Encouraging Mobility in the Workplace

Every work day, millions of people all over the world enter high-rise office buildings to spend eight hours or longer.

Staying sedentary at a desk for long stretches without a break stresses their bodies (eyes, wrists, arms, shoulders, lower back, and spine) in ways that hinder performance and lead to risk for long-term cumulative lifestyle diseases, such as obesity and diabetes.

Daylong, technology-induced inactivity has other consequences for building tenants and occupants, too, since productivity is increasingly measured by ideas, not just keystrokes.

Creating mobility within the workplace through health-positive design can be the starting point for avoiding inactivity, and facilities managers are a key component of this change. How can we encourage movement throughout the workday to keep tenants and occupants productive and healthy?

Furniture that Affords Movement

Step one is making sure office furniture allows the freedom to vary postures throughout the day; for many people, this begins in their chairs.

Most computer workstations account for three seated postures: reclining, upright, or forward-leaning. Some postural accommodation is a function of a chair’s basic design (backrests that support or recline in a way that backless stools or other alternatives don’t, etc.).

But proper fit also affords mobility. Even in a chair with casters, a seat height that’s too high results in the occupant’s inability to plant his or her feet solidly on the ground, compromising seated navigation and performance. A backrest that’s too wide can restrict outward shoulder rotation that is necessary for stretching and reaching throughout the day. Chairs are available in different sizes to make sure they correctly fit the people who’ll be sitting in them all day long.

Standing is another option that’s increasingly being addressed in workstation design. University of Cincinnati researchers recently measured significant decreases in shoulder, lower-back, and upper-back discomfort in subjects who used “sit-stand�? desks at work vs. chairs and static conventional desks.

Laboratory studies have also demonstrated that lumbar disc pressure is desirably lower in standing and reclining positions than in the upright, 90-degree seated postures that some chairs provide. For these reasons, it’s important that office environments accommodate opportunities for standing postures for those occupants who wish to try it.

While some postures are more appropriate for certain tasks than others, it’s essential that the right tools be available (and that they be placed appropriately); otherwise, unhealthy postures can result. Physical Therapist Eileen Vollowitz says the body’s natural instinct is to optimally position itself so the eyes are comfortable for a given task, regardless of what might have to be compromised elsewhere in body posture.

Being able to adjust things like brightness and placement are additional keys to fitting the user, fitting the task, and allowing postural change. With this, there’s an element of training required so the end-users know what “placed appropriately�? means, and can learn to practice micro-breaks during intense display work (looking away 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes to rest the eyes).

Mobility through Design

Mobility can be achieved through more than just physical office furniture, and offers benefits that go beyond health and productivity. With “work anywhere�? possible today, the workplace remains an ideal place to forge long-term relationships by offering a place for face-to-face collaboration, trust-building, and culture. Making sure your office space has options like coffee bars, copy rooms, and well-planned circulation spaces can foster beneficial, spontaneous interaction between building occupants.

In one particular example, an office department with 120 members recently discovered 70+ printers distributed throughout the team’s floors. Under the guise of reducing overhead, an announcement was made that the department would reimburse toner for only five of those 70+ printers. What happened next? Team members started walking to those five printers; as a result, they increased interaction with colleagues, and their daily steps.

Designing for mobility also has another benefit: Companies recognizing the imminent retirements of older employees are increasingly designing and creating spaces for knowledge to be shared with younger workers. Wide walkways with clear sight-lines and whiteboards and markers deliberately placed in community areas provide collaborative hives at the crossroads of the organization … encouraging movement and knowledge transfer.

Gretchen Gscheidle

Gretchen Gscheidle is the director of insight and exploration at Herman Miller. She can be reached at [email protected].