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Applying ergonomics at home - the new workplace

Casualty|Risk Management Consulting
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Eric M. Kennedy, MSIE, CPE | December 20, 2021

The purpose of this article is to help you identify ergonomics issues and offer a path to the development and execution of a new ergonomics strategy.

The good old days

“In the days of old” when you worked in an office, did you ever see: Someone hunched over an ironing board typing on their laptop? An electric stove top used as a workstation desk? Electrical cords running in multiple directions on the floor and suspended in the air? These examples are not fictional; they are real and happening every day. They demonstrate the new risks employers and employees face today.

Something has to change

You cannot just send your workers home with their laptops and cell phones and expect that all will be good; it just isn’t true and may cost you. There is mounting evidence that suggests that you will need a strategy that fits the new paradigm.

The purpose of this article is to help you identify ergonomics issues and offer a path to the development and execution of a new strategy.

Work from home advantages

Productivity?

Type in “work from home productivity statistics” into your favorite search engine and you will see that there is a lot of hype around this topic. At first glance, it appears to be a miracle. You are led to believe that each week, those who work from home are more consistent, work more hours and get more done. Something does not sound right about that.

When you look more closely you will see that there is not much substance to back up these claims. Most refer to surveys of employees. Self-assessment of productivity is at best difficult and at worst consciously biased. There are a few claims that refer to outdated studies that pre-date the pandemic. A Stanford study from 2013 in China on call center based travel agents is the most widely cited and concludes that productivity was boosted 13%. You will have to decide how applicable that conclusion is to your employee population.

Even if you accept the self-reported productivity survey results there is reason to believe that the productivity gains may not last. Many of the reports of increased productivity were early in the pandemic and some have dubbed it as “panic productivity.” People may have been working harder and longer in the hopes of staying visible and relevant. Productivity gains from this type of behavior are not sustainable over time. Restrictions are easing but many workers are not going back to the office.

Employee engagement

One thing is clear, employees really like flexible working conditions and it could have a major impact on your ability to attract and retain talent in the future. Stephane Kasriel, the CEO of Upwork, once said, “Companies that refuse to support a remote workforce risk losing their best people and turning away tomorrow’s top talent.”

There are endless surveys indicating positive employee perceptions of flexible work such as the following from Forbes: 5 Statistics Employers Need To Know About The Remote Workforce.

  • 97% of employees don’t want to return to the office full-time
  • 61% of employees prefer being fully remote

Work from home problems

While there has been a surprising lack of workers’ compensation claims, there is a general belief that the longer the work-from-home period goes on the more likely these claims are to be. Early in the lockdown (April 2020) the Institute for Employment Studies released interim findings from their Working at Home Wellbeing Survey that found more than half of the survey respondents reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58%), shoulder (56%) and back (55%), compared to their normal physical condition.

More recently, we have reviewed employee comments that are provided within our Willis Towers Watson Office Ergonomics Self-Help System. By building word trees, we can draw some conclusions about what the comments are saying in aggregate. Clearly there are many things that the typical home office setup doesn’t do.

Word tree showing 'doesn't allow, doesn't have'.
Word tree showing limitations of home office setups

Workplace scenarios

Three workplace scenarios are developing as we enter the post-pandemic world.

  1. Onsite model – This would be full-time office work that resembles pre-quarantine times. Most employers that we speak with are likely to have the fewest people in this group and we expect to average less than 10% of most white collar workforces.
  2. Remote model – Full time work from home or other locations as desired. Most employers that we speak with believe that this will be their largest portion of workers but have not settled into precise allocations.
  3. Hybrid model – This would be some combination of the onsite and remote models.

The post pandemic workplace is still being determined, but what workers think about it will have an impact on your organization’s ability attract and retain talent. McKinsey & Company released their Reimagine Work: Employee Survey (Dec 2020–Jan 2021, n = 5,043 full-time employees who work in corporate or government settings) with the following conclusions:

  • Most employees would prefer a more flexible working model after the pandemic is over with 52% preferring hybrid and 11% preferring remote
  • Going back to a fully on-site model might have significant talent implications with about 30% of employees saying they are likely to switch jobs if returned to fully onsite work.
  • Most employees would like to work from home at least three days per week in the future with more than 20% preferring 3 days, 12% preferring 4 days and 31% preferring 5 days.

Home office setups

FlexJobs surveyed more than 2,100 people who worked remotely during the pandemic about several key topics, including what their home office setup is. While 24% of remote workers have an “actual” home office, 34% have created a dedicated home office space. With the sudden shift to remote work last year, some newly remote workers had to get creative with their in-home office. Some people converted closets or garages, while others figured out how to make the dining room table work. In the end, nine out of 10 workers spent money on their office in 2020, with 42% spending between $100 and $500, and 12% spending more than $1,000.

Three ways to equip ergonomics

BYOE – Bring your own ergonomics

This has been the default for most employers as we dug into social distancing and quarantining measures. With this model, your workers are left to their own resources and creativity. We have seen some very creative responses including using an old ironing board as a makeshift standing workstation. At least it has some height adjustability features and is widely available (since no one is ironing their shirts). We know that a few employers have created preferred ergonomics equipment lists and discounted pricing that employees could use their own funds to purchase.

Ergonomics stipend

We have heard from a few employers who have offered a stipend. Most often these were one time payments that were placed directly into employee’s payroll accounts. We have strong suspicions that much of this money may not have found its way into ergonomics equipment purchases and while administratively simple may not be the most effective route. A better route may be to provide a stipend that can only be spent on a predetermined list of options from company identified sources.

Ergonomics outfitting

While it is not clear how to move forward, there is mounting evidence that employers will need to find a way to equip their remote and hybrid model workers with ergonomics options that ensure that they maximize the capability and minimize the waste of their precious human capital. Firms are saving a great deal of overhead spend on real-estate but will need to find a way to channel this savings into outfitting employees with good chairs, monitors and sit-stand desks. Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index is titled “The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready” and it includes 7 key trends. The top 3 are:

  1. Flexible work is here to stay
  2. Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
  3. High productivity is making an exhausted workforce

In a world where workers are no longer constrained in their choice of employers by geography, offering suitable ergonomics options will be a competitive advantage. While you try to figure out how your organization will handle this question you can take advantage of some free ergonomics advice from the Willis Towers Watson Workforce Vitality Practice. Follow the this link to view a few videos designed to help employees make the best use of their current work from home situation.

If you are an employer looking for innovative ergonomics/safety solutions for employees based remotely, check out these resources below.

Author

SVP, Chief Vitality Officer Integrated Casualty Consulting

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