The ROI of comfort

When it comes to office furniture, ergonomics isn’t so much about products as process

November 29, 2011
by Deanna Rosolen

Purchasingb2b print edition: October 2011

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) sums it up best. When it comes to office furniture, ergonomics isn’t so much about products as process—the process of matching furniture and accessories to employees and their tasks. For purchasers, this doesn’t mean costly investments but it does mean researching and preparing to train employees to use new equipment.

If employees aren’t trained to use new chairs, task lighting, adjustable height desks, foot rests and mouse supports, the new tools won’t be effective. Jonathan Puleio, director of consulting for New York City-based Humanscale, says it’s common for ergonomic chairs to have six to eight knobs, levers and adjustments.

Turns out, says Puleio, employees only adjusted the height. “Companies were investing significant dollars in designs that were simply too complex for users to benefit from without extensive training.”

Humanscale, which designs ergonomic office tools, began working on a concept called passive ergonomics. A chair, for example, would be designed to sense body weight and automatically adjust tensions, eliminating several steps for the user.

Humanscale offers seating, keyboards, lighting, foot rests, glare filters and ergo consulting. Some of its new products include the Float Height Adjustable Table, a sit-stand table with greater weight accommodation and more work surface options. The Horizon LED task light uses thin film technology for glare-free light. There’s the Diffrient World chair—all-mesh with a tri-panel backrest the company says hugs the body for lumbar support. The chair’s M/Flex monitor support system enables simple reconfigurations.

Before purchasers buy equipment, the CCOHS suggests answering some questions: who is the employee—body size, height, gender, right or left-handed? And what do they know about where the furniture will be placed?

The CCOHS recommends doing a needs assessment. Business Interiors by Staples offers the service. Sandra Vyse, furniture sales manager, central region, says there are several ergonomic options from basic to sophisticated. A needs assessment should include looking at workflow to see what fits. “What’s important is you’re listening to your clients and understanding what employees’ day-to-day job tasks are and making sure you provide a solution that fits,” she says.

Another provider, ErgoCanada, offers a line of arm/palm rests such as an articulating gel forearm support with removable mouse tray and the ErgoRest forearm support. It offers footrests and LCD arm accessories, keyboard arms, sit-stand solutions, the SwingSeat Pro chairs and saddle seat chairs and ergonomic mice.

What to look for
The CCOHS says organizations should look for furniture with an adjustability range for all prospective users. Puleio says adjustability is key and notes a standard in most offices is a 29.5” high desk without height adjustability. But “that height correlates to the seated elbow height of a person who is 6’4”. It’s much too high for about 95 percent of the population,” he says.

Vyse says the simplest way to measure ROI is through an organization’s benefits plan and how many employees take stress and sick leave and why. How it’s measured is always different: it’s easier, says Vyse, to measure in a call centre but trickier in a HR department.

Puleio says Humanscale usually looks at the cost of lost productive time, which refers to costs associated with time lost as a result of injured employees who have to leave their jobs. He says there are objective and subjective ways to measure ROI. Objective measures include lost work days, absenteeism and injury rates. Subjective measures include a pre- and post-discomfort questionnaire. “We find discomfort rates in most organizations fall between 50 and 60 percent,” he says. “Injury rates are quite low, one to two percent.”

The CCOHS says employee feedback is key and should be sought early. It’s important to remember, says Puleio, that “some very basic changes can yield drastic improvements in a person’s working comfort levels.”