Introduction The current state of “shelter in place” orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will not last forever, but the effects of these orders and how we work will last much longer than we think. This article will discuss how commercial real estate can be affected, the impact on workers compensation, the impact on workstation ergonomics assessments, and how the manufacturers of workstation accessories and equipment may benefit.
Commercial real estate Practically overnight tens of millions of office workers around the world found themselves working from home. Once the pandemic ends, what is going to happen? Some companies will require their teams to return to traditional offices. Some organizations that are heavily regulated such as in financial services and trading, may need the added security that a traditional office setting provides. That said, many millions more will find they rarely do not need to go to the office on a daily basis.
I have been “working from home” for nearly 26-years. My first professional job, as a manufacturing engineer with Texas Instruments, required that I work in an office cubicle in a secured building, as we were in a defense-related facility, and I had a security clearance. I worked in what we called a
The last time I worked in a traditional office was in 1994, when I worked as an ergonomist at Alcoa’s Warrick Ops aluminum smelter in southern Indiana. Working from home really was not an option for me, as I needed to be “onsite” to help our various production departments, whether it was in the Ring Furnace, Potrooms, Ingot Plant, Rolling Mill, or Finishing Lines.
From the time I started working at Zurich Services Corporation in September 1994, however, unless I was in a meeting, taking a course, or at a client site, I was “working from home,” and in 22 ½ years at the company, even though I always lived close to the North American HQ, I never had my own office space.
Working from home was a relatively new concept at the time, and I remember people frequently asked me what it was like. The best analogy I could provide was that it was “like being back in graduate school.” I had work that had to get done, and I had to learn how to focus and avoid the various distractions that could (and sometimes did) torpedo the careers of otherwise successful office-based people. Now that I run my own company, QP3 ErgoSystems, I still have a home office, as do all of my teammates across the U.S.!
The employers who can successfully navigate the transition of large numbers of employees to work from home should see a cost reduction from the amount of commercial real estate needed to house employees who would otherwise need dedicated workstations. While “hoteling” options should be available in remaining shared office spaces, large “cube farms” of the type I experienced at Texas Instruments are going to be fewer and farther between.
Worker Injury and Workers Compensation Just because people are “working from home” does not mean that companies are absolved from their health and safety obligations. If a work-from-home employee experiences an injury, usually a soft tissue injury from an improper workstation setup, then their employer is responsible for that injury. While it may or not be “recordable” from an OSHA perspective, if you’re in the U.S., it may still be compensable from a worker injury and/or workers compensation standpoint. If a person complains about an ache or pain, do not sweep it under the proverbial rug. This could develop into an injury claim that may, or may not, result in days away from work.
My graduate school research discovered that four hours/day (cumulative) at workstations increased segmental body discomfort. Segmental body discomfort is a valid predictor of future injuries and/or illnesses. Thus, if a person works at a computer four hours/day cumulatively, they are at elevated risk of a work-related illness or injury, regardless of the location of the workstation.
Workstation assessments/requirements Mexico, the UK, Hong Kong, and the European Union require/mandate/obligate companies to conduct assessments of workstations, and to fix problems. If your company has office-based employees in any of these locations, this is an important point to consider. If your company is not conducting these assessments, you are afoul of the law.
The good news about technology is that I can sit in my home office near Chicago, and perform video assessments anywhere in the world, with a slight adjustment for time zones.
Workstation accessories/flexibility/hoteling The key to good workstation design is flexibility, whether it is sit/stand flexibility, flexibility with a keyboard/mouse tray, flexibility with monitors, document holders, keyboards, etc. Work-from-home employees may still need document holders, docking stations, adjustable monitor arms, sit/stand desks, compact keyboards, and better mouse pointing devices.
The companies that are able to provide cost-effective and flexible equipment and accessories to home- and regular-office employees will be well-poised to succeed. The most expensive components of my workstation are the sit/stand desk and the chair that fits my 6-foot, 3-inch tall body. A person who is 5’1” tall should not use my chair, nor should I probably use the chair that is most effective for them.
“Hoteling” by using a smaller number of “unassigned” yet fully-functional workstations at a main office is a good way for companies to support employees who are in the office for short periods. While they are only in the office periodically for meetings or other purposes, these employees would still benefit from having a desk setup, with the goal of finding the right balance between “enough” and “not too many” open workstations.
Psychosocial Stress Many people are under much more stress these days. They are attempting to work from home, yet also have children, pets, partners and, often, substandard and slapped-together workstations. Not only is there physical stress, there is psychosocial stress from trying to “hold it all together.” Please follow this link to learn more about psychosocial stress and ways to address it.
In Summary The key points to take from social distancing/shelter-in-place/self-isolation and quarantining of the sick is that it is a “collective experience.” While we may not be together “physically” as much as we may prefer, I believe we have been given the opportunity to improve our relationships with others, whether family, friends, colleagues, business partners—or complete strangers. We’ve got this!
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