Maximising productivity is high on employers’ agendas as Australians are rapidly changing the way they work.
Personal space in the workplace is diminishing as cubicle office set-ups are replaced with the trend of the open-plan office. There is also an increase in break out areas, the injection of greenery and the maximising of natural light, all designed to fill the productivity shoes of offices past.
However, many employers realise cookie cutter approaches to design do not boost productivity as much as implementing furniture designed to alleviate distraction all the while improving employee health.
There are three key areas in which furniture can help make workforces more productive:
A range of ergonomic and “moving” furniture is being designed to help keep employees healthy.
Ergonomic furniture is now standard, but bolder opportunities lie in sit/stand desks which encourage users to alternate their working position throughout the day, thereby reducing the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
One of the most documented effects from alternating position is energy expenditure.
In a recent piece on the Mayo Clinic's website, James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D. described the impact and results of movement, even leisurely movement as “profound.”
“For starters, you'll burn more calories. This might lead to weight loss and increased energy,” he said.
“Even better, the muscle activity needed for standing and other movement seems to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body. When you sit, these processes stall — and your health risks increase. When you're standing or actively moving, you kick the processes back into action.”
Taking things a step further, treadmill or cycle desks allows employees to actually move while they work.
Such solutions can be costly, but a study by VicHealth revealed that the upfront cost led to immense benefits.
The 2008 study found that the total direct financial cost of having an overweight or obese population was estimated to be $8.3 billion, with $3.6 billion (44 per cent) of this associated with lost workplace productivity.
Other ways businesses are creating moveable workplaces is by combining traditional desks and tall counters within the same space, offering sit/stand alternatives.
This allows employees to adjust the furniture to suit the task.
According to the Heart Foundation’s active living senior manager, Michelle Daley, over 10 million Australians spend on average eight hours per day in the workplace.
“Those working full-time in jobs that involve mostly sitting spend an average of 6.3 hours per day sitting at work,” she said.
Sara Pazell, principal occupation advisor of human factors and ergonomics for Viva Health at Work cited research from a study presented at ErgoExpo conference in late 2014 which showed that workers offered sit/stand options:
- stood on average for 36 per cent of their day
- made approximately two adjustments to the desk each day
- men stood a little more often than women
- workers in the 25 to 30 and 60 to 65-year-old age brackets stood the most
“During this observation period, findings included HDL (“good cholesterol”) levels increased while fat mass, overall body weight, blood pressure and back pain decreased," she said. "Workers also experienced better sleep."
According to a recent whitepaper at Steelcase, however, standing won’t save us and sitting isn’t killing us. Instead it’s sitting in poor postures for long periods with little movement and few breaks for standing or walking that can impact our health and reduce our productivity.
“This isn’t just theory,” said Ken Tameling, GM for seating for Steelcase. “We know from the cumulative weight of research and evidence gleaned from the workplace that these issues can have a significant negative impact on worker wellness and an organization’s bottom line. Conversely, by offering workers the information and products they need, we can have a positive impact.”
Open plan office spaces still remain popular and as much as they are celebrated for collaboration, they are also criticised for distraction.
The type of furniture and space is important when considering the task at hand. For example, a database coordinator may require a private working space for accuracy whereas a designer who is working as part of a team may benefit from social collaboration.
When it all gets to disruptive, employers are implementing distraction free furniture.
Corporate Culture in Sydney has a series of dividers and furniture that creates a private space for its users.
One product, Smalltalk, is a small private space that has a table and sound absorbing screen. Employees can stand and work inside the space for short periods.
Cloud, by Stockholm designer Monica Förster, is a portable inflatable room which can be inflated in three minutes and stored in a bag.
“In the morning moisture rises up in the sky and form cumulus clouds – towards the evening they dissolve and disappear,” Förster said. “That's exactly how I would like my room to work. When you come to the office in the morning, you inflate the room, and when you go home for the evening you deflate it and it disappears.”
The product could also be useful for temporary meeting rooms, traveling/freelance staff or employees seeking privacy for a task at hand.
Employees are also moving furniture to change the work space, repositioning couches, moveable walls and desks to create a collaborative or private working space.
More time at work or more hours being connected thanks to digital distraction is resulting in longer hours and less rest.
Some employers are implementing the “power nap” at work - again a strategy for productivity.
Metromaps in the US has designed the world’s first Energy Pod designed specifically for workplace naps.
Research conducted at the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital (Northport, NY) concluded that a short sleep can improve cognitive functioning and alertness, resulting in a 30 per cent decline in attention failures from baseline measure.
Harvard researchers estimate that sleep deprivation costs America $63.2 billion in lost productivity every year.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends a short nap (20 to 30 minutes) for short-term alertness.
In September, Australia jumped on the napping bandwagon with Perth’s Edith Cowan University installing two high-tech 'energy pods' on its Joondalup campus.
The pods play music and feature a reclining bed with a visor to reduce outside light and noise while also providing privacy. A combination of sound, light and gentle vibrations then wake the occupant after a 20-minute period.
In an interview with ABC, University librarian David Howard said students have always slept on desks or hidden behind shelves, and the university is adapting to their needs.
"Now we are giving them spaces to sleep, and this came directly from feedback from some our students," he said. "Libraries have to reinvent themselves to stay relevant."
"The way students are studying now is quite different. It's more about group study; they spend long hours in the library and they want to have a cup of coffee and to be able to sleep in the stacks.
"They want the libraries to be more liveable spaces."
The pods come with a roughly US$12,000 price tag, so for businesses keen to adopt the same method on smaller budget, other solutions exist.
The Ostrich pocket pillow is designed by Kawamura Ganjavian, a Madrid-based architecture and design firm.
According to the firm, it offers occupants a “micro environment to take a warm and comfortable power nap at ease.”
“Its soothing cave-like interior shelters and isolates our head and hands (mind, senses and body) for a few minutes, without needing to leave our desk," the company's website reads.
When it comes to productivity, furniture is certainly helping. If all else fails, grab a chair and enjoy a siesta - Europe has been doing so for years.