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Ergonomics Solutions to the Pitfalls of Hybrid Work

November 9, 2021 Ergo Inc.Health and Safety 231 Views

As we eagerly return to work in the office, many organizations are considering hybrid working models.

For some, this simply means working at home a few days a week and working in a pre-2020 office workstation for the remainder of a week. However, some companies see an opportunity to reduce their square footage footprint by implementing shared workstations, commonly referred to as hoteling stations. Employees of these organizations will likely find themselves sitting in a different workstation each time they come to the office.

While temporary workstations make sense for both financial and flexibility reasons, Ergonomists fear that the excitement to reimagine the office environment, may result in companies overlooking many ergonomics and human factors considerations. In doing so, they will place employees at risk for discomfort, injury, and reduced productivity.

While temporary workstations make sense for both financial and flexibility reasons, Ergonomists fear that the excitement to reimagine the office environment, may result in companies overlooking many ergonomics and human factors considerations. In doing so, they will place employees at risk for discomfort, injury, and reduced productivity.

Potential Pitfalls

Whether employees are returning to their pre-covid workstation or a temporary workstation, there is a question about the need to equip both this workspace and their home workspace with proper ergonomic equipment. If staff have taken their computer equipment and chairs home, are they expected to return these items to the office? Or are they expected to transport them back and forth?

When an employee sees a workstation as temporary or short term, Ergonomists find that they typically won’t take the time to adjust or set it up properly. This results in poor working postures, that can eventually lead to discomfort. Employees have been treating their home workstations as “temporary” for the duration of the pandemic and some are starting to feel the ill effects on their bodies.

If employees are expected to transport equipment back and forth, we anticipate that they may not bother to do so.

Furthermore, employers often assume that employees know how to adjust, use, and optimize their equipment. After over 25 years of ergonomics experience, ERGO Inc. would argue that the majority of people only know how to use and adjust a subset of their equipment. As an example, you may know how to adjust the height of your chair and its armrests, but you may not know how to adjust the chair’s tilt tension, lumbar support height or use the tilt limiter on the chair’s seat pan.

As a result of employees underusing ergonomic features of equipment, employers are not seeing the true benefit of the investment they have made into ergonomic equipment.

Beyond the impact of physical equipment in an office, we should also consider the psychosocial aspects of hybrid work. Many employees are apprehensive about returning to the office due to health concerns, or because it requires rebalancing childcare and family commitments.

Research has shown that one aspect of work that has suffered during the pandemic is the collaboration and informal learning that happens when we interact with colleagues in a physical space. If we don’t plan the return to the office to optimize employee interaction and collaboration, colleagues may attend work on opposite days, or not sit in the same work area due to a first come first serve workstation arrangement.

Ergonomics to the Rescue

The Canadian Standards Association Guideline for Office Ergonomics (CSA Z412-17) states that for any “prolonged” work, that laptops should be docked with peripherals (i.e., keyboard and mouse), and screens should be raised to eye level to promote healthy working postures. A full, or even half day, in the office or at home, qualifies as “prolonged”. This means that employees will need access to this equipment, as well as a supportive chair, in both of their working environments. This can be accomplished most easily by setting up a docking station at each workspace, where the laptop is either mounted on an adjustable arm, allowing employees to customize the height of the screen, or by making a secondary monitor available, in which case the laptop can be docked and closed. With respect to keyboards and mice, employees may be required to transport these back and forth, or employees could be provided with a second set to store at the office. Another option would be to share keyboards and mice by keeping a set at each hotelling station, but this method would require a sanitization protocol.

In most office environments, there will be employees who require footrests and/or adjustable keyboard trays to be able to achieve a proper working height. There also may be employees who have requirements for height adjustable sit/stand workstations, due to sitting limitations. Therefore, how should employers set up hoteling workstations to ensure each employee has what they need? The easiest solution for hoteling workstations is to install height adjustable work stations. The value of adjustable desks is not just in the ability to change posture throughout the day, but in the ability to customize the working height of the desk to 26” - 27”, rather than the standard 29”, which it too high for many people. Being able to lower a worktop to lower than standard desk height, eliminates the need for keyboard and mice trays, as well as footrests for most of the working population. Height adjustable workstations show forward thinking and create a truly customizable workstation. Research has shown that employees who feel autonomy over their work areas, are more comfortable, are more likely to be productive, happy, and are less likely to make errors.

After investing in ergonomic furniture and equipment, employers should ensure they educate their staff on how to optimize the use their workstation and equipment. An Ergonomist can help employers reap the benefits of their investment by developing ergonomic resources or providing proactive coaching to staff.

Ultimately, we should consider how to best promote collaboration and learning between colleagues. This may mean having designated work areas for departments, ensuring teams have some overlapping office days, and having areas designed for different types of interactions, e.g. small meeting rooms, telephone/video call booths, and collaborative areas for casual discussion.

By implementing this ergonomic knowledge into our return to work plan, we can ensure returning to the office is safe, enjoyable and productive.

Please contact ERGO Inc. today for ergonomic assistance with your hybrid work plan or any of your ergonomic or injury management needs.

Written by: Rachel Mitchell, R.Kin., MSc., CCPE, Manager of Ergonomic Services for ERGO Inc.

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