Office work generally means sitting at a desk and working on a computer. As opposed to this there are other jobs like nursing, surgery, construction site work, cleaning jobs and cooking etc. where a chair and desk are normally not associated. In today’s competitive business environment, many office workers carry the work and their computer with them to trains, planes, cars and into waiting lounges of transport terminals. Further they carry the work to hotels and homes. They are forced into all kinds of uncomfortable postures in these improvised work places and suffer different kinds of injuries due to long hours of sitting down and computer related work. Common musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) created by bad postures at work include pain in the neck, shoulders and lower back.
Most people believe that sitting is relaxing and standing is taxing. Doctors tell us the opposite is true. Sitting in a chair causes extra pressure on spinal discs and eventually leads to painful injuries. The people who ought to be concerned with health and productivity at office include bosses, computer manufacturers and furniture manufacturers. Typically Bosses want people to sit at their desks and work, not waste time relaxing, talking on the mobile, sitting in the office cafeteria or lounging or walking around. For the boss, productivity seems to be associated with sitting down at the table (and the inevitable computer). Desktop computers have been with us for so long that manufacturers no longer say how these machines ought to be used. It is assumed that the recommendations of OSHA, NIOH and other such organisations shall be followed. Laptop computer makers are concerned about the ill effects of their products on users’ health and advise people not to use the laptops for more than half an hour at a time. This is in direct conflict with what bosses require from workers and what workers themselves believe they must do. Furniture manufacturers state that their ergonomic chairs are good for use all through the day and no furniture manufacturer has ever stated that sitting down on chairs is bad for health. It is only the ergonomist who says that sitting for long hours (ergonomic chairs notwithstanding) is bad. Some go to the extent of saying ‘Sitting is the new smoking’. Based on such advice, people are now installing stand up workstations, sit-stand workstations and even some treadmill workstations. While this might help some people who have control over their work environment, all others have to suffer within the constraints of the ‘normal’ office.
The Stand Up workstation
Like many other architects of the bygone era, I have worked on drawing boards, sometimes sitting on a tall stool and other times standing up. I never got a chance to use a standing up drafting machine that some engineering offices used. All of these arrangements caused problems for users and none of them was perfect. Bending down over a drawing board was not very good for the back. Standing up all day was not so good for legs. The best arrangement was the flexible one where a high table was used that allowed people to work standing up or while sitting on a tall stool. At one stage, my own office had tables and chairs of standard height (750 mm high tables with standard chairs on castors) and this definitely caused back problems for some people.
The sitting down posture reduces the difference between the requirements of furniture for tall and short people and a common problem with stand-up workplaces was that they could not effectively deal with the variation between tall and short persons.
The need for adjustable tables was felt the most in architecture schools but considering the problems of upkeep of adjustable furniture only fixed tables were used. An inexpensive drawing table that allowed a great deal of height adjustment was designed by the author in 1978 for the School of Planning & Architecture, Delhi and used for many years. With the advent of computers for drawing and design, the requirements of architects changed and their workstations became similar to the furniture used in common offices. The dominant ergonomic theory says that people ought to use tables and chairs with appropriate adjustable heights and sit in the 90-90-90 degree posture. It is another matter that no one can hold this posture for any length of time.
Considering that this situation needs to be rectified by redesigning or rethinking work, Space design Consultants changed its work environment to an ‘Interactive Office’ (2007) where most people move about in the course of their work. This is not to be confused with well-known names such as ‘Action Office’ that is an office furniture system and has little to do with action at the workplace. The Interactive Office is most useful for collaborative work. The office uses ‘tall tables’ that can be used sitting down or standing up. It encourages short stand up meetings and movement for discussion rather than the use of phones. The special chairs used encourage a better posture and are without back support. It takes new workers a few weeks to get used to this setup. Young people easily adapt to it while older people with set ways expect a different arrangement and are not always comfortable with it.
The Interactive Office redefined the qualities that a good chair ought to have. The ergonomic chairs are all concerned with comfort and support. The Interactive Office chairs are concerned with ease of movement – getting out of chairs. Getting out of normal chairs requires effort and the use of knee joints assisted by hands. The Interactive office chair is higher than others and therefore the effort required to get up is considerably less. The knee joints are not stressed in the act of getting up. These chairs are good for the user’s health but comfort is not one of their attributes.
This workstation was optimized for the users height of about 165 cm and had the front table edge height could be adjustable by 5 cm. The monitor height could not be adjusted and very short and very tall people were unable to use the workstations sitting/standing as designed. However all users found the arrangement good for collaborative work where they could bring up plans & designs on the screen and discuss them standing up. This made people physically more active and meetings short. For a normal user, the typical workday was broken up into short spells of sitting, standing and moving around.
Encouraged by the success in its own office, SDC has designed several other offices with non-standard arrangement of furniture. Such an arrangement for the low-cost office of a start-up was not favoured by the users as they wanted conventional chairs with backrests. Seats without backrests looked like stools and brought down their self-esteem. In other offices where a new design of saddle seats with small backrest has been provided, there is general satisfaction.
Frequent travellers like to use laptops as their main workstation. The laptop is a dangerous device that was never designed for long periods of use. Manufacturers caution that laptops should not be used for longer than half hour spells. The device has an inherent problem that it can be positioned either for the keyboard (hands and wrists) or the monitor screen (eyes and neck). It is generally accepted that there are no positions in which a laptop could be used without causing undue stress to some part of the body – wrists or neck.