The Best Ergonomic Design Features Are “Invisible”

An ergonomics expert discusses how design needs to better understand the human body.

Ergonomics—everyone thinks they get it, and yet so much of the conversation still revolves around things like chair design. But the field encompasses so much more, as Jonathan Puleio made clear to me when we spoke recently. The director of consulting at Humanscale, Puleio has helped the company to develop new ergonomic solutions for the workplace. More than that, he has expanded the design discussion surrounding technology and our changing bodies.

The culprits are prolonged sitting and mobile devices, he says. To counter these tendencies, companies have become very interested “in implementing strategies that will promote movement and postural variation, such as sit/stand desks.” The goal is to vary body postures and allow for easy adjustments. If you can do those things, employees will be happier, Puleio explains. Because of this—the relation between happy and productive workers—believes that ergonomics will only become more integral to businesses.

How is ergonomics more than just a design tool? What other factors does it encompass?

The field of ergonomics draws on knowledge from a variety of disciplines, such as industrial engineering, biomechanics, environmental science, cognitive psychology, and medicine. Designing for human use requires a thorough understanding of the body’s capacities and limitations. Good ergonomic design improves human performance, reduces risk of injury, and maximizes comfort.

In what ways have you updated the concept of ergonomics to a time when people are so immersed in digital technology?

Although the devices we use have evolved over time, ergonomics principles have essentially remained constant. The health risks associated with technology use such as awkward posture, repetition, and duration are more prevalent than ever. Technology use is widespread in homes and no longer confined to the office. We are sitting for longer durations than ever before. Mobile technology has introduced additional postural risks such as neck flexion and repetitive thumb movements. Now, the emphasis is also on addressing the health risks associated with static postures. Companies are very interested in implementing strategies that will promote movement and postural variation, such as sit/stand desks. Training and education continue to play a significant role in keeping workers healthy. It’s surprising, however, how many companies have well-established health and wellness programs, yet haven’t incorporated ergonomics in their design agenda. We see this gap as an obvious opportunity for improvement.

How are manufacturers reacting to the type of health risks and bad habits brought on by device culture and the untethered office? How can the design of office products begin to address these issues?

Mobile devices were not intended for prolonged use, and yet, because their functionality has increased dramatically, they are being used in place of traditional computing devices for durations that are well outside recommended thresholds. Manufactures have addressed these concerns by introducing products that are designed to interface with devices such as laptops, tablets, and smart phones. Products such as laptop holders, monitor arms, external input devices, and articulating keyboard supports can be used to mitigate postural problems. The portability of these devices has improved, though there are still significant opportunities for innovation in this space.  

Task lighting has resurfaced as we spend more and more of our time in front of screens.

Let’s talk about the workplace. What about the office typology makes it such fertile ground for research and invention?

There are very few environments humans spend more time occupying than the modern workplace. As our knowledge of the human body improves and the health risks of prolonged computer use are better understood, opportunities for improving long term health outcomes continue to emerge. Technology usage will continue to test the limits of the body and so there will always be opportunities to innovate. Companies that fund ergonomics research should be applauded for their contribution to the field. As with all other disciplines, lack of funding will dramatically slow progress.

What’s changed in the last year in terms of office design trends, do you think?

We are seeing a shift away from traditional cubicles to benching systems and height-adjustable tables. Companies are adding more collaborative areas, multi-use spaces, and touch-down workstations to cater to mobile workers. “Hot desking” and “hoteling” strategies are being used to improve occupancy rates while reducing overhead. Task lighting has reemerged as ambient light levels have been lowered to optimize monitor viewing and reduce energy consumption.

The M8 Monitor Arm gives users the chance to adjust a computer screen, thus mitigating postural problems.

What products is Humanscale currently developing to address issues like ergonomics in a new way?

Demand for sit/stand solutions has increased in recent years as more information on the detriments of prolonged sitting has become available. Humanscale’s sit/stand technology, Float, employs a counterbalance mechanism that affords quick and near effortless adjustment. Ease of use in this product category is particularly important as the required adjustment time is directly linked to the likelihood that any user will actually make the adjustment.

Humanscale’s QuickStand product is designed to convert a traditional seated workstation into a functional sit/stand workstation. QuickStand employs the same technology used in Float for excellent ease of adjustment. 

Innovations like Humanscale’s Form-Sensing Mesh Technology react to the weight and posture of the sitter to optimize comfort levels.

How do you see ergonomics evolving down the line?

As new technologies emerge, ergonomics principles will continue to inform the design process. The best ergonomic designs are often ones that are invisible to the user because they benefit the user automatically, without the requirement of thought or action. Task chairs, for example, that automatically self adjust to the user’s body weight eliminate the need for manual controls. Proper chair adjustment should reduce worker discomfort and yield better long-term health outcomes. We are likely to see more examples of these types of features in office settings across all product categories.

From an organizational standpoint, ergonomics will be seen as an integral part of a business strategy as companies have begun to realize that uncomfortable workers are less productive and significantly more costly.

Jonathan Puleio is director of consulting at Humanscale. 

Ergonomics and technology are changing office design. Enter the Workplace of the Future 2.0 Design Competition for a chance to win up to $10,000.

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