergonomics in the workplace needs to be integrated into a wide range of working environments and not just traditional workstations.

What is activity-based working?

The concept that employees don’t have ownership of a particular workstation. Instead, the office design provides a range of versatile areas for them to work, often around a specific task such as collaborative working, private work, socialising or learning.

Ergonomics for social spaces

Ergonomic adjustments such as introducing lumbar supports and even the more high tech sit-stand desks, are now not enough to ensure mobile, collaborative workforces have the equipment and comfort needed to work productively. A recent report from ergonomic specialists Haworth identified that there needs to be a new norm for ergonomics in the workplace and that while creating social spaces gives employees the freedom to choose where they work, if not implemented properly, it can be a nightmare for ergonomics.

“Traditional office ergonomics does not address group work or spaces. These emerging space types are being created with no ergonomic guidance…Organizations that fail to apply a “big picture” approach to office ergonomics are missing the opportunity to provide a safe and high-performing workplace for their employees—regardless of the space they are using.”

Dr. Michael O’Neill, Haworth

This type of activity-based design has exploded in popularity in recent years thanks to the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon creating campus-style offices. Access to this type of diverse design is now expected by many employees. In a recent survey we ran, nearly 20% of people questioned believed relaxation/breakout areas improve productivity. As well as improving productivity, activity-based design benefits companies’ bottom lines too. Microsoft Netherlands benefitted from a 30% reduction in office space costs since introducing a variety of workspaces, meeting rooms and a coffee shop.

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Implementing ergonomics in modern office design

Simply buying some comfortable chairs is not enough, as anyone who has worked in a non-ergonomic space will be familiar with the aches and pains associated with hunching over a laptop or slouching on a sofa.

For spaces incorporating activity-based design to be successful, it’s worth considering integrating ergonomics in to the design:

Encourage employees to move more

In the past, ergonomics focused on how to help people sit safely in a seat for hours on end. As Haworth senior research strategist Michael O’Neill says, “The whole emphasis was: how can we make a chair that will allow a person to sit for four or five hours at a time without getting up?” Now, advances in technology mean that people have the power to move and work wherever they want to and ergonomics now has to follow this lead.

A key part of modern ergonomics is to encourage people to move more. Whether this is to stop people ‘nesting’ at a dedicated desk , or if it’s to persuade people to move back to a more ergonomic workstation after hours working on a sofa, moving more is the key to preventing many workplace injuries and illnesses.

Collaborative spaces are designed for just that, collaborative meetings, and are not necessarily intended for people to work at on their own all day. Stylish ergonomic furniture should be included in shared work areas to ensure people using the space are supported physically. Furniture options can include formal style chairs with ergonomic design, such as the Beams Chair from EAJY, or the more relaxed design of the Wing Chair from Hans J. Wegner.

Create private ergonomic workspaces

One way to avoid employees working for too long in less ergonomic areas is to create a number of versatile spaces where individuals can work alone, so they don’t automatically go to a communal area to work for long periods just because they want a change of scene. You don’t have to create fixed dedicated spaces for this, as there are many types of innovative ergonomic office furniture available, such as the Pod chair by DeVorm, which features high sides for sound dampening and increased privacy.

Include ergonomics in every area of the office

Introducing a more agile office design will mean that your employees may get used to working in kitchen areas as well as more formal workspaces for example. This means you should take every opportunity to include ergonomics in these spaces too. Furniture such as The Leaf Collection from Florence-based Eggs Designs Studio is ideal for kitchens and canteens, as the collection has an ergonomic design as well as being stylish and durable.

Provide enough power points

If an employee has to stretch to reach a device that’s charging then this can put them at risk of injury. Include furniture with integrated power units in communal areas to help prevent people from stooping or over-stretching to reach their devices.

Beyond ergonomics: moving more

Getting the ergonomics of the workplace right is just one aspect of designing an office space that encourages employees to have a positive wellness and health experience at work. Integrating aspects designed to improve employees’ wellbeing at work is becoming more common in workplace design – from biowalls to improve air quality, to Google offering free yoga and massages, and prioritising healthy snacking.

One of the key ways to improve health at work is the next natural step after ergonomics – getting employees to move more. Encouraging employees to move more throughout their work day benefits more than their health, as Architect Oliver Kupfner points out in an interview with furniture manufacturer Tableair, “That’s also how you create coincidental meetings and information exchange between employees.”

Moving more can be as simple as encouraging employees to work in collaborative areas for part of the day or introducing a table tennis table to the office, or it could be as dynamic as introducing an office allotment like Google’s London offices or exercise tracks dedicated to walking-meetings like at Facebook’s HQ.

Research has shown that sitting still for long periods actually negates dedicated time spent exercising, meaning that moving regularly throughout the day is vital to employees’ health and wellbeing.

The key to getting the balance right is to view wellness and health in the office as holistic. For example, there’s no point introducing collaborative areas to relax and socialise in, if employees feel uncomfortable using them as collaborating in this way isn’t the ‘done thing’ in the company.

What next?

Great office design can help change a company’s culture so that new design ideas and creative spaces are embraced rather than being viewed with suspicion.

You can find out more about how to conduct an office fit-out and the key milestones involved by downloading our free guide below.

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