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18 November 2018
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Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin considering how FM can adopt the science of ergonomics to spread the agile working culture, Adam Leach reports.


04 December 2017 |  Adam Leach

Back in 1992, when the display screen equipment (DSE) regulations were established, the standard office environment was very different from today. Computers were only just starting to become the norm, hence the introduction of the DSE, and were almost exclusively desktops, and phrases such as ‘hot design’ would have been met with as much confusion from the average worker as equations from astrophysics. 

Today, though, major change continues. Initially popularised within the start-up sector, where open-plan layouts and breakout spaces were favoured over assigned desks and closed-off offices, the practice and approach of agile working is fast rising up the corporate food chain. 

From major law firms such as Baker McKenzie and Shoosmiths to taxi firm Addison Lee, the list of household names adopting agile working shows no sign of letting up. The impact of the trend was also highlighted at this year’s BIFM Awards, with banking firm UBS and pharmaceutical and healthcare products giant Johnson & Johnson each winning awards, owing in large part to their successes in moving to an agile approach to office working. In the case of J&J, staff feedback on their Workplace Experience Strategy showed that 88 per cent believed that the changes had increased their productivity while at work.

With such benefits frequently being reported by those who adopt the approach, the trend will almost certainly to continue to grow, but alongside those benefits will come challenges.

One challenge that will almost certainly fall at the feet of those in FM is how to adapt and implement the DSE regulations and the other ergonomic workplace principles they have inspired to fit the demands and requirements of agile working.

Making legroom and switching places

Covering a range of issues from posture of the worker to the temperature of the workplace, ergonomics is the science of ensuring that workers fit within their working environment to ensure against injuries occurring through tasks such as lifting or sitting at a desk for prolonged periods. Most commonly associated with the DSE regulations, which stipulates among other things that “there is space under the desk to move legs” and to “avoid excess pressure from the edge of seat on the back of legs and knees”, it also encompasses setting up equipment such as chairs to best fit an individual’s stature and posture. 

Typically, catering for these requirements has been done on a staff member’s first day, but as the assigned desk morphs into ‘hot-desking’, the simple one-time assessment and set up of a workspace to fit the needs of its owner no longer fits the bill. As workers switch desks on a regular basis, and bounce between conventional sit-down setups and increasingly popular stand-up arrangements, FMs will need to come up with a new approach to ensure that ergonomic best practice can continue.

How will they do that? According to Sukhneet Assee, associate ergonomist, UK & Ireland, at office furniture manufacturer Humanscale, the first factor in adapting to the changing landscape is the equipment itself. 

“If a staff member is sitting at a different chair each day of the week, the chances of them actually making the relevant adjustments are slim to none, so throughout the week they will be adopting awkward and unnatural postures, so from a facilities perspective, I think it is absolutely crucial that they look into providing work tools and chairs that are easy to use but have minimal components.”

That might seem obvious, but as the days of each person in an office having grown accustomed to their chosen chair – and it to them – end, the need for uniformity and consistency across each piece of equipment and furniture increases. From chairs to desks, and each piece of technology, staff will need to be able to adapt them to fit their requirements and postures with ease and efficiency.

But having equipment that is easy to adapt to that need is only part of the solution. The other element is ensuring that staff know how to make the right adjustments and why they are needed. This is where the FM’s previous role of setting up workspaces is replaced with enabling staff to make the adjustments themselves.

“They need to make sure they are giving the right level of ergonomic training, but also they should be giving the user the right work tools from the get-go so that they are taking a more proactive approach and not a reactive one,” says Assee. “Typically, assessments need to take place if someone is experiencing discomfort, but making sure that you are giving someone the right knowledge from the beginning of the process does make sure that you’re eliminating issues further down the line.”

By teaching staff why equipment is set up in a certain way rather than just setting it for them, FMs can empower them to make sure that they can cater for their ergonomic needs in an agile environment. Such an approach should also be taken in other avenues. 

Assee explains that to ease a transition to agile working FMs should also ensure they are involved in the overall project as early as possible. 

“From a facilities perspective, it’s not only ensuring you are being given products that are easy to use and intuitive, but also about making sure that they are involved as early as they possibly can be, so that all the design issues can be dispelled early on. That way, space management is considered early on, as opposed to just leaving it to the architects to make their way.”

By combining these early interventionist approaches to staff and the organisation as a whole with ensuring the right products are procured, FMs can overcome challenges brought on by agile working up front. 

But the function will still maintain a critical role and a range of responsibilities in the daily management of the office to guarantee that ergonomic demands are met.

Graham Bird, workplace director at consultancy Where We Work, says the removal of allocated workstations and departments is likely to result in FM teams taking on increased responsibilities to enforce housekeeping rules. 

“There will naturally be housekeeping and general rules that will need to be adhered to, such as maintaining clear desk policies. Previously, respective departments would have been responsible for their own zones, however, agile spaces mean that the facilities manager now has an increased level of responsibility and control in maintaining these workspaces.”

The new landscape

Bird believes this enhanced role for the FM will also see them taking on responsibility for helping to guarantee that the whole space is used effectively by not just the individual worker, but the workforce as a whole. 

“Workers have the choice of placing themselves in an area that best suits them. They can choose an area with a higher or lower temperature, [one] that has more natural daylight, or is quieter. However, the FM’s role is broader; they must harness a stronger understanding of shared environments, utilisation and of levels of attendance, and they must efficiently manage a space to accommodate often fluctuating requirements.” 

This new landscape will shift the role of the FM from being there to serve many individuals towards being the individual to serve many. Out will go setting up each desk for the person based there, and in will come managing and adapting a space to cater for whoever arrives next.

“In this reality, the responsibility of managing those workers will be passed on from the departmental heads, to the facilities managers, with them having to pick up the discarded slack of the formal departmental heads and ensure that the zones of the office function as desired,” explains Bird. “Inasmuch as that might sound like an additional burden on FM, it can equally be seen as an opportunity, a chance to just focus on building areas that fit a certain task rather than one catering for an assortment of individuals.”

The move to agile as an opportunity for FMs is also something that Ian Ellison, a partner at consultancy 3edges, acknowledges. 

“The point of activity-based working (ABW) is to move to where the task in hand is best supported. It works best when people actually move. For many, this would mean that the ergonomic challenges faced in a fixed location are at the very least helped, assuming the ABW environment was designed well.”

But for the challenges to be overcome and the opportunities capitalised on, a lot will rely on how much value and focus companies put on it.

In this regard, Steve Bays, director and designer at Century Office, believes that it is an area that attracts greater interest and focus than in the past. 

“I think ergonomics is becoming more and more fundamental in what office workers now do,” he says. “As a species, we are adapting to these ways of working but the problem is with regards to deterioration of posture, and I think more and more companies are paying more and more attention to ergonomics.”

With the right equipment that is easily configured and the right training for staff being combined with due focus and priority from organisations as a whole, agile working could see ergonomic considerations improved, but it is an opportunity that FMs must grasp from the start.

Emma Potter