The Future of Office Ergonomics: Standardize or Optimize?

The Future of Office Ergonomics: Standardize or Optimize?

ISE Magazine January 2020 Volume: 52 Number: 3

By Mark Benden

We have all heard of the many workplace approaches espoused by leaders in occupational health under terms such as health, wellness, total worker health and well-being. But what does the near future hold for office-based workers?

At the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center, we research new methods to evaluate and then intervene in office worker behaviors to impact health. These changes are designed to improve productivity and longevity, which both factor into workers’ ability to maintain their job over time.

In generations past, a similar approach was used with the toughest blue-collar jobs. How do you keep a machinist, mason or surgeon healthy performing manual labor? We initially treated these jobs in an incremental fashion by modifying a tool, adding a method or making a scalpel fit a hand better. Generally we were standardizing on a best tool or method. Those steps led to the much larger progress we witness today where a machinist doesn’t crank wheels on one machine but instead monitors dozens of CNC mills or 3D printers making parts without waste.

We also learned how to lay bricks with machines and even perform surgery with robotic assistance that will one day lead to fully robotic surgery in which humans will assist the machines due to advances in artificial intelligence and more importantly, machine learning.

One step that we often fail to identify is when our industrial engineering tool kit for improving performance bumps into humans’ physical strengths and capabilities. We certainly can bring parts and tools closer and standardize methods that result in more parts per person. This sounds great unless the level of forceful repetitions and often awkward postures we create for workers exceed their ability to perform the tasks without injury or illness.

Enter ergonomics. Sad to say, many of those manual pro-duction jobs failed to match worker abilities to company needs. A few of the worst offenders were addressed by off-shoring jobs to lower-wage countries whose workers had less of a voice than do Western workers. In other cases, the improvement of productivity via creative advancements in manufacturing technology created environments for workers to be safer and more productive.

But what about the ubiquitous office workers? What has been their journey through the advance of the computer and internet age? We started that age more than 40 years ago at a time when such workers were the exception in our workforce. Then manufacturing and other manual jobs began to decrease and office-based work rapidly increased.

Today, office workers make up more than half of the workforce in many large cities. Initially, some of the same occupational hazards we were concerned about for blue-collar workers – cumulative trauma, awkward postures – showed themselves in the injury and illness reports streaming out of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Ergonomists would all love to claim credit for the decrease in risk for office workers from many of those early hazards. But history has taught us that it was at least as much associated with improvements in technology, especially software for computing, that led to reduced risk from repeated, long-term exposures in the office environment. Simply put, office workers could get much more done in less time (exposure) spent working on the computer.

We did work hard on improved seating, better peripheral input devices, improved keyboard layouts and designs and most recently sit/stand desks to give workers postural options during the workday. There were a few distractions along the way, like exercise equipment at the desk that seemed at the time a viable way to improve output and ergonomics. In general, we got back to helping office workers stay comfortable and safe every time a new IT trend surprised us, such as touch screens, tablets and multiple monitors.

As technology became more efficient, so did office workers. Today’s office worker spends less than half of his or her workday actively computing (Gregory Garrett, Mark Ben-den, Ranjana K. Mehta, Adam Pickens, S. Camille Peres and Hongwei Zhao, “Call center productivity over 6 months following a standing desk intervention,” IIE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, 2016; and Pankaj Parag Sharma, Benden, Mehta, Pickens and Gang Han, “A quantitative evaluation of electric sit-stand desk usage: 3-month in-situ workplace study,” IISE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, 2018).

Less than half that time is spent on the keyboard with much of the work done with a mouse. As a result, our focus on health risks has shifted to include a larger view of workers’ total health but also how much time they spend doing their jobs while sedentary.

This recent risk factor has grown as a workplace concern as the number of office workers has risen and the work they perform has become more sedentary. The mailroom down the hall where we all used to walk is now a server room; the meetings we used to attend across campus are now held from our desk via video conferencing. Each year, we are moving less and as a society becoming more obese. During the past three years, we have also seen unprecedented dips in the U.S. life expectancy.

For companies, healthy workers are a competitive advantage, and expanding our view of workplace injury and illness to include total worker health (TWH) is critical. NIOSH describes TWH as “policies, programs and practices that integrate protection from work-related safety and health hazards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts to advance worker well-being” (CDC-NIOSH Total Worker Health, December 2018).

A decade ago, I wrote a paradox meant to capture the odd phenomenon playing out in offices all over the globe. Benden’s Paradox stated: “Adults naturally increase their (body mass index) during their working career and thereby their need for sustained physical activity to minimize the trajectory of that increase. Ironically, they unnaturally are coerced to decrease their physical activity in the work environment via forced sedentarianism to gain productivity, which results in reduced productivity and weight gain.”

In the office setting, a worker is much more likely to take homework duties. In many cases, a smartphone or laptop are all that is required to stay connected. What has occurred the past decade in office work is nothing short of a renaissance of tracking ability connected to individual computer output. Certain software can monitor output, computing time, break time, electric desk time and metrics such as keystrokes, mouse clicks and words typed. Others assist with productivity analysis, project management, GPS tracking for remote workers and utilization analytics for freelancers.

As we gained the ability to measure such work, we also gained a new tool for improving those same outputs. Going back to our assembly line analogy, imagine a machine producing 100 parts per hour. If we give that machine a 10% rest every hour, we assume it will produce 90 parts. Our research on office workers found the opposite; workers who took regular breaks, including those prompted by the same computer software tracking them, were more productive than those who took fewer breaks.

If one group of office workers spends more time computing, types more words and has a lower error rate, is it more productive? This question needs more research and involvement by corporations using these software platforms. If a group of office workers gets more done by these metrics, are we exposing them to levels of ergonomic risk that could result in long-term harm?

Our use of objective measures in the office is not new. For years, we have tracked call center worker output and success. We have also monitored the number of lines of code produced by coders. Data entered, claims processed and drawings produced have all been used to track office worker output. For many workers, those metrics don’t fit. Even in cases where they do, what might be influencing one group to produce more than another doing the same work?

The debate around privacy tied to office work has already occurred. It happened in IT offices and board rooms slowly and without much feedback from workers; most of us were simultaneously giving up any thought of personal privacy as we logged into apps like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat and gave up much more of our personal information, habits and interests than ever imagined to Alexa or Siri.

At this point, our phones, software and cameras track what we do, how much of it we do, when we do it and the quality of that interaction. Most of us are happy with the benefits we derive from that tracking.

The next phase of tracking will involve our health. One popular software, Enviance, measures 120 indicators for each computer user. Stress levels, heart rate, respirations, EEG and even data from diabetes glucose monitors can all be presented to workers in real-time while working at their computer. It might also go to their family doctor, a wellness staff member or a psychologist when high stress or anxiety are detected.

For ergonomists, sit and stand time, patterns and transitions between the two can be monitored and presented to workers. Will this information be best used behind a curtain and presented in simple dashboard form via an algorithm? Will it be combined with other workers on the team and used in some sort of gamification strategy to encourage competition and ultimately performance?

It may be too early to tell, but the approach used by most companies is most likely to be customized toward each person. This means that what is monitored and how it is fed back to the employee could be unique to each person based on their needs and the learned response patterns to the feedback.

The other part of this data collection effort in the near term is tied to our smartphones, which have become such a part of our lives we are rarely without them beyond an arm’s length. It is common to tour offices and find workers sitting in front of two 20-inch monitors connected to a $2,000 desktop while answering email on their smartphones. How much of our daily output is performed on smartphones rather than company laptop or desktop units? We know most adults average more than three hours per day on their smartphones and our own research with college students shows even higher usage rates. Most of the better software for tracking productivity is tied to one device or the other. In the near term, it won’t matter which device we interact with or which software; they will all be informed by our biomarkers, behaviors and outputs.

For home-based office workers, much of what has happened in the corporate office setting has failed to catch up with their remote options. The clear benefit for companies to employees working from home is real estate cost. In addition to lease costs for space, most companies do not furnish, clean, monitor for hazards or provide utilities for those who work remotely. A home gym or home cafeteria does not come with each home office.

Does our duty to safeguard our workforce cease if a worker performs a job from home or while traveling? I would say no; it should continue wherever they perform their work. This means home workers should be provided similar ergonomic workstations, software and safe environments as those working in corporate settings.

Should companies monitor the air, sound and physical safety of these home or remote environments? Our early pilot work on those home hazard says yes. When deficiencies are noted, should companies fund interventions and improvements? Is it time for OSHA to reconsider its hands-off approach to homework environments?

Beyond these obvious output metrics, how do we measure the collaboration level of a team or the creativity that one environment, group or leadership structure enhances? What about metrics connected to culture and inclusivity?

As industrial engineers, we should seek ways to measure these types of important metrics to tie them to company performance. It is critical that we be involved in determining the metrics to be used along with the common set of security features that will protect data of individuals while allowing that sharing across large groups to impact population health and overall productivity.

No doubt about it, this is going to be tougher than measuring widgets produced from an assembly line to standardize for mechanical parts. But industrial and systems engineers have a rich history of not looking away when opportunities to optimize arise. This challenge should not be different.

Source: IISE Magazine March 2020