DIY: Build a Better Workplace

Oct. 1, 2002
What Do You Need?
We all want it: Workplaces that are comfortable, inviting, and safe, and that allow us all to work more efficiently. Countless articles have been written about this search, and manufacturers around the globe promise the answer to our quest. But exactly how do you create commercial facilities that are high performance – that allow end-users to be their best?
“When it comes to ergonomics, I have seen that there is in company after company a heightened awareness from the health and safety groups as well as risk managers and they are influencing the facilities managers a lot,” says Noe Palacios, manager of User Center Design Group, Steelcase Inc., Grand Rapids, MI. Specializing in ergonomics, Palacios has extensive experience in research and development, engineering, and product marketing and has worked closely with facilities managers for 20 years. Among facilities managers, interest in ergonomics continues; the confusion lies in the best way of using the principles of ergonomics to achieve outstanding facilities.

According to Palacios, most workplace injuries are musculoskeletal disorders occurring in the upper body (i.e., repeated stress injuries in the wrist or neck), caused by constant exposure to risk factors. Such factors in commercial facilities include forceful exertions, awkward postures, contact stress, and repetition. Adds Palacios, “We all want a high-performance workplace, but we want to make sure that everything fits together as a system to support the individual.”Training is the missing ingredient.
Palacios believes that education and training programs lie at the heart of achieving workplaces that truly work. “I find that to be one of the top keys to whether the solution is successful or not,” says Palacios. He recommends that organizations develop ergonomic committees to give employees the information they need and to ensure that information is being updated. “If the company has a philosophy or a point of view on that, those companies do very well because that filters all the way down,” explains Palacios.

A crucial time to educate employees is for new hires and when people switch duties or change workstations. For example, when a call center recently changed from traditional closed office spaces to new open workstations, Palacios helped the company develop a new work protocol so employees could take advantage of the increased ability to communicate in open office plans without disturbing each other.

More than just concentrating on end-users’ body measurements and product aesthetics, Palacios urges facilities and design professionals to consider ease of use and a product’s intuitiveness – controls should be easy to understand and adjust.

Consider the complete environment.
Nowadays it is not uncommon to have four unique groups of workers – mature, baby boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y – sharing the work environment. Each age group has unique considerations. For example, older employees might have bifocals and need specific light requirements for optimal working conditions. Palacios encourages facilities professionals to examine their employees, the tasks the employees need to accomplish, and the computer equipment, and adapt the space to fit the task. A good example: Often employees who use laptops for extended periods are more comfortable with an external keyboard or monitor.

To create high-performance workplaces, Palacios believes facilities managers have to consider the physical and the psychosocial needs of their end-users, meaning consider the optimal physical requirements and examine corporate culture so that employees feel comfortable. Palacios is a strong advocate of the benefits that a well-designed office can bring. Adds Palacios, “It impacts productivity and the well-being of the individual, so training is very critical. It is not hype; it is real.”

“People don’t lose time. In a very broad sense, people are not able to spend as much time on their high-priority items as their low-priority items; the lower priority items are taking up their time,” says Mark Ellwood, president, Pace Productivity, Toronto. For the past 13 years, Ellwood has helped the employees of large corporations track the time they spend on various activities, analyze the results, and create efficiency reports; he also provides recommendations and training.


Lack of administrative support.Although each organization he has worked on is unique, Ellwood believes many times the reasons employees are less productive are similar. The main reason includes simply spending too much time on administrative jobs and secondary tasks, such as meetings and paperwork, instead of primary functions. “No one is wasting time, but their time is being misdirected toward administrative tasks vs. high-priority ones. Now why is that happening?” asks Ellwood.

According to Ellwood, many companies have downsized secretaries and administrative assistants and expected technology to replace these important jobs. This trend has lead to delegating time-consuming administrative tasks to management. “Successful organizations find a way to leverage their people so they are not doing a lot of clerical stuff,” says Ellwood.

Recognize the positive and negative impact of technology.Fax machines, printers, cell phones, PCs, high-speed Internet access: Technology has, of course, done wonders to improve communication and workflow. However, with good often comes bad. Malfunctioning technology, or during the training process for new software or equipment, can slow productivity. Adds Ellwood, “Technology creates its own spin-off side effects; we have to do a lot more things. We have to upgrade to the new computer system, learn how to forward calls on the new answering system, buy batteries for a cell phone, and on and on. If your computer breaks down, it is the end of the world.”
Although we all seem busier, Ellwood believes our productivity is dropping due to interruptions from technology issues. He helps employees reduce their glut of e-mails and time wasted on rambling cell phone conversations. “People are struggling with how they can be more productive and it is not about buying more technology; it is about doing things smarter,” he explains.
Remember the need for privacy.
When it comes to the physical space, employees’ productivity is most impacted by interruptions from coworkers, according to research from Pace Productivity. “I believe, to a large degree, that is a function of the physical space. If you make it easy for people to interrupt, they will,” says Ellwood. He asks facilities and design professionals to consider the end-users’ need for privacy and create the best space for the task – not merely the most cost effective.

Often in Ellwood’s work he comes across individuals who feel overwhelmed by external forces. He strives to help employees achieve a sense of control. Instead of suffering through long meetings, for instance, Ellwood instructs clients how to give input and keep meetings on track. He adds, “I am trying to empower people to do things that they didn’t think they could do.”

“We are on the front line dealing with employees and their management. Often there isn’t consideration for the human factors in terms of the human interface in that space, in terms of what the tasks are, what the space is, what the equipment is,” says John Stevenson, Ph.D., PT, CEA, associate professor of Physical Therapy, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI. As a clinician and ergonomist, Stevenson has devoted years of study to the human movement potential, both normal and pathological, and to working with facilities managers to eradicate risk factors in workplaces.

Currently, Stevenson is working with San Diego-based Active Input on its new keyboard support system, which features continuous passive motion (CPM), specifically studying the device’s effect on hand blood flow and wrist function. Stevenson has used CPM in orthopedic rehabilitation and is interested in its role as a preventive tool. The prospective case study work has been completed and a larger study will commence next year.

Consider employees’ behavior.As a clinician and ergonomist, Stevenson has a unique view of workplace injuries, believing that some ergonomists focus on all injuries as if they were workplace- related. He urges facilities professionals to analyze workplace risk factors, as well as bad movement behavior, on the part of employees. As a clinician, Stevenson frequently sees patients with poor alignment of the spine, shoulders, wrists, and hands, in addition to poor seating posture.
Stevenson believes the term ergonomics has become misused and overused. “It has become a trendy word, as opposed to a genuine application,” he states. He considers too many definitions have bled into the term, confusing the facilities management industry.
Research recent ergonomic data.

Not enough evidence-based studies have been done in tracking specific interventions and their effectiveness, or in validating reductions in loss workdays or improved productivity. “They are difficult studies to do; that is one problem the field faces,” says Stevenson. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is an excellent source for ergonomic research results. Go to (

Establish an ergonomic committee.“I define good companies as being those that have active, committed ergonomic programs as part of their occupational health and safety programs for their employees,” says Stevenson. A proactive, highly visible ergonomic program not only educates the employees, but also lets them know their comforts and concerns matter. Good companies with high-performance workplaces, according to Stevenson, invest in it and value their employees.
These steps outline how to create a high-performance workplace, but it all boils down to how much you value your employees and their environment. “It takes a commitment from the top from the building owner,” says Stevenson.
Regina Raiford ([email protected]) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Buildings, create an account today!

Sponsored Recommendations