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The ergonomics of things: offices future-fit for hybrid work

When Covid-19 hit, the world as we knew it was swept away, forcing thousands of businesses to close permanently or to opt for their employees to work from home.  

This birthed the hybrid work model which, according to research by PwC, has provided a short-term productivity boost in most workplaces around the world.

As we adapt to the ‘new normal’, companies have either embraced the hybrid work approach or, they have chosen to revert back to the traditional setup, slowly integrating their workforce back into the office on a full-time basis.

Water cooler chit-chat

Pre-Covid-19, the ‘go to’ fitout consisted of employees sharing an office, each with a desk, a link, and an extension. Office fitouts evolved to focus on fostering creativity within a workspace while maximising floor space (density) and factoring in cost.

Just before the pandemic hit, most office fit outs were designed to support new ways of thinking with employers placing large numbers of employees into smaller spaces. There was a sense of uniformity in terms of colour schemes too. Stock standard fit out designs included open-plan with ‘bench desking’ – placing groups of twelve or so employees opposite each other and incorporating co-lab spaces”, says Cheryl Weidemann, Sales Manager for All Office , a third-generation office furniture supplier headquartered in Cape Town.

Post-Covid-19, Cheryl says an office fit out needs to be about understanding the emotional, cognitive, physical needs of a workforce emerging from a pandemic.

Employees want to be assured that they are returning to a safe office environment. Open plan spaces are going to reduce with soft seating replaced by ‘surround booths’ or ‘pods’ where employees can work by themselves. Breakaway spaces will still be required but they will become smaller. Companies who typically sought 2 000m2 to fit 200 plus employees is a thing of the past; I believe it will be about flexible workspaces where employees can go into the office for a shorter period of time and continue working from home. Diversification and technology will play equal parts in office fitouts going forward”.

Sean Gotkin, Vice President of Business Development at All Office says workspace fit outs are now more purpose-driven, focusing on the experience rather than just ‘clocking in and clocking out’.

Management needs to provide their employees with an experience. Mental health plays a huge role in this too, especially with hybrid working in the mix. You won’t get the best out of your employees if they are sitting in a row of empty desks due to the split or structuring of your teams. Apple in the USA, for example, have one large restaurant which was introduced pre-Covid-19, purely so that their employees engage with each other”.

Aches and pains

While research illustrates that face-to-face interaction induces productivity, many companies need to provide both a conducive office environment and a comfortable work-from-home setup when their employees are being ‘forced’ to return to work versus wanting to return to the office and there is a big debate on just how liable employers are for the wellbeing of their workforce.    

One would argue that an employer is responsible irrespective while others believe that they carry less responsibility because they are able to provide their employees with a safe and healthy office to function from, yet their employees choose to remain working from home.

Either way, it is critical that employees are productive, says Dale Kennedy, Certified Ergonomics Professional from Ergomax.

From our research, the discomforts experienced by ‘home workers’ differ from those experienced by office workers. For home workers, these have shifted to the upper limb i.e., shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers, and neck pains, most likely, from sitting on their bed or couch on a laptop. Whereas office workers experience more headaches, eye strain and lower back pain”.

Our clients have taken different approaches. One client simply ignored their employees’ wellbeing when working from home and now, on returning to the office, they have a host of ergonomic-related injuries which becomes a workplace problem, and it costs the company. I have suggested to clients that they do online ergonomics risk assessments to purely cover their bases and to find out what setups their employees have at home. Do they have height-adjustable chairs and desks? We often assume that everyone has an adequate office setup at home, but they don’t”.

Dale’s advice to employers would be to ensure that their employees’ workspaces are as flexible as possible i.e., ‘functionally responsible’.

Work with a professional company who has a wide range of ergonomic furniture and who is not a ‘one size fits all’. Invest in the best ergonomics chair that your budget allows for but ensure that it is height adjustable, and the arm rests can adjust too – this will give you the ‘best bang for your buck’”.

Work well, live well, be well

One of the biggest mistakes that employers make is not factoring in ergonomic furniture in their office fitout budget allocation, says Sean.

Our clients who have adopted hybrid working, have realised that a dining room chair at home and an ergonomic chair in the office is not going to cut it. We offer a wide range of independently ergonomically certified chairs ranging in price from R3 000 to R9 000 – all with eight-year warranties – to cater to hybrid working.

The ergonomically certified StepUp Sit-to-Stand chair available through All Office.

The setup of an office is one thing but keeping the dialogue open, whether between HR and office management, is crucial. We have seen this with our clients who all have different office fitout size requirements which has allowed us to assist them with multiple solutions”.

If we continue to work in an environment that is not ideal for our health, we will physically feel this twenty or so years down the line. Pre-Covid-19, ergonomics was a buzz word, but post-Covid-19, it has become a collective conscious”.

Chat to Sean and his team about your future-fit office: