November 1, 2019
If you’ve ever worked in an office, you are probably familiar with some common complaints. It’s too loud. It’s too cold. It’s too uncomfortable. At the same time, it’s necessary for connection and collaboration with co-workers and clients. How can organizations balance the human and functional needs within a single office location?
The modern office space, with its minimal walls and trestle-like tables, isn’t as modern as you probably think. In fact, the movement’s roots date back to the 1900s. Early modernists, like American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, believed that discrete offices were counterproductive, and walls should be torn down to encourage human interaction. At the same time, efficiency experts sought to maximize worker productivity and saw potential in large workrooms.
These ideas influenced office design for more than five decades. By the late 1960s, however, workers had tired of this flattened individuality and offices began to revert toward privacy. The cubicle was born, offering a semi-private space without solitary confinement. After all, workers could still talk to their mates through the upholstery wall — sometimes too often.
Fast forward to the 1990s and the rise of the open office plan as we know it today. Technology was taking over the world and with it came a new ethos to hack the status quo. New tech companies flattened hierarchy and removed the cubicles to encourage creativity, collaboration and comradery with teammates.
Sounds ideal but there was a problem: the new movement did not deliver its desired results, and there was research to back it up. A study by Harvard Business School researchers discovered that not only did worker productivity decrease in an open work environment, the quality of their work also depreciated. The authors concluded that open offices appear to trigger an innate human response to withdraw in the face of overstimulating environments.
At the same time, workers became more aware than ever of the importance of health, safety and comfort within their offices. Employers started to understand that a poorly designed space can hinder productivity and result in musculoskeletal injury, putting pressure on offices to make changes. Wellness programs become an important tool for many companies interested in improving their employees’ mental, emotional and physical health. Other offices make it easier for employees to request personalized office furniture.
One popular item to address worker comfort is a height-adjustable table — sometimes called a standing desk — which allows a worker to move from sitting to standing throughout the day. You may have heard the phrase, “sitting is the new smoking.” It’s a quick way to point out that humans are meant to move. Height-adjustable tables allow workers to move while they work, rather than staying confined to an often-uncomfortable chair. Some small studies have demonstrated that using height-adjustable tables can improve circulation, mood, back pain — and productivity.
Addressing comfort can be a quick fix, but how can offices improve the need for privacy? Enter office pods — small, enclosed, mobile offices that workers can use for concentrated work. Office pods have become a much-in-demand feature of the modern office space. While open floor plans are the norm — 70% of companies have an open floor plan — many open-office space workers loathe the trend. In a study by the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney, 40% of the open-office workers surveyed said they disliked the lack of visual privacy while nearly 50% surveyed were dissatisfied with sound privacy. Offered as a solution to the lack of visual and sound privacy, office pod production has exploded to meet market demand.
Things are changing quickly in offices to allow workers more comfort and privacy as they do their jobs. It is happening so quickly, in fact, that some manufacturers are rushing to market without considering potential health and safety hazards of height-adjustable tables, office pods and other furniture.
And there can be many hazards. Here a few of the known risks:
• Physical hazards
Height-adjustable tables are intended to improve health but also come with risk. Fingers can be pinched in hinges and over-weighted shelves can fail. Poorly designed pods can be unbalanced and tip, risking crushing and entrapment injuries. They can also cause workers to trip and fall.
• Shock and fire Hazards
Integrated power, charging and electric wiring offers an opportunity for shock and fire hazard in any environment. Motorized height-adjustable tables contain wires that must not get caught in joints. A fire within an office pod should either trigger the building sprinkler and alarm system or include its own fire suppression system.
• VOC emissions
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from furnishings, textiles or paneling can reach two to five times the concentration in enclosed areas than in open areas. These emissions can trigger asthma, allergies and other respiratory issues. Air flow can be an important element missing from office pods.
In North America, local authorities want office pod products evaluated by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL). Some municipalities may require more than the national codes. Additionally, office equipment is governed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandate requiring safe working environments.
How can manufacturers address the growing chorus of regulatory voices for adjustable tables, office pods and other items intended to improve health, privacy and comfort?
One way to help promote health and safety in offices is to build products toward U.S. standards, which are more mature than many other markets around the world. Manufacturers could consider safety certification to UL 962, the Standard for Safety of Household and Commercial Furniture. The certification thoroughly evaluates products, such as height-adjustable tables and office pods, for fire, shock and casualty hazards. They test height-adjustable tables for load bearing, entrapment and pinch-point hazards. Evaluation of an office pod includes examining its electrical components and fire safety system, testing the stability of the office pod to avoid tip-over and entrapment hazards. Another way to address respiratory health hazards is through the UL GREENGUARD Certification program, used by architects and designers to identify products with low VOC emissions.
Manufacturers that can get ahead of regulatory compliance may have an advantage in the long run. Working with UL to evaluate height-adjustable desks and office pods, identify potential health and safety hazards, and pursue appropriate certifications can help to avoid product downtime due to rejections by local authorities and encourage customers who are seeking the privacy, flexibility and modernity that these new products can offer. And when manufacturers have better products to offer, workers are more comfortable, workplaces are more productive, and everyone benefits in the end.