Office Ergonomics: A History, Evolution and Future, Jenny Zhao

Office Ergonomics: A History, Evolution and Future, Jenny Zhao

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Jenny Zhao, Associate Ergonomist-Asia Pacific, Humanscale

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Office Ergonomics: A History, Evolution and Future, Jenny Zhao, Associate Ergonomist-Asia Pacific , Humanscale
photographs: Humanscale

Currently, the word “ergonomics” often evokes images of fancy office chairs, sit-stand work tools, and old diagrams with specific measurements and angles pertaining to the human body at work. But its roots stretch much further back than our modern-day concept, and by tracing its history we can reveal its true multi-disciplinary nature, and how it should be fundamental in our approach to the design of working environments. At its core, ergonomics seeks to improve human performance while embracing and designing around human capabilities, while also continually striving to create even better and smarter environments that keep people comfortable, healthy, and safe.

A Brief History

Ergonomic design of utensils for everyday needs (source: National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Sparkes-Talcott 1977, Archaeological Museum of Andros)

Although the proper term “ergonomics” was first coined in 1857, the concept of facilitating all aspects of work through human-centered design can arguably be traced back to ancient roots. A review of ancient Greek civilization reveals evidence of ergonomic thinking in everyday life, seen in handles of Greek jugs for easy pouring and control, in the way theatre seats facilitated minute foot movements during lengthy plays, and in building construction sites that were designed to minimize workload and prevent accidents with safeguards. When Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) wrote the work guidelines for the surgical process, he emphasized and detailed the importance of proper operating posture, lighting, and arrangement of worktools for the surgeon.

The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed the nature of work, where machines replaced repetitive human labor with a goal of improving productivity and greatly increased output. By the end of that era, Polish scientist Wojciech Jastrzebowski had written a philosophical narrative on the “science of work,” where he first coined the term “ergonomics.”

1916 – 17 – Jenny JN-4 Cockpit. Notice the wooden control “stick,” like the handle on a baseball bat, in center of photo


The 20th century brought on renewed interest in ergonomics, with its focus on human capabilities and performance, particularly human-machine interaction. WWII had brought on the use of new complex weapons and technology, causing nations around the world to take special interest in reducing human error through design. This can be seen in military aircraft cockpit designs, where complicated tasks performed with different buttons, levers, and knobs were given consideration in their arrangement and placement to be compatible with human cognition and response. Throughout the 20th century, nations began developing modern theories and methodologies around ergonomics, seeking to categorize its applications in both physiology and psychology. Industry leaders also sought to integrate ergonomic principles with engineering, while others focused on its applications in medicine and anatomy.

Ergonomics & Office Design

Taylorism: (in reference to its founding father, Frederick Winslow Taylor). The concept of the “cube farm” or streamlined office seen in the way people were positioned in a dense grid format

The advent of new computing technologies in the 60s once again changed the nature of work, yielding the first blueprints of a modern-day office workstation. Workers were able to process even more information than ever before and saw increased workloads combined with the ability complete their tasks simply at their chairs in front of a computer. The first concept of a “cubicle” was designed in 1964 by Robert Propst, who saw the design as a way to afford privacy for the user in what was once a largely open-office environment. By the 80s and 90s, with the increase of computers as an essential tool for the office, the concept of the “cube farm” was made popular, seen in the way people were positioned in a dense grid format. Though space-efficient and initially intended to be a personalized “pod” to give users a semi-private desking system that suited their needs, the cubicle later was criticized in media and public opinion for its associations with repetition and monotony, and trends once again aimed at bringing the walls down by the turn of the new millennium.

Thomas Jefferson’s first swivel chair – purported to be the chair he sat upon when he drafted the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776

By then, a task chair, a computer, keyboard and mouse, and work surface comprised the essential elements to perform most work tasks. Sitting became ubiquitous in office life. Manufacturers took note and introduced the first ergonomic task chairs. From what used to be a primitive and inflexible design, chairs now took on the task of adjustability. Knobs, levers, handles, and buttons were applied to emphasize the new features a chair could provide to accommodate the variations among the working population. Standards were created around the dimensions of the workstation, drawing from past applications of larger machine interactions, vision-screen requirements, and biomechanics.

Current Challenges

Designing environments that nudge users into adopting healthier postures and habits can reduce everyday strain and stress

While this was a significant step forward toward understanding human differences and needs, this more traditional school of ergonomics often faced shortcomings in keeping pace with the ever-changing nature of work and demands. Guidelines established decades ago with aged equipment are often still in widespread use and should be updated to reflect today’s new technologies, work tasks, and functions. Complicated older designs of ergonomic chairs have been correlated to user discomfort, stemming from confusion over the correct adjustments and resulting in poor postures and lower back pain. Similarly, misplaced and misused mice and keyboards can ail a significant population by deviating and compressing wrists, risking carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and other musculoskeletal issues. With the work-related discomfort on the rise globally, aftermarket tools have also infiltrated the market, from back supports and cushions, to under-desk and treadmill desks, to yoga balls replacing task chairs – all in a jumbled attempt to improve bicycles the working experience and address the pains that have built over time for the working population, yet only serve to clutter the space and add to the confusion of “proper” ways of working. Companies scrambling to join the open-office bandwagon may face complaints about noise, lack of privacy, and overly complicated work flow, which have been widely documented among disgruntled office workers. Ergonomics is often seen as a reactive approach to inevitable problems that develop in the office, and an “add-on” solution to act as a band-aid to mitigate issues as they come up.

What’s Next: A Modern Approach

To improve and advance the current state of workplace design, a modern and nuanced approach to office ergonomics takes on a more proactive and design-based perspective, driven by physiological, psychological, and organizational needs of the users. Instead of only focusing on product, furniture, and assessments for injured workers,the broader scope of ergonomics should be expanded to discuss enhancing the user experience and protecting the best interests and health of all users from a preventative standpoint.

The “workstation” is no longer the pre-prescribed pieces of the cube farm days

Nowadays, the concept of the desk is now becoming more fluid, as real estate costs continue to grow with shrinking space per worker, and with technology also rapidly changing and allowing people to be increasingly mobile. The “workstation” may no longer be the pre-prescribed pieces of the cube farm days – it can even be emailing from a smartphone on a bus. While open-plan offices, activity-based working (ABW) and co-working spaces are on the rise, designers should also not lose sight of the fundamental physical and cognitive needs of each user group. New working environments can yield new ergonomic risks; oversight and failure to consider these needs can result in poorly functioning environments – blindly embracing mobile work through laptops and smartphones without supportive equipment can only increase muscle and vertebrae issues, disrupting future work.

Integrating ergonomics into workplace design can help ensure positive user experience while mitigating risks for pain and injury – not just for now but for future health. Observing current user modifications of space and furniture can serve as an initial indicator of underlying discomforts. Analyzing risky postures associated with various work functions can provide insight on designing more supportive spaces for unique work flows. Listening and understanding the working experience of users can help create more customized environments without sacrificing company culture and community. Designing environments that nudge users into adopting healthier postures and habits can reduce everyday strain and stress. Elevating ergonomic awareness through training and linking good habits to wellness can help sustain the workforce for years to come.

As aesthetic and beautiful as an office can be, its true test lies within how the space is ultimately utilized and if users feel productive and comfortable in their environment. We are currently at an exciting junction of rapidly changing work, and there are increasing opportunities to explore new ways of working like never before, supported by new technologies and advances. As we move forward, a modern and more holistic take on ergonomics will be instrumental in bridging the gap between design intention and practical use, guiding the way to new frontiers while ensuring that working spaces become drivers for productivity innovation, and wellness without forsaking the fundamental needs of the users. Ergonomics will hopefully be seen an essential feature, not an afterthought, of the design process, and regarded as a benefit for an organization and all its users.


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