How Employees can Safely Readjust to Office Life and the Importance of Paying Attention to Ergonomics

By Lisa Orr, senior human factors consultant at Sedgwick

At the beginning of the pandemic, we found ourselves suddenly working from home, perhaps for the very first time. Many of us were unprepared and did the best to set up our workstations, thinking this would be a temporary situation. As the pandemic lingered on, smaller furniture, better suited for home offices, became difficult to find as many vendors were out of stock.

As employees continue working from home, employers do not have the same type of control they used to over equipment. Typically, when corporations build new offices, they design layouts with ergonomics in mind. Corporations select furniture and chairs that are often adjustable to accommodate employees ranging from short to tall and provide accessories, such as monitor arms and height-adjustable keyboard trays, which might be installed at every workstation.

Those same standards that developed in the office are not in play at home. Some employees do not have adequate space to devote to a home office, some share space with children, and some, who may have had special accommodations due to injuries or disabilities in the office, do not have those same adjustments at home.

Paying attention to the principles of ergonomics when setting up a work area can reduce the risk of developing discomfort associated with repetitive motion injuries, decreasing medical and disability costs for the employer. Ergonomics can help increase worker comfort and productivity while demonstrating respect for the diversity of individual, physical, mental, cultural, and emotional differences among employees. 

As employees begin their return to the office after the pandemic, it is imperative to take a fresh look at the overall workspace and adjust details appropriately. You might consider whether employees need a refresher in ergonomic education, such as using an online training program, conducting a webinar, providing an in-person group training, or even having an ergonomic specialist walk through and give specific guidance to each employee. Ergonomic training is important if you have done any office remodeling or moved office locations during the past year.

Some employees may even need to re-evaluate their work habits. When working at home, many of us have grown accustomed to working in different areas of the house that provide a break from static and seated postures. If we are used to standing or walking around during phone calls, how would we do that in the office? If we occasionally took our laptop to stand at the kitchen counter during a video conference, how can we incorporate more standing into our day at the workplace?

Many employers have decided to bring employees back into the office gradually, following a phased approach that includes some days each week in the office and some days each week working remotely.

Still, other employers are offering a hybrid work model permanently.

If the office workstations are shared, then consider equipping workplaces with the most adjustable furniture and appropriate accessories. Items that can easily be adjusted by employees, like chairs, electric height adjustable tables, keyboard trays, and monitor arms, are a better alternative than those that require facilities personnel to make adjustments. If those workstation adjustments are quick and easy to make, the likelihood that employees will modify their workstations to fit themselves is much greater.

If workstations are not shared, then employees will be responsible for maintaining two complete workspaces, one at home and one in the office. Both spaces will need a proper ergonomic setup. In either case, accessories like portable keyboards, mice, laptop risers, and wireless USB headsets are great options for those who travel and can be very helpful in a hybrid situation as employees can more easily transport these items. Consider also whether employees can use wheeled bags to transport their laptops, computer equipment, and files each day instead of carrying heavy bags over their shoulders.

For the employees who will continue to work from home full time, consider if they need help setting up their home workstation. Those who are still working from their kitchen table are likely typing on a too-high keyboard, using a laptop whose screen is too low, and are working without an external monitor, keyboard, or mouse. Fortunately, employers can get creative. Organizations can offer to provide remote ergonomic evaluations and implement policies that would allow employees to take things home from the office, provide stipends that could help employees set up a proper home work station, or allow employees to purchase their equipment with your company's discount from certain vendors.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, many employees have experienced physical changes. People may not have kept their original fitness routines due to gym closures or have shifted abruptly to an all-remote work environment. As we enter a new normal, ergonomics should remain a major focus for a healthy office environment as we get back to working together in person.

Lisa Orr is a certified professional ergonomist and Human Factors Professional at Sedgwick.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.