The ‘Soft Office’ is in Need of a Professional’s Touch
While it’s a common consideration for commercial offices, the concept of ergonomics is something that seems to have gotten lost in the hybrid office and work-from-home models. To this day, home renovation reports clients are still using the living room or the kitchen as their home office set-up, and while this may have been fine for when we weren’t sure how long things would last, the truth is most work routines, whether its in office, hybrid or remote work, are settled for the foreseeable future.
Continuing with these casual set-ups, however, can be more harmful than one might think at the outset. At the best it may provide moderate discomfort, and at the worst, it can lead to serious musculoskeletal issues in due time, something that is already starting to occur in the home office.
It doesn’t take much to improve the setting vastly, however. There is a role designers have to play as specifiers and educators on solutions that can help greatly improve their client’s lives and workstyles, which is why I recently spoke with Jonathan Puleio, ergonomics expert and design consultant at Humanscale, for more insight on the topic.
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation, highlighting the basics of ergonomics for a work from home set-up. For our full conversation where we dive deeper into products, set-up and more, you can check out the full episode of the DesignWell Podcast over here.
DesignWell (DW): Let’s talk about the home office, or maybe the lack thereof. Have you guys done any research into seeing what the spread is of home office vs. work from home?
Johnathan Puleio (JP): We specifically haven’t done research on this, but there’s a ton of information available, and what we know is that since the pandemic, more than 85 million Americans have been working from home. That’s well over 50% of the US workforce, so it’s prevalent, and continues today. Even as we arguably come out of the pandemic, home working is incredibly prevalent.
And I believe very strongly it’s here to stay. There are far too many benefits for the employee and there are also a host of benefits for the employer. I think most companies will adopt a flex work environment with some type of a balance between home and office. I think that’s just the reality. We must come to terms with that. Most industries will favor a flexible model.
DW: For those flex workers, would you consider a full home office is necessary? Even if it’s one day out of the week they’re working from home?
JP: Yeah, I do. We define an intensive computer user as just four hours of computer use per day, so even if you were only using a work from home environment for eight hours the entire week, that would still present enough risk from a health and safety standpoint where we would absolutely recommend looking at the design of that space.
DW: So, let’s talk about ergonomics before we launch too deeply into it because I think for a lot of us ergonomics is just used to describe chairs.
JP: In its purest or most basic form, ergonomics is all about fitting the environment to the worker. We don’t typically do a very good job of that in the built environment, or at home, for that matter. In most instances, what we have are environments where the worker is conforming their body to the work.
That’s very, very different than the practice of ergonomics, which is a design-based discipline where we’re looking at opportunities to redesign the built environment to better fit the human operator, or the worker, and so it’s all about design, it’s all about fit, it’s all about bringing the body to a neutral posture.
DW: Now I know everyone is pressed for space today in homes, so let’s talk about the space a home office takes up? What are some requirements there?
JP: It [space] is critically important. Think about the millions of workers in New York City that maybe have multiple roommates working out of small apartments. There’s no way feasible for them to have three or four desks in a common room. They’re forced to work out of their bedrooms, and in many instances, the bedroom is the size of the bed itself, so the idea of even having a dedicated desk is thrown out the window.
Many home workers have had to get incredibly creative with respect to their setups, and as a result, they’ve put themselves in some risky postures throughout the pandemic, and it continues to be a problem. Of course, when the pandemic began, we had no idea how long-term or temporary this was going to be, and so many workers just made do.
Interestingly, what the research suggests is that since the pandemic, over 40% of those working from home have increased musculoskeletal symptoms, and that makes perfect sense, given the inadequacy of the home work environments that we’ve seen, so I’d argue that the space is incredibly important. It’s not like you need a 10-by-10 dedicated office, but the idea of having a work surface and some level of controllability and adjustability in that space is incredibly important.
Really, from an ergonomic standpoint, the most valuable real estate to the user from a health-and-wellness standpoint is described by the sweep of the forearms, so you don’t need a terribly large work surface to work in a neutral posture or ergonomically correct. We’ve seen perfectly adequate setups on 24-inch-deep work surfaces that are not even 48 inches wide.
I mean, you can probably get away with a little bit less. I don’t know how common those are, but arguably, a 30-inch-wide work surface would be just fine provided you had some adjustability and control over the components that are attached to that work surface.
DW: Is there anything else you think would be important to focus on without it resulting in too expensive of a setup for the client?
JP: There’s a category of need to have versus nice to have and there’s sort of a hierarchy of those tools. That being said, this really needs to be looked at as an investment in one’s health, the same reason why you probably would not opt to sleep on a $100 or $200 mattress. We seemed to have gotten through that conversation as a population. If you think about it, most people use their workstations significantly longer than they use their mattresses, and so we should make investments in those areas.
However, that initial investment does not have to be thousands and thousands of dollars to see a benefit. It also really depends on what we’re starting with. A lot of companies now have programs in place where they’re offering reimbursements for some basic tools like external monitors or wireless input devices.
Some companies are even supporting their employees with respect to seating. They may not cover the full value of the chair, but they’re offering stipends to cover a good portion of it, and then it’s on the onus of the employee to decide if they want to add to that.
Really, one of the more expensive things is the work surface and whether or not that work surface is height-adjustable or not. That can be a big ticket item as well as the chair, of course, but there are ways to reduce costs and there are ways to focus on postural improvement, in some instances, without even buying anything.
I mean, as an example, although it might not meet your aesthetic requirements, a box functions well as a footrest in some instances, so really, it depends on what the employee is looking to achieve and what their aesthetic requirements are.