Closing a Building is the Beginning, not the End

July 30, 2012

There are many reasons for initiating a Smart Working project but one of the most common is the need to reduce real estate.  Defining the project, identifying appropriate personnel and job roles, establishing procedures, managing consultations and setting the roll-out agenda and timescale are all significant projects in their own right.

As a result, it is very easy to focus on closing buildings and “getting people out there” (whether that means home, hub or hot-desk working).  But what happens once they are “out there”?

It is quite possible that some (or all) of the original project team may be redeployed or disbanded at this stage – just when the real, long-term projects are beginning.  Whether the challenge is showing managers how to manage staff no longer under their constant supervision or showing those same staff how to manage themselves when they are not constantly supervised, there are new procedures to be created, resources to be provided and progress to be tracked.

It is also important to appreciate that problems arising out of failure to manage the new culture effectively may take some time to become evident (in much the same way that reduced absenteeism is almost certainly masking increased presenteeism in the current economy).

To ensure that Smart Workers are effective wherever they “touch down”, here are 10 simple rules.  They are by no means comprehensive but give a good overview and, for clarity, focus principally on computer users:

  1. Ensure they have proper health and safety training appropriate to their new environment.
  2. Ensure you provide clear guidance about appropriate behaviour.  Don’t take it for granted that common sense will prevail!  If they spill boiling water on themselves whilst making coffee in their own home during work hours, or trip over the cat whilst getting their laptop out of the car, or set up their workstation on the landing and roll their chair away from the desk and down the stairs, how can you minimise the likelihood of, and your liability exposure to, such events?
  3. Think about the physical ergonomics.  If they work at the kitchen table on a dining chair at the wrong height and use a laptop without a separate stand, keyboard and mouse, then musculo-skeletal problems are almost inevitable.  Back, neck or upper limb pain will, at the very least, inhibit productivity.  In the longer term, this may lead to absenteeism and, potentially, litigation.
  4. Provide guidance about posture.  Assuming the equipment makes good posture possible, personnel need to be trained to understand what good posture is, how to achieve it and why it is important.
  5. Carry out proper risk assessments. A home workstation will be very different from something provided in the office.  Use a DSE risk assessment that is specifically designed for home workers.  A computer-based version will be easiest to manage.
  6. Set up a mechanism to remind and prompt users to take breaks, step away from their desk, stretch and refocus.  This can be done through periodic email reminders, internal chat/social media tools or dedicated software such as CtrlWORK.
  7. If they spend a lot of time on the telephone, ensure they use a headset.
  8. Make sure that any equipment you provide is simple to use and obvious to set up.  If not, assume it won’t be used!
  9. Check regularly that individuals are coping.  Is the new way of working matching their work-life balance expectations? Are they managing the workload?  Are they feeling isolated?  Early recognition of problems and prompt interventions to address them are essential.
  10. Cut them some slack!  If they want to start work at 07:00am and then walk the dog for two hours at lunchtime, think seriously about whether the business can accommodate that and whether it will significantly increase both productivity and job satisfaction.

In one of my recent monthly eBulletins, I provided a list of the tools we offer to address all these issues.  More details here.  As always, I welcome comments, ideas and challenges !

Specialist Seating in Shared Environments

July 6, 2012

RH Logic 400 office chairDuring a site tour at a Smart Working network meeting this week, there was a brief discussion about how to deal with bespoke “Occupational Health” chairs specified for personnel in hot desking environments. These offices are intended, by definition, to provide generic layouts suitable (as far as possible) for anyone and everyone. If, for instance, one employee has a particular chair recommended because of a back injury (or other musculo-skeletal problem), the management of this non-standard chair could disrupt the smooth operation of the office and reduce the effectiveness of the hot desking arrangements. During the tour, there were ideas suggested about getting the Facilities team to keep such a chair locked away when not required but this is clearly sub-optimal.  Whilst it may ease the pain of the individual for whom the chair is supplied, it creates a very different sort of pain for others!

As a supplier of thousands of these “specialist” chairs, it seemed right that I should provide some guidance for this situation.

Here is Stage 1 of my suggested procedure:

  1. Choose a supplier who understands your requirements. This is not just about the correct chair specification but also about your operational needs.
  2. Ensure that the supplier delivers the chair and arranges set-up and training by an experienced operative who can demonstrate to the user what they need to achieve (in terms of set-up and ergonomics) and how to do it (what all the knobs and levers are for). Our own installation personnel have all completed a 2-day Advanced DSE Assessors’ course to ensure that they understand why the chair was supplied and what it must achieve.
  3. Allow your employee about an hour with the installer to be fully trained and familiarised with the chair so that he/she is completely confident about how to adjust it.  Do not rush this! If it takes longer, be patient. This is time well spent.
  4. Sample image from the animated posture guidanceEnsure that the user is provided with printed (or, better still, online) instructions about posture and workstation layout as well as chair adjustment controls so that they know what they want to achieve and how to do it. If possible, arrange for the creation of links to online resources from within your intranet.
  5. As a final line of ongoing support, your chair supplier should provide a business hours telephone help line providing instant access to someone who is familiar with that type of chair and can talk a user through the set-up process.  (Our Customer Service team also complete the 2-day Advanced DSE Assessor course). If you are also supplying “specialist” chairs for home users, the help line number should be 0800 or a similar freephone facility.

You now have a fully equipped and supported individual who is confident about adjusting and readjusting their chair so you are ready for Stage 2.

  1. Declare that the individual for whom the chair was specified has sole right to its use when in the office.
  2. At all other times, it can be used by anyone.
  3. Ensure that all potential users know how to access the online posture guidance, chair instructions and telephone helpline.

Once this is implemented, you may consider that a Stage 3 is needed (or perhaps I should call this Stage 0)! If you did not provide proper training for users when the generic seating was provided, it is very likely that many (possibly most) people are sitting in badly adjusted chairs. Their posture could therefore be creating potential musculo-skeletal problems in the future. My recommendation would therefore be:

  1. Go back to your contract chair supplier.
  2. Ask them to provide training and insist that this training contains the two complementary elements. Many suppliers do the “how” training (what the knobs and levers do) but users need to understand “why” (what is a good posture and why is it important to set up the workstation properly?).
  3. Get the training and instructions incorporated into your intranet because printed instructions tucked under the chair seat are very often ignored and prone to getting lost.
  4. Make sure the supplier has a help line for those who need to be talked through the set-up process again.
  5. If all these services are not available, perhaps you should review your supplier!

Of course, all of these principles will also apply to the configuration of monitors, foot rests and any ancillary equipment. Indeed, any thorough training and set-up will incorporate them into the process. I should also mention that there may be some chairs which will be quite unsuitable for anyone but the specified user and for which this procedure will not work, but these will be a small minority.

Setting up an office workstation is like adopting a good driving posiitionFinally, there will be those who read this and think it’s all a waste of time! To those people, I suggest that the driver’s seat of a vehicle is very much like a workstation. I don’t think people get into a car that was last used by somebody else and think “I know I can’t reach the brake but I don’t have time to adjust the seat”. We have worked with thousands of individuals who wish they had paid rather more attention to their chair set-up and posture so that they could have prevented, delayed or reduced their current musculo-skeletal problems!

If it’s not easy, they won’t use it!

July 4, 2012

I see lots of new products and many pre-production ideas.

I find that the problem with product designers making ergonomics claims is the conflict between a) the fact that ergonomics is such a holistic discipline; and b) the reality that many designers are focused on addressing one specific issue.  This may result in a design which is brilliant at addressing that one specific issue but ignores the others.

The effective application of ergonomics principles usually involves compromise. The real conundrum for the designer occurs when it becomes necessary to reduce functionality in order to improve usability. As I once said to a chair designer: “it doesn’t matter that this could fit 95% of users if 100% of users don’t understand how to adjust it”!

We see a regular flow of products with a sound concept and good execution but with a fundamental question about how people might use them unsupervised. Might they set it up wrong, fail to set it up at all or, worst of all, set it up in a way that might do them harm?

These experiences have all come to the fore recently in discussions about Smart Working.  If personnel are working unsupervised at home or in public places, what can be done to maximise the likelihood of them adopting good postures and using their tools and equipment properly?  Obviously, the first answer is good training and the second is finding tools to monitor and remind them (such as CtrlWORK, in the case of Windows computer users).

Alongside this, it is just as important to ensure their equipment is intuitive and as easy to use as possible. Laptop stands that look clever because of their sophisticated folding mechanism are not much good if users never bother to take them out of their smart leatherette slipcase. Equally, providing Bluetooth wireless keyboards or mice is a really good idea if, and only if, the Bluetooth connection is instant and consistently reliable. The same rationale applies to the intuitive use of chairs and monitor arms in hot desking areas.

The pressure on employers to offer BYOD schemes shows that many users are willing to provide their personal smart phones, laptops and tablets for use at work.  There’s a simple reason for this – they are easy to use!

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