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Top 5 ergonomic trends redefining the workplace

Google employees Erica Baker, left, and Raiford Storey work in the company's New York office space. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has 8,000 employees worldwide, with 500 in its New York facility. The inflatable red balls are part of the playful atmosphere of the office. (Photo: AP/Mark Lennihan)
Google employees Erica Baker, left, and Raiford Storey work in the company's New York office space. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has 8,000 employees worldwide, with 500 in its New York facility. The inflatable red balls are part of the playful atmosphere of the office. (Photo: AP/Mark Lennihan)

Everyone wants to be Google.

Or at least, everyone would like to work at Google. Google’s efforts to create the happiest place to work includes more than free gourmet meals, massages, “nap pods” and other lavish perks. Their efforts center around a different way of looking at the workplace with a focus on ergonomics.

Ergonomics is human engineering, designing things or spaces so people can use them more comfortably, efficiently and safely.

Fortunately, workplaces around the country are following Google’s lead. Organizations in every industry are realizing that their people are their most important assets, and their workplace must be optimized for them. We have more than 20,000 policyholders across the Eastern Seaboard, and as MEMIC’s chief ergonomist I see the impact of poor workspace design on the bodies of employees and the bottom lines of companies as productivity decreases and healthcare and insurance costs — including workers’ compensation costs — rise.

Related: Here are the top 10 most costly U.S. workplace injuries

Here are the top five workplace trends I see as organizations endeavor to increase productivity, improve the health of employees and retain them for the long term:

Aerial view of office cubicles

Office cubicles are getting smaller or being eliminated in many workplaces. (Photo: iStock)

1. Space is being redefined.

We are simultaneously seeing smaller spaces and more spaces. We’ve all noticed personal workspaces getting smaller. The cube farms have been multiplying since the 1980s, but even the cubes are getting smaller and the walls are getting lower.

The folks in the corner office are not immune to the open office concept as they are losing square footage too. It makes sense because managers are on the floor more or in the field, meeting with their internal teams or external clients.

It’s all too easy for employees to see the negative and focus on what they’re losing. That’s why it is so crucial for management to effectively communicate what is gained through the reorganization and reprioritization of space.

Related: 3 steps to take to create a safer office

Aerial view of people meeting around a table

More companies are providing a variety of spaces where teams can meet. (Photo: iStock)

2. Collaboration is being encouraged.

Workers can’t just be given less space; they must be given more diverse spaces and the autonomy to move around those spaces. Many workplaces, including MEMIC, are creating collaboration spaces of different sizes so people aren’t trapped at their desks or battling over who has reserved the large conference room when they only need a quick huddle with three or four coworkers.

The effective open office is about space reflecting and enhancing organizational culture. Flattening the hierarchy, opening doors, increasing communication and collaboration, breaking down departmental silos to create a more nimble and flexible organization that responds to challenges and solves problems quickly is the new paradigm.

Related: Do you need workers’ comp for telecommuting employees?

Man working at standing desk

Employers are giving employees the option to work standing up. (Photo: iStock)

3. Mobility is king.

The workplace is dynamic: Don’t be left sitting still or you’ll be left behind. Technology has allowed people to untether from the desk. The BlackBerry thumb has been replaced by smartphones, tablets and laptops. MEMIC has replaced almost every desktop with laptops and docking stations so employees can work seamlessly in the field, move about the office and use the collaboration spaces we’ve created.

The emphasis on mobility is coming just in the nick of time, as the percentage of obese and overweight workers has reached epidemic proportions. The health impacts of a sedentary workplace have led some experts to say, “Sitting is the new smoking.” Dynamic sit/stand workstations have been adopted at MEMIC and offices across the country so workers can transition from sitting to standing throughout the day and not be trapped in one unhealthy posture.

The answer to the question “Should I sit or stand at my desk?” is both. It’s the ability to change positions that creates the opportunity for wellness.

Related: Combating workplace fatigue: To sit or not to sit?

People working in open office

It's important to consider the way people do their jobs before making changes to your workplace. (Photo: iStock)

4. Aesthetics is functionality.

An open office must take into consideration the whole person and the whole work experience. The work environment should optimally address all the senses and create a coherent whole that complements your organizational culture.

Think sight, sound and smell:

  • What is your office decor?
  • Are the colors for different spaces appropriately relaxing or stimulating?
  • Do you have a scent or fragrance policy?
  • Is there proper ventilation, especially around the break room?
  • What is the noise level?
  • Do you need sound proofing, white noise machines or to designate certain disruptive tasks to specific spaces?

Related: How small businesses can reduce their Workers' Comp risk

Two women walking down stairs in an office

No matter how you redesign your workplace, make sure it fits the employees who will use it. (Photo: iStock)

5. It’s not about money; it’s about attitude.

Yes, Apple is spending $5 billion building a new campus, but ergonomic solutions don’t need to be expensive. Start with your employees who sit the most, and create an environment that allows them more freedom of movement throughout the day. It’s the little things that show employees you see them and value them as individuals, and they’re not just cogs in the machine. The key to human engineering is adapting your workplace to fit your people, not the other way around.

The trends may be amplified in Silicon Valley, but across the country the economy is improving, unemployment is dropping, baby boomers are retiring and the race is on for attracting and retaining the best talent. The workforce is changing, and the workplace is changing with it. As you make physical changes, you should also see changes — and improvements — in your workers’ compensation claims for ergonomic injuries.

Allan Brown is chief ergonomist for MEMIC. He can be reached at

Related: On-the-Job Healing: Easing Injured Employees Back to Recovery

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