Redefining the Workplace

Everyone wants to be Google.

Or at least, everyone would like to work at Google. Google's efforts to create the happiest place to work includes more than free gourmet meals, massages, "nap pods," and other lavish perks. Their efforts center around a different way of looking at the workplace with a focus on my specialty, ergonomics. Ergonomics is human engineering, designing things or spaces so people can utilize them more comfortably, efficiently and safely.

Fortunately, workplaces around the country are following Google's lead. Organizations in every industry are realizing that their people are their most important assets and their workplace must be optimized for them. We have more than 20,000 policyholders across the Eastern Seaboard and, as MEMIC's Chief Ergonomist, I see the impact of poor workspace design on the bodies of employees and the bottom lines of companies as productivity decreases and health care and insurance costs rise. Here are some of the top workplace trends I see as organizations endeavor to increase productivity, improve the health of employees, and retain them for the long term.

Space is being redefined. We are simultaneously seeing smaller spaces and more spaces. We've all noticed personal workspaces getting smaller. The cube farms have been multiplying since the '80s, but even the cubes are getting smaller and the walls are getting lower. The folks in the corner office are not immune to the open office concept; they are losing square footage too. It makes sense, managers are on the floor more or in the field, meeting with their internal teams or external clients. It's all too easy for employees to see the negative and focus on what they are losing. That's why it is so crucial for management to effectively communicate what is gained through the reorganization and reprioritization of space.

Collaboration is being encouraged. Workers can't just be given less space, they must be given more diverse spaces and the autonomy to move around those spaces. Many workplaces, including MEMIC's, are creating collaboration spaces of different sizes so people aren't trapped at their desks or battling over who has reserved the large conference room when they only need a quick huddle with three or four co-workers. The effective open office is about space reflecting and enhancing organizational culture. Flattening the hierarchy, opening doors, increasing communication and collaboration, and breaking down departmental silos to create a more nimble and flexible organization that responds to challenges and solves problems quickly is the new paradigm.

Mobility is king. The workplace is dynamic; don't be left sitting still or you will be left behind. Technology has allowed people to untether from the desk. The BlackBerry thumb has been replaced by smartphones, tablets, and laptops. MEMIC has replaced almost every desktop with laptops and docking stations so employees can work seamlessly in the field, move about the office, and utilize the collaboration spaces we've created.

The emphasis on mobility is coming just in the nick of time: The percentage of obese and overweight workers has reached epidemic proportions. The health impacts of a sedentary workplace have led some experts to say, "Sitting is the new smoking." Dynamic sit/stand workstations have been adopted at MEMIC and offices across the country so workers can transition from sitting to standing throughout the day and not be trapped in one unhealthy posture. The answer to the question "Should I sit or stand at my desk?" is, both. It's the ability to change positions that creates the opportunity for wellness.

Aesthetics is functionality. An open office must take into consideration the whole person and the whole work experience. The work environment should optimally address all the senses and create a coherent whole that complements your organizational culture. Think sight, sound, and smell. What is your office decor? Are the colors for different spaces appropriately relaxing or stimulating? Do you have a scent/fragrance policy? Is there proper ventilation, especially around the breakroom? What is the noise level? Do you need sound proofing, white noise machines, or to designate certain disruptive tasks to specific spaces?

It's not about money, it's about attitude. Yes, Apple is spending $5 billion building a new campus, but ergonomic solutions don't need to be expensive. Start with your employees that sit the most and create an environment that allows them more freedom of movement throughout the day. It's the little things that shows employees you see them and value them as individuals and they're not just a cog in the machine. The key to human engineering is adapting your workplace to fit your people, not the other way around.

The trends may be amplified in Silicon Valley, but across the country, the economy is improving, unemployment is dropping, baby boomers are retiring, and the race is on for attracting and retaining the best talent. The workforce is changing, and the workplace is changing with it. As I said before, the workplace is dynamic -- don't be left sitting still.

Allan Brown, PT, is MEMIC's Chief Ergonomist. This article is published here with permission and was originally featured on Safety Net, the MEMIC Safety Blog.

Posted on Mar 02, 2017