Darren Hilliker, architecture and design manager at CMD Ltd, discusses the risks of poor ergonomics in hot-desking environments and suggests some solutions.
With both the government and many employers keen to get people back into the office after so much disruption and so many false dawns, there is an opportunity for interior architects to redefine what offices should like.
The agile office we used to talk about now needs to be real, providing workers with the flexibility to turn up, plug in and get on with their job for as many days a week as their company policy mandates. The pandemic, and the home-working revolution it brought about, have been the catalyst required to making hot-desking more accepted. At a time when climate change is high on the media and political agenda, hot-desking practices also align with many companies’ sustainability goals for a paperless environment and reduced carbon emissions from fewer journeys to work.
For architects, there are opportunities to innovate with layouts and design features that support a sense of wellbeing and community, and we must remember that physical wellbeing is just as important and mental health. Agile working models that combine home-working with hot-desking mean that employees have to adjust to sitting at a different workstation – with a potentially different seating, desk and screen configuration – every day. This not only involves cerebral and emotional challenges as individuals adjust to a lack of defined personal space; it also entails the physical challenge of adjusting their posture. To help them do this, office specifiers not only need to consider the workstation and seating in hot-desking environments, but also the need for easily adjustable monitor arms and laptop stands.
Why is an ergonomic workstation so important?
Working at a screen that is too low, too high or in a position that causes the user to twist to see it properly can result in poor posture and, over time, this can lead to musculoskeletal strain and ergonomic injury. Conditions caused by poor workstation ergonomics include neck and back strain, RSI (repetitive strain injury), tendinitis and tennis elbow, and the impact can range from discomfort to pain that reduces productivity or prompts time off work. It is estimated that a third of workplace injuries in office environments are due to ergonomic factors.
Part of the problem with ergonomic injuries, however, is that people don’t always realise that poor ergonomics at their workstation is compromising their posture and putting strain on their body. They may compensate for an awkward seating position or screen height by hunching over their keyboard, twisting their spine or looking up at their screen, all of which can cause damage. In a hot-desking environment, it is not possible to do an ergonomic assessment every time a new user starts work at the workstation, so the only solution is to specify equipment that can be easily adjusted for plug-and-play customisation by the user.
Ergonomic solutions for environments
There are three key solutions that can be installed in office environments to aid flexibility of workstations for ergonomic wellbeing.
Sit/stand desks are increasingly popular as these not only allow the user to adjust the height of the desk when seated, but also to vary between working in a seated and standing position. However, the cost of these desks can be an obstacle for specification in some environments and not all office workers want or need sit/stand functionality.
Use of an ergonomic chair is an important factor too, because the chair supports the spine and encourages a good seating position. A good chair should also be height adjustable and provide options for neck, back and arm support.
Selecting the right monitor arm is perhaps the easiest and most effective measure for adapting workstations for different users quickly and easily. A monitor arm, which attaches to any desk with a universal C clamp fixing and enables fingertip movement of the screen position enables the user to adjust a single or double screen configuration to the optimum height and position for them by easily moving them up, down, sideways or forwards and back.
Many agile working models involve people working from laptops at home and bringing them into the office, so workstations should also enable rapid ergonomic set up of a laptop alongside a monitor. This could include a single monitor support plus a laptop support, along with sockets and USB type A&C charging to provide ease of adjustment for both the monitor and laptop screen with the use of a separate key board, along with powering and charging of multiple devices.
The long-term effects of the pandemic on the way work environments are designed and utilised are still emerging. It is clear, however, that workstations suitable for adapting to individuals are a key element of both productivity and wellbeing for end users.