What do ergonomists think of hybrid offices? From an ergonomics perspective, what are the pro’s and con’s?
Let’s start by defining what we mean by “hybrid” work. Most of our clients have called people back to the office, at least for a portion of their time. Typically, people are returning to the same workstations they left, but some companies are taking a hard look at how much real estate they really need. If they downsize their office space, employees will be working from shared workstations.
Shared workstations are ergonomically challenging – the equipment needs to adjust to accommodate ALL users, and all users need to have the skills and time to make adjustments at the beginning of every shift. And if these things don’t happen, then people will be working in awkward positions…not “ergonomic”.
Some employers encouraged employees to take their chairs and hardware home during the pandemic, a practice that we encouraged. Those employees with “special” furniture, such as a chair with a short cylinder, or a large seat pan, likely have these accommodating items in only one location, even though they are alternating between two offices.
Ergonomists often lament that, back in the “old days”, office work offered more variety than today’s computer jobs. My mother was a school “secretary” back in the day, and she hardly sat down at all. She had to get up to go to the printer or make photocopies, stand to collate and staple pages, deliver messages on pink slips of paper, and walk to meetings. The home office worker has no reason to leave the computer. Worse yet, in order to participate in meetings, the worker’s face has to be locked in front of the webcam.
Personally, I have enjoyed the freedom to work “from anywhere” for a couple of days per week. My official home office is “ergonomic” – I have an excellent chair, window blinds, a sit/stand desk, and an external keyboard, mouse, and screen. But the real freedom to work “from anywhere” means that I don’t always work from my official home office. I work from our family cottage, from vacation spots, from my car. These locations are less than ideal. I tend to move from perch to perch much like the hummingbirds that buzz over my head on the porch. I am fortunate to have the equipment and skills to set up a decent temporary workstation. What about everyone else?
CRE-MSD recently published a survey of home office workers (Results of the CRE-MSD Survey on Working from Home During COVID-19 and Transitioning Back to the Office | Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (CRE-MSD) | University of Waterloo (uwaterloo.ca)). The survey includes a lot of interesting information, but here’s one thing that stuck out for me:
Of the 1002 respondents, 98 (10%) had experienced a physical injury while working from home. Not surprisingly, back, neck, wrists and shoulders accounted for most of these. Only 59% of these injuries were reported to the employer.
What should employers consider when developing “remote work programs” in the future? Employers are accountable for workplace injuries, whether they take place under the corporate roof or in a home office. The WSIB doesn’t care whether tendonitis or back pain occurred in the downtown office or the upstairs closet/office. (FAQs about working from home/working remotely | WSIB). For employers, this responsibility, without control over the work environment, can be stressful.
Even if you aren’t concerned about injuries associated with home office work, consider this:
Employers suffer or benefit from the “ergonomics” of workplace design in other ways. Most of us have worked with a back, neck, or shoulder ache at some point in the past few years. This pain might have been caused at work or outside work (raking leaves, shoveling snow…). Regardless, think about the last time you tried to work while your body was sore:
- Did your productivity suffer at all? Did you find yourself looking for any reason to take a pause in your work? Did you stretch out your breaks a little bit?
- Was the quality of your work up to par on those days? Did your work require more revisions? Did you make more errors?
- Did you have thoughts of searching for a different job, or calling in “sick”? Did you spend any time researching what other employers in your field offer, in terms of work demands or ergonomics?
- When you interacted with co-workers or customers, do you think you presented your best self? Did you, at any point, finish a call or a meeting and think to yourself, “I might have handled that better if I felt more like myself.”
Productivity, quality, and engagement issues relate to ergonomics in any work environment, not just offices. But based on the home offices we’ve been assessing in the past two years, employers need to take a close look at how they will support employees who work from home. Consider the impact on your workplace, if employees could be just 5% more productive, or make 5% fewer errors. If your absenteeism or turnover could be reduced by even a small percentage, would those savings off-set the cost of an ergonomics program?
Many people want to work remotely, and employers are responding to that desire. Don’t stop there – make sure that remote workers are supported with the equipment and skills that they need to create a comfortable, productive work environment, wherever they are located.
How can we help?
We do home office assessments, in-person and virtually.
We can help your company set up a program (policy, purchasing, training, and assessments as needed) to support remote workers.
We’re very interested in working through a cost-justification process for your next big office furniture purchase.
Contact us for help. email@example.com. (519) 623-7733.