COVID-19 has significantly disrupted office work. The implementation of telework has allowed employees to remain productive while mitigating risks related to COVID-19. The widespread usage of telework has provided a way for workers to be effective and efficient whether at the office, home or any other remote location.
Even as new variants of the virus emerge and the community risk changes, employers are welcoming employees back to the office. During the pandemic, workplaces have reacted swiftly and with great conviction to change the culture of work to suit the needs. However, frequent lockdowns and waves of infections have changed the nature of work along with how companies react.
Companies have realized that not all employees have to be present at the same office location, at the same time, to conduct business operations. Rather, teams could get most work tasks efficiently completed from a remote location. Some companies have gone from working entirely in the office to 100% home-based operations with little or no effect on their business operations.
As companies continue to make changes to their business model and prepare for the future, they need to consider which culture changes to continue and which will return to the pre-pandemic model. Because of the success of telework, many organizations, including Apple and Google, are providing employees the flexibility to return to the office with a hybrid schedule.
To accommodate hybrid work, safety and facilities personnel are assessing a new set of scenarios related to having fewer employees on-site at any given time. This allows for the possibility of using less real estate so that employees who are needed on-site at any given time are provide the required office space along with employees who are still inclined to work from the office. To that extent, many businesses have already reduced their footprint by liquidating excess office space.
The challenge of this new arrangement is determining how best to optimize productivity for both the physical and telework workspace while making sure employees are operating in a comfortable setting.
Ergonomics is the science that fits the task to the worker. Too often, employees perform tasks in hazardous postures or environments that may cause them injury, either immediately or over time. The main work-related health problems affecting office employees are pain, discomfort, stress, visual fatigue and even injury. These can be the result of sedentary work, highly repetitive tasks and working in awkward positions due to an incorrect workstation set up.
Improving ergonomics at the workplace can address many of these issues while positively impacting your bottom-line. Effective ergonomics benefits both employers and employees through improved health and safety, higher productivity and lower costs.
If your organization is moving toward a hybrid work model, here are three questions to consider.
1. Where can tasks be most effectively completed?
With a hybrid model, managers should consider which tasks should be performed in each location (on-site versus telework). Understanding each environment and their unique characteristics can help improve the efficiency of each location.
In the telework environment, employees can focus on tasks that require minimal interaction. Work that is solitary or work with people at different locations may lend itself to being completed primarily during telework times. Solitary work can also be performed on-site as needed but does not take advantage of the opportunity to work with others that is inherent to the office.
Conversely, on-site work allows for collaboration, planning and face-to-face interaction. Therefore, tasks that require collaboration may be most appropriately scheduled on days when key employees are in the office.
When hybrid schedules are slightly flexible, employees can coordinate their on-site days so that they can schedule their work together. It should be noted that some tasks, such as internal or external customer facing tasks, may require some employees to be on-site every day.
2. How can we optimize space with on-site workstations?
Understanding the primary tasks performed during on-site time is critical to make the best use of office space. Planners, ergonomists and safety professionals should use this information to ensure that employees can perform work tasks safely and efficiently.
The hybrid workplace requires that both the telework location and the on-site work location accommodate the employee’s needs. Our previous discussion reviewed ways to arrange the telework location so as to follow proper ergonomic principles.
When setting up any workspace, the goal of ergonomics should be kept in mind: to fit the tasks performed to the capabilities of the human. One way this can be done is to adhere to the design acronym N-E-W (neutral posture – elbow/eye height – work area) to guide workstation setup.
When employees work a reduced number of days on-site, it may allow for more efficient use of space through shared workstations. There are a number of ways that organizations can address this shared workplace environment, including:
- assigning the shared desk locations to individuals based on need;
- making them available for reservation based on workstation characteristics; or
- having them be on a first come, first served basis.
3. How can employees and managers be ergonomically aware of where they work?
No matter which method is used, it is important to ensure the workstations accommodate the range of employees who could use them. This can be done by either ensuring the workstations include adjustability or through an A-B-C type approach.
Built-in Workstation Adjustability
Fully adjustable workstations have built-in adjustability to accommodate the majority of employees who may use a workstation. This may include:
- dual monitors with arms that can be adjusted for optimal height and viewing distance;
- a workstation that can adjust from seated postures to standing postures; and
- a chair that allows for key adjustments, such as seat pan depth, lumbar support, seat height, armrest width and seat pan height.
Furthermore, each workstation should have ergonomic friendly peripherals that includes but is not limited to:
- a docking station that is compatible with employer-provided technology,
- power outlets that are available on the top of the workstation (to eliminate the need for people to plug in items under the workstation regularly), and
- an external keyboard and mouse.
Organizations can reuse existing furniture for these workstations, but they must incorporate as much adjustability as possible so that employees can arrive at the workstation, quickly make the necessary modifications and begin working.
Along with any built-in adjustability, employees should be trained on the proper adjustment and alignment of the equipment. Employees should work with their monitors positioned so their neck is neutral (straight), their keyboard and mouse are positioned close (primary work area) and at elbow height, and their feet are on the floor or a footrest.
For employees who need additional accommodations, it is the company’s responsibility to provide the necessary workstation modifications so that employees are in line with the N-E-W principle. For example, the company may need to purchase additional chair models for employees of a certain height and/or weight who are not served by a standard chair.
When built-in workstation adjustability cannot accommodate the range of employees who need to use a workstation, employers should develop an A-B-C approach. This approach divides the available workstations into sets that are adjusted to fit employees of all sizes.
Employees are measured and then instructed to use those select workstations that match their measurements. In practice, this means that a single work area would include workstations of each predetermined size to accommodate all workers. For this concept to be successful, two activities should be conducted:
- A map of the entire work area needs to be cataloged with the dimensions, features, and adjustability for the workstations, seats, and peripherals.
- Employees must have pertinent anthropometric measurements (e.g., sitting/standing elbow height for worksurface height, popliteal height, etc.) taken so they can be categorized and educated as to which workstation cluster is most appropriate for them.
One organization implemented such a strategy and arranged desks so that the work surfaces were 25 inches, 27 inches and 29 inches (see Figure 1 for a sample layout). The seated elbow height for all employees within the organization was then measured, and they were coached as to which workstation height group would be most appropriate for their use.
IT considerations for external monitors, keyboard/mouse, docking stations, and power on the desktop should also be included at each workstation. Additionally, the implementation of footrests may be needed for individuals whose feet do not reach the ground to allow them to work in a neutral ergonomic position at some workstations. As with the adjustable workstations, additional considerations are needed to ensure that individuals who do not fit into those sets are provided appropriate ergonomic workstation modifications.
Acknowledge an Environment of Change
As organizations navigate the return to the office, it is important to remember that the way each employee works is changing significantly.
For some, teleworking has introduced flexibility and additional short work breaks into their schedules, so returning to the office may mean being tied their desks for a longer duration. For others, teleworking has required them to be tied to their workstations for almost continuous virtual meetings, so returning to the office may provide additional breaks as they move between conference rooms or in-person meetings.
As employees adjust to a hybrid schedule, it is important to ensure that everyone follows proper ergonomic principles. Furthermore, companies need to guarantee that as part of the return-to-work process, necessary workplace modifications are available and provided to individuals with special needs. These accommodations must remain compliant with all the federal and state regulations. It is important for individuals who have a history of related injuries, such as musculoskeletal disorders and other disorders, to seek the assistance of a certified professional ergonomist (CPE).
With careful planning, consideration and training, employees can continue to work productively and safely in a hybrid work environment.
Anand Subramanian Iyer ([email protected]) is a principal at JFAssociates Inc., based in the Washington, D.C. area. He holds a Ph.D. and MS in industrial engineering from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, and is a Certified Six-Sigma Black Belt, a Certified Professional Ergonomist, an Associate Safety Professional, and an OSHA-30 certified professional.
Jeffrey E. Fernandez ([email protected]) is the managing principal at JFAssociates Inc., based in the Washington, D.C. area. He holds a Ph.D. in industrial engineering from Texas Tech University, is a registered Professional Engineer and a Certified Professional Ergonomist. He is on the editorial board of EHS Today.
Brandy Farris Miller ([email protected]) is a principal at Apex Ergonomics, based in the Phoenix area. She holds a Ph.D. and MS in industrial engineering. She is a Certified Professional Ergonomist, Associate Safety Professional, Certified Six-Sigma Black Belt, an OSHA authorized 10/30-hour general industry outreach trainer.