Office Politics

Creating the perfect office is less about current trends and aesthetics, and more about functionality, accessibility, productivity and efficiency

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By  Charlotte Butterfield Published  May 7, 2006

|~|office-body1.jpg|~||~|The word ‘ergonomics’ is derived from two Greek words ‘ERG’ meaning ‘work’ and ‘NOMOS’ meaning ‘laws of’ or ‘principles of’. It is a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary applied science concerned with the laws of work aiming to enhance quality, productivity, and safe human performance by fitting products, tasks, and environments to the users. Ergonomics is increasingly becoming a commonplace word, especially in the office environment. It refers to the study of designing objects, such as chairs, keyboards, and workstations, to be well adapted to the form of the human body.

From an interior design perspective, ergonomics strives to design a working environment in which the workers’ productivity and efficiency is optimised and the health risks are minimised as much as practically possible. Benefits include an enhanced rate of productivity and work quality; a reduction in occupational illness or injury; lowered levels of absenteeism and increased job satisfaction.

Jon Steiner, Cityspace, specialists in corporate space planning and ergonomics, says: “Ergonomics is not just about keyboard position or seating adjustments; the design of the workplace layout must be carefully planned – including space planning elements such as defining the basic layout, desk size and shape, storage proximity, adjacencies and circulation space.”

Our society has evolved into one that spends more and more hours working at the computer. Sitting at poorly designed workstations can contribute to problems such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and repetitive stress injuries (RSI). Bad ergonomics can also cause back and neck pain, frequent headaches, and other related health issues. Research in the US has shown that for every dollar invested in an ergonomic intervention strategy (e.g. RSI prevention), in an office environment, there is a return of $17.50 (Source: Buckle 1999). In addition, organisations that employ strategies to improve workplace ergonomics have found that musculoskeletal disorders (resulting in lost work time) were three times less likely to occur (Source: Schneider 1998).
Steiner highlights the evolution of the office and the various progressions that have occurred in the commercial office space over the last 50 years: “The first cellular office was Bürolandschaft in the 1950’s. It was the first attempt to design a truly cybernetic office on entirely new free-flowing, inter-connective principles. The subservient architecture simply wrapped around it.”

This was followed by the Herman Miller Action Office in the 1960’s, which was influenced by the free-form patterns of Bürolandschaft. “This involved a system of components that could be adapted and recombined to suit the evolving design of an office space — whether it be the addition of a new headcount, space saving requirements or new tasks to be carried out within that workspace.”||**||Basic principles for ergonomic design|~|office-body-2.jpg|~||~|The design and planning of ergonomic offices incorporates a number of key principles that contribute to health, safety, and worker productivity and efficiency.

1. Effective work areas
A good workstation design will have a semi-circle of activity within which all the working material is prioritised. All frequently used material should be within arms reach directly in front of the user.

2. Working heights
Working heights are dependant on the specific anthropometry of the users and on the type of work being conducted. In a well-designed office working space, the users have the ability to work in a seated or standing posture and alternating between the two is encouraged.

3. Posture
Design of all equipment in the office should aim to ensure that the s-curve of the spinal column is always retained, whether you’re sitting at your desk or standing up to work.

4. Reduction of static muscular loading
Maintaining the same position for a period of time is known as static muscular loading and this adds to fatigue, discomfort and eventually leads to musculoskeletal disorders. Thus, choosing ergonomically designed furniture is imperative, as it ensures safe and comfortable working postures.

5. Work space
How much space do workers require? Some factors to consider:
Nature of work: Is the work field or desk based? How many meetings take place daily? In general, how much time is spent at the desk?

Cultural aspects: Different cultures have different perceptions of personal space, which is a key factor in a multi cultural city like Dubai where many cultures work together.
Individual perception: The amount of space available can have profound psychological meaning. It is natural for people to strive to occupy more space.
Anthropometry (body dimensions): Actual office space requirements depend on the size and shape of employees. Health and safety aspects must be considered.||**||Lighting|~|office-body-lights.jpg|~||~|Good office lighting is vital. Bad lighting can result in eyestrain and cause headaches. It also encourages poor posture as users lean close to their work or the computer monitor. This can contribute to repetitive stress injuries (RSI). Glare from reflective surfaces such as glass desks contributes to eyestrain and thus should be minimised as much as possible. Implementing non-directional lighting by the screen can reduce monitor glare.

Adjustable sources of lighting near work areas should be considered, as during different periods of the day, variable strength of lighting is needed. Consider lighting the wall/space behind the computer to avoid pockets of darkness that contrast with the brightness of the monitor. The suggested healthy range for office lighting is between 300-500Lux.

Mixing colours in your lighting scheme (i.e. incandescent and halogen) offers more variety. A pleasing effect will increase productivity and keep eyes from tiring as quickly. Clamp-on lamps and other adjustable lighting allow you to fine-tune the amount and proximity of lighting on the monitor/work area.
Steiner says: “Access to natural light is essential for people to be healthy, but it is rarely possible for each and every employee to be adjacent to a natural light source due to building shape and size. Long thin building footprints are desirable as they have a large perimeter compared to their area and would not deprive working areas of light. However, this benefit is offset by long distances and inhibited communication. Space planning creativity and use of transparent/glazed materials can help.” He cites the example of IFC’s regional offices in DIFC, which were space planned to create all open workspace areas to be next to the windows. Private manager rooms are located in the central core, but have fully glazed walls to encourage open communication and allow natural light to flood through the workplace.

Philips understands that the working environment is changing beyond all recognition. “Lighting plays a key role in the new office environment. Flexible and dynamic, it enables people to function to the best of their ability, regardless of whether they are working on the computer, reading, meeting or brainstorming. The ideal lighting system is inconspicuous, yet creates the right conditions to make office lighting pleasant and productive.” In the new office, people can control the lighting to suit their own personal preferences, mood, needs and working situation. The individual enjoys real freedom and comfort by this ‘personal light,’ enabling them to perform better. ||**||Acoustics|~|office-body-3.jpg|~||~|Managing acoustics is a massive challenge, especially with today’s popularity of open plan offices. The ideal acoustic solution aims to provide adequate privacy, promote effective communication, prevent conversational and noise distraction and promote productivity. Edward Adamczyk, PMK Consultants, specialises in office acoustics. He suggests some easy ways to lower noise levels when planning workstations:

Isolate occupants from noise sources by blocking lines of sight, partition heights should ideally be more than 1.7m and cover /seal any gaps for electrical cords.

Ensure that occupants face away from one another.
For workstations at perimeters, minimise noise reflections off the façade windows using blinds that can scatter the sound, or extend the dividing screen up to the windows (if practicable).

Add sound absorptive materials to the screens, heavy fabric is ideal or use acoustic-spray on the material for added buffering of noise. Sound absorptive finishes should achieve high acoustical ratings (i.e. NRC > 0.90 to ASTM C423 or Class A to EN 11654).

Avoid covering the screens with shelves, picture frames, etc., as they cover the sound absorptive materials.

Install a sound masking system, which can artificially raise the background noise and reduce the intrusion of other sounds within the office.

Steiner adds: “Space planners need to ensure adequate space between position of people and their workspaces and control over densities, to keep control over unwanted/excess noise. The actual positioning of individual desks can help. For example, in call centres, individual workstations can be arranged in a ‘zigzag’ pattern to help combat excess noise and disturbance. The inclusion of bookable ‘quiet rooms’ in new office layouts can provide a solution for times when people need to concentrate.” Adamczyk advises designers to: “Avoid flat lens lights (prismatic-lensed luminaries) as they reflect sound over partitions. Instead, use open grille lights (parabolic louvered luminaries) as they can scatter sound away from the adjacent workstation.”

An example of successful acoustic management is the BMW Head Office in Liepzig, which has an open plan space with 750 people working in a number of different roles from administrators to factory workers. The office workers sit directly beneath the assembly lines that have the capacity to make up to 650 cars a day.

The brief was that machinery needed to operate in a working office where people have to conduct meetings and talk on the phone etc. The solutions implemented by Bene include suspended conveyor belts, numerous fabric-backed perforated ‘modesty panels’ and personal think tanks for extra privacy and quietness.||**||Spatial Theories|~|office-body-4.jpg|~||~|SPATIAL THEORIES
Jon Steiner from Cityspace offers space-planning advice to office designers:

“The shape of the building is the first consideration when planning a space for people, as well as the footprint size and number of floors. The traditional rectangle is still considered an efficient shape, though every shape and size has its pros and cons. Strong novelty shapes such as triangles, circles or hexagons often mean that precious space is wasted. The ratio of usable to lettable area should be at least 85% to allow for effective work patterns - less than 75% is not desirable.

In terms of work-styles – balancing private and open workspace is a well-known challenge. Although efficient in terms of space planning, cubicles have been a much-maligned way of planning an office layout of recent. Ergonomically, cubicles bring certain challenges such as blocking out essential light and air to the cubicle occupier. High partitions or screens also create a feeling of being ‘closed-in’. Nowadays, the trend is for more open workspace, with greater proportion of space allocated to group areas at the expense of shrinking private individual workspace.

Space planning standards vary around the world due to factors such as indigenous human size/height, culture and real estate costs/design, but are defined according to local safety and ergonomic requirements. In the UK for example, the minimum area per person (open workspace) is 3.7 – 4.2 sqm, but ideally a minimum of 4.2 – 6 sqm per person should be allocated.

Adjacencies refers to the relationship and physical location of the various people groups or departments within a company. Space planners need to design the office layout to optimise the communication channels between them and the corresponding flow of people to avoid congestion and aid efficiency.

It has been researched that teamwork is more prevalent with people grouped in clustered workstations, which use less floor space but at the expense of ergonomic considerations. To compensate, new space planning concepts have been created such as quiet rooms, chill out rooms, huddle spaces and team rooms.

Primary circulation space should be about 15 – 20% over and above work areas. The primary circulation route (which links access and major groups) should be not less than 2m wide – possibly more depending on flow and volume of people traffic. Secondary circulation (which connects groups) should be not less than 1.5 m wide. Tertiary circulation (within working groups) should be not less that 0,75 m wide. Simple circulation routes are advised to allow people easy exit in case of emergency. Doors should be sized and positioned to swing freely without obstruction.

Space planners cannot easily alter the position and size of windows, but can maximise the light by planning enclosed space in the building core. Solid walls are giving way to moveable and flexible partitions to create and recreate an ergonomic space on demand. In addition, the value of a visible, well-planned reception area, with easy access to refreshments and amenities, for both visitor and employee comfort alike is paramount. Achieving the right balance between hierarchy and privacy is the main challenge for space planners. ||**|||~|office-body-chair.jpg|~||~|Charles van Schalkwyk, ergonomist and exercise/work physiologist suggests that the perfect ergonomic chair should have the following:

1. Seat height adjustability to attain the correct working height.

2. Seat depth adjustability to change the front depth of the chair.

3. Backrest angle adjustability which transfers upper-body weight to the chair backrest and lightens the load on the lower back’s intervertebral discs.The angle between the torso and the thighs is increased, causing the lower back to curve inward, which is called “lordosis,” resulting in less pressure on the discs than a flat spinal shape.

4. Chair recline or tilt, which changes the angle of the entire seat relative to the floor. As with backrest angle adjustability, a reclined chair transfers some upper-body weight to the backrest of the chair.

5. Seat pan angle adjustability, which generally refers to changing the forward-back angle of the seat. It consists of a choice of fixed angle, rather than a free-floating recline. Often, this feature provides forward tilt, in which the thighs slope downward. The main purpose of forward tilt is to open the angle between the trunk and thighs, inducing lordosis and reducing disc pressure.

6. Height-adjustable armrests to help avoid the problems of too-high armrests, which result in elevated shoulders and pressure on the undersides of the elbows and forearms — and too-low armrests, which require the worker to slump or lean to one side to use them. Height-adjustable armrests can also be kept out of the way during typing or other activities requiring free motion.

7. Lumbar support is vital to prevent the flattening of the lumbar spine that occurs in most people when seated. Lumbar support is usually achieved through gentle curves in the chair’s backrest shape.

8. Lumbar depth adjustability which affects the size and sometimes the firmness of the lumbar support curve in a chair’s backrest. Like backrest height adjustability, it accommodates different preferences and body shapes.||**||Finishing Touches|~|Office-finishing.jpg|~||~|Work environments have to have key components – chair, desk, computer, monitor, mouse, and keyboard. To make the area completely ergonomic a few additions are necessary. A monitor arm brings the screen to eye level. Colebrook Bosson Saunders (CBS products) is a designer and manufacturer of office accessories focusing on ergonomic and space saving solutions for the office and general working environment. Its Wishbone flat screen arm family has, to date, won five international design awards.

A keyboard tray under the desk allows for more desk space and a more comfortable angle for typing. Footrests encourage movement and weight distribution. The largest growth area in the entire IT sector is the use of laptops and notebook computers, with mobile computing now representing more than 30% of European PC sales (Source: Canalys, 2004). This increased usage has actually prompted its own orthopaedic syndrome; ‘laptop hunch disease’ where workers bend over the screen causing undue pressure to the neck and back. One solution is using laptop stands or notebook managers, which elevate the screen and can be used in conjunction with a separate keyboard, as laptop keyboards aren’t recommended for everyday use. ||**||

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