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Published: 3 week

Workplace ergonomics

In the past, the focus was on an office being functional, safe, with adequate noise levels, lighting and therefore supportive of efficient working. Today, however, the office workplace must be an experience. Where did workplace ergonomics start and where is it now? Why is it important in attracting talent?

Munkahelyi ergonómia iroda-

When our prospective Generation Y or Generation Z employees come to us, they are surprised to see a workplace environment that is not a standard one, but one that is tailored to their needs, Krisztina Molnár, Unit Manager of Generali's Busines Roar unit, told a professional conference recently. It is just one example of how workplace ergonomics is becoming an increasingly important issue for companies, for example in attracting and retaining new staff. According to the chief operating officer of a company that deals with workplace ergonomics, it has now become a kind of cafeteria element towards employees.

What is an ergonomist?

Ergonomics is made up of the Latin words ergos (meaning work) and nomos (meaning laws), but perhaps more illustrative than the literal translation is the English human factors. "Ergonomics is the relationship between man and his environment, which includes the environment, the machine, the product and everything that surrounds us. We are concerned with how the environment, the products and the human abilities and skills can be well matched" - Dr. Fruzsina Pataki-Bittó, assistant professor at the Department of Ergonomics and Psychology at the BME, told HR Portal. The three pillars of ergonomics are safety, efficiency and comfort, which means not only comfort but also well-being. These must be achieved for an environment or product to be ergonomic. This requires anropometric data, for example, measurements of the forces that people can exert in certain positions, what is the maximum force that will not damage a person's health in that position. However, ergonomic design and construction can also be based on the needs of specific users. "Ergonomics is really an approach that always focuses on the person and their characteristics, a user-centred design," added Fruzsina Pataki-Bittó.

A little history: from bombshells to workplace feeling

The Second World War first drew attention to ergonomic problems. Ergonomics became a big issue in the military industry, for example in the design of cockpits to make them safe and to ensure that controls were not confused by pilots, who of course had to fit into the cockpits. "The aim was to make sure that everyone could adjust the levers so that the bomber could be flown safely. This is where human perception, dimensions, designing for them and fitting the environment to them started to be seriously considered," he begins his historical retrospective. By the 1960s, the concept of ergonomics had broadened and all kinds of work environments, from industry to offices, began to be addressed. Later on, the market for paying customers, whose feedback mattered more and more, steadily expanded - and product ergonomics was born. The question became: what is the extra experience or value that a product can give to users beyond its basic functionality? "They realised, by the way, that user-centred design always pays off. The design time will be a little longer because you have to involve users at most points, but you won't have big bugs that will make you recall a product", the BME assistant professor added. Then in the 1980s came software ergonomics, which also gained a lot of ground. If a software product - such as a webshop these days - is not usable, you will immediately abandon it and stop using it. And today we live in a world of user experience, which is sometimes a bit overdone, for example with some products. "There are certain brands where design is everything and also masks usability problems. And it's easier to forgive a product you like if you see flaws than a product you don't like. In line with this, the workplace today is almost all about the employee experience. In people's minds, this is now associated with comfort and functionality," said Fruzsina Pataki-Bittó.

Revolution after the 2008 economic crisis

According to the BME assistant professor, the changes of the last decades have had a spectacular impact on office ergonomics, for example: at the end of the 1990s, everyone accepted the working environment offered by their workplace and worked in it, and then the economic crisis came in 2008, and many workplaces moved from cellular offices to single-space offices, which saves a lot of space. People accepted that in many evenings, because at least they kept their jobs. But when we came out of the economic crisis and many people had the opportunity to change jobs, they felt that employees didn't like single-space offices with 100 people in one room. Employers also felt that they had to change because their employees were leaving, so they focused on what the employees liked, what kind of working environment they wanted to work in. Nowadays there is a real battle for Generation Z in the labour market, so it became very important to show them what kind of working environment we want to present to them, whether they like it, whether they want to work in that office. First impressions count for a lot these days. It used to be that an office had to be functional, safe, have the right noise levels, lighting, so that the company could provide a basically right environment to work effectively, but nowadays the office workplace has to be an experience. "Today's young people are no longer just making decisions based on the conditions and benefits promised by the workplace, but also on the environment. But if there is greater employee satisfaction, productivity increases, which means it is worthwhile to do so," added the BME assistant professor.

What makes it more than just "nice to have"

There are perhaps a dozen or so companies in Hungary that deal with ergonomics. One of the largest domestic service partners are mostly large multinational companies that deal with ergonomics issues in practice, but the depth to which they do so depends on the company culture and their activities, Balázs Megyeri, head of operations and strategy at Pro-mees Kft. told HR Portal. The topic of ergonomics has been on the agenda of many companies since the 2010s, but it is still less prominent among occupational health and safety issues, today treated as a "nice to have" topic by many people. "Most people contact us about ergonomic risk assessment, but this is also done in a reactive phase, i.e. we assess the risks of an existing work environment and activities. We are consulted much less often in the design of new offices, and even less often, unfortunately, when the new workplace, working environment or activity is still in the planning stage, when it would be most effective to intervene in the design phase to ensure ergonomic functioning." - noted Balázs Megyeri of his company's experience. In addition to design, another big question is how companies can transfer ergonomic knowledge to their employees. To achieve this, they are often asked to organise training courses, compile educational material or organise company health, safety and environmental days. The expert says that ergonomics is a topic typically addressed by large companies in Hungary, and more often by office workers, as there are legal obligations for this type of work. Activities involving physical work are more likely to be subject only to health and safety rules, but ergonomics typically goes beyond that. Asked what proportion of companies deal with this issue, he did not dare to give an estimate.

Cafeteria can be an office experience

"Those who have heard about these issues are now increasingly trying to take one thing or another into account. The question is more how. We just shoot it down, but there is no real change, or substantive change after the risk assessments and professional materials are done. This is where the dividing line tends to be," said Balázs Megyeri. It is no use acquiring ergonomically suitable work equipment and elements of the working environment (chairs, desks, computers, lighting, etc.) if the employee cannot use them in a way that is optimal for him or her. Some companies, especially multinationals, are willing to spend money on this, once they have carried out an ergonomic assessment of the workplace. Another typical example is an old industrial environment that needs to be improved, but this is time-consuming and expensive. The space is given, the machines are difficult to move, production would have to be stopped, and productivity would be stalled for the moment. However, an ergonomic improvement could in the long term improve productivity through more efficient work and fewer illnesses and health problems. In the short term, however, it is precisely physical work that can be hazardous to health, so there would be no less reason to take ergonomics into account than in mental work. The expert is only moderately optimistic about the future, as the majority of companies (in a good case) are satisfied with the level of compliance with the legislation, most of them invest in this only under pressure, which may be a change in legislation, but also because they are trying to create an attractive and advanced company environment for their employees as a cafeteria element, because of the difficulty of attracting new staff. However, in the medium to long term, the needs of employees may prompt companies to pay more attention to this issue," says the head of operations and strategy at Pro-mees Kft.

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