The Future Office Could Be Your Living Room. Here’s How to Equip Workers with Proper Ergonomic Support

ErgoExpo kicks off with a virtual general session designed to continue to ergonomic conversation on what the future holds for employees working from home in the era of COVID.
By: | August 31, 2020

COVID-19 hit employees hard as most of the workforce was required to transition to work-from-home.

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But perhaps nothing hit employees harder than the fact that the ratio of employees to facilities immediately became 1:1.

It was hard enough to keep employees up-to-date with ergonomic practices in the office environment, but now? Nearly impossible. Or so you may think…

Though we are not alone in this unfortunate turn of events, the pandemic infringed on our ability to meet in person for the 2020 National Ergonomics Conference. But kicking off on August 26, ergonomic experts Jonathan Puleio, Linda Miller, David Damico and Kibibi Springs did not disappoint on delivering content every remote employee can turn into progress and productivity.

In the general virtual session that marked the start of a monthly series of ErgoExpo sessions to be delivered throughout 2021, “COVID-19 and the Future of the Office” delivered on everything from at-home ergonomic assessments to wearables to emotional well-being, all catered to the home environment.

What’s Changed?

According to Jonathan Puleio, global vice president, Humanscale Consulting, 58% of America’s workforce — equivalent to 85 million people — are currently working from home. Twenty-five to thirty percent of this number will continue to work from home even after the effects of the pandemic subside.

While 86% of employees report feeling more productive from home, the real challenge lies with employers:

  • As previously stated, the ratio of employees to work facilities immediately became 1:1, making it nearly impossible to know the needs of each employee and deliver on those needs in a timely fashion.

  • Facilities’ teams have little to no visibility into the home environments.

  • Ergonomic equipment is often incompatible with home furniture.

“I feel strongly that there is a lot of room to innovate in this area,” said Puleio. “A software assisted approach is really the way to go as opposed to accommodating work-from-home employees based on the actual need versus the perceived need.”

Administering Ergonomics Assessments

Dr. Linda Miller, president and certified occupational therapist/ergonomist, EWI Works

Before the pandemic, only 7.5 million Americans worked from home, which is a small number in comparison to today.

“When we looked at the actual stats, one-third of the total workforce transitioned to the home office, and we had very little time to prepare,” said Linda Miller, president and certified occupational therapist/ergonomist at EWI Works.

Now, the challenge lies in setting boundaries between work and home environments when they are confined to the same space.

According to Miller, many employers lack an employee-process from an ergonomist perspective, let alone a process that assists in a remote setting. Even when employers have equipment to recommend, obtaining equipment has become more difficult due to the pandemic disrupting supply chains.

In the beginning of quarantine, it seemed as though telecommuting was a temporary fix, but many employers want to wait to return to a work environment until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, or — possibly — even longer. Therefore, a work setting that is not ergonomic-friendly could cause major injuries in the interim.

“We’re not doing a lot of proactive work; we’re doing a lot of reactive work where people are experiencing a lot of shoulder, upper back and neck issues … things are becoming much more ‘talk-based,’ so it’s changing the nature in how we deliver assessments,” Miller said.

With this in mind, assessing the psychological work environment is as important as the physical. Suddenly, employees may be sharing work spaces with spouses, roommates or even their children, and problems can arise in those scenarios.

“We’re not only focusing on the physical, but we’re really focusing on some of those psychological risks as well,” said Miller. “There are a lot of differences in anxiety and readiness to be back in the workplace. Some people are very excited to be back and others are not.”

Wearable Technology 

We all wish that we could click our heels three times and the obstacles of the pandemic would be nothing but a distant memory.

“Similar to Dorothy and Toto’s experience, today’s offices aren’t where they used to be. Fortunately for Dorothy, when she woke up, things were back to normal,” said David Damico, vice president and senior ergonomics consultant for Marsh Risk Consulting.

And while wearables usually apply to the labor workforce instead of remote, technology is once again proving to be on our side in such trying times.

Kibibi Springs, workplace well-being and knowledge lead, Eastern U.S. and New York City, Herman Miller

In fact, if technology hadn’t advanced so much over the last two decades, the pandemic may have taken an even more ravenous toll on the economy. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the telecommuting workforce increased by 100-150% between 2005 and 2010.

With this in mind, exoskeletons and posture sensing devices have been recognized for their high potential in reducing musculoskeletal disorders in this new reality.

“As our future offices provide connectivity to all things and flexibility to where and how work is done, ergonomists have to find ways to support the prevention [of] musculoskeletal disorders in an office environment without being present,” said Damico.

“Wearables give us a means of collecting some of this data by monitoring some of their associated risk.”

Managing Emotional Well-Being

When the pandemic took hold, everything was entirely overwhelming, and it was impossible to know where to start with questions regarding what would happen to the workplace.

Subconsciously, however, our minds were racing:

  • How do we adjust?
  • How do we balance engagement and well-being?
  • How do we prevent burnout?
  • How do we get ahead of the implications of long-term isolation?

In addition to adjusting to our new work realities, we also had to adjust to our new social realities, which likely eliminated commuting and evening gym sessions. There is a direct correlation between exercise and our mood, so a disruption to a healthy physical routine likely causes disruptions to a healthy mindset.

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“Movement really matters to our mood and our mindset. We all know this, but what we do about it is a different story,” said Kibibi Springs, workplace well-being and knowledge lead, Eastern U.S. and New York City, Herman Miller. “We had to get creative about how we maintained movement and well-being.”

Solutions to this included regular self-assessments regarding mental health, scheduling breaks throughout the day, and designing employee workflow in a way that encourages movement.

The general theme of the pandemic has been that there is no straight-line answer to anything — at least not in the near future. With the help of these speakers, building on the conversation will only contribute to a more ergonomic-centered future in everything that we do. &

Emily Spennato is a former staff writer with Risk & Insurance.

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