Comfort, Performance, and Productivity

Good employee performance and productivity is partly a function of physical comfort aided by good ergonomics and being well-equipped to do the job efficiently.

Don't hamstring a good employee (or yourself) with a suboptimal workstation. An optimal workstation includes a well-designed physical workstation, good organization and cleanliness, and a decent computer and monitor.

You already know that employees are very expensive. For perhaps a few weeks cost in wages and benefits, you can dramatically improve an employee's workspace, resulting in better performance. There are ample studies that support this. *1

​The following improvements can make a big difference for the happiness and comfort of your employees, yourself, and the bottom line for your company.

A Good Computer

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci *2

Cheap, low-end computers are no bargain. They start up very slowly sometimes taking ten minutes or more to settle and become ready to use, programs are slow to load, and web pages take longer to render. It's an aggravating experience that takes it's toll over the long run. Slow computers suck and needlessly hamper getting work done. More money is wasted in lost productivity than by spending a few extra hundred on a decent workstation.

And you don't need a $3,000 custom gaming rig, either. A good workstation that is fast and responsive with a decent keyboard, mouse, and dual high-resolution monitors costs less than $1,000. This will buy a well-spec'd computer that will serve with gusto for six-plus years, easily.

Dual monitors are an incredible productivity boost, especially for people who have multiple programs or web pages open and often switch between them. Imagine doubling the size of your desk. How many more things could you see simultaneously without shuffling papers around? When people see dual monitors in action for the first time, moving a window between monitors, it's like watching a child see the ocean for the first time -- it's magical. People that are used to dual monitors will never go back to single living again. You just have to experience it.

A Good Posture

Here's a schematic overview of how a human should be positioned and how the various components of a workstation should come together and look. These exact measurements don't have to be followed precisely as shown. But it does give you a good idea of what is important -- what to strive for.

  • Eyes should be approximately level with the top of the screen, not off by more than 2-3 inches. And especially not having to look upward.

  • Forearms should be horizontal. Ideally, the chair should have adjustable armrests. If so, adjust them so your elbows rest on the armrests while keeping your forearms horizontal.

  • Upper legs should be horizontal. Use the chair's height adjustment.

  • Lower legs should not contact the front edge of the chair.

A Good Telephone

Workers that are on the phone a lot as part of their job need a system that allows hands-free use. Cradling the receiver as shown here is the worst possible way to use the phone. Spinal and cervical discomfort and injures are common.

We often need both hands to use our computer while on the phone. So, how to do this?

Lots of people use the loud speaker feature of their phone. This presents its own set of problems, such as​:​

  • Lack of privacy. Everyone around you can hear the other party. That's bad form as the other party expects they are having a one-to-one conversation. They can't see into your office and so aren't expecting to be overheard. It's a discourtesy to the other party.

  • Annoying to other workers. Back in my corporate days there was a fellow in next cubicle who always used his speakerphone, much to the annoyance of the dozen or so workers within earshot. He refused to stop, didn't care. Now imagine several employees, all needing to talk to customers. Speakerphones are a mess.

  • Difficulty for the other party. When you use a speakerphone, the mic is usually 2-3 feet away from your mouth. Your voice sounds distant to the other party and is hard to understand. The mic also picks up more office noise because your voice isn't as strong at that distance. You may not realize, but the SPL (Sound Pressure Level) of your voice drops off dramatically as the mic moves farther away from your mouth. Just 2-3 feet away reduces the SPL by over 90 percent. That's significant!

  • Fluid conversation not easy and sometimes not even possible. Speakerphones generally do not allow smooth two way conversation like the handset does. Without that, it's difficult to interrupt, interject, giggle or make other clue-giving sounds. If one party is delivering a monologue the other party often cannot interrupt to make a point, ask for clarification, or simply to repeat a word. That's a problem.

The best solution is a headset like the one pictured. This model has a small thin headband, a cushioned speaker, and a flexible boom that places the mic close to the mouth. There's lots of models, some wireless, some that let you dial remotely, and other features. But the biggest benefit is being hands-free, no craning the neck, and without using the speakerphone.

A Good Desk

A comfortable ergonomic desk is spacious and has a slide-out platform that hosts a keyboard and mouse. The top of the desk is often too high for comfortable keyboard or mouse use. 

Here's an example of a desk with a slide-out keyboard platform with dual monitors mounted on a central pedestal. The entire desktop is free of bulky computer gear, leaving ample room for task-at-hand materials, water, a couple of decorations, etc. An ideal and inviting workspace.

The footwell under the desk should be free of equipment, power strips, boxes, supplies, and other junk. It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it is. Many people fidget their legs and feet while seated and that's actually healthy! *3 If the footwell is crowded with boxes or other crap, people will subconsciously restrict leg and foot movements resulting in fatigue.

Closely related to a good desk is a roomy workspace for yourself. Is your chair hemmed-in on all sides? I've visited clients whose personal workspaces was so tight they could not roll their chair more than a few inches in any direction. That's not healthy. Ergonomics isn't only about choosing and properly arranging furniture in a healthy fashion. It's also about how you interact with your workspace. Humans need room to move around! Your workspace, where your chair sits, should be open and roomy -- not constricted and hemmed-in.

A Standing / Sitting "Geek" Desk

Doctors and other health professionals have said that "sitting is the new smoking". Fact is, many of us have jobs where we sit all day long. While sitting at a computer isn't nearly as dangerous as working in a chicken processing plant, it does have it's deleterious effect on health. And also on comfort during the day.

Simply standing all day is no answer, either. In some ways, that's even worse than sitting all day. 

Instead, it takes a combination of postures. From what I've read on the topic, office workers ought to rotate between three postures to maximize comfort and, perhaps, reduce opportunity for the sorts of health issues that a sedentary office lifestyle may bring about.

Those postures are sitting for 25 to 30 minutes, standing for 25 to 30 minutes, and walking for that in-between time of 5 to 10 minutes, on an hourly cycle (or thereabouts).

You don't have to waste time during your 5-10 minute walking portion, either. We all have to get up occasionally to fetch something, use the loo, get a refreshment (water, please), etc. Just make sure you can do that a little bit each hour.

Prices on so-called standing or "geek" desks are coming down. Some models have motorized tops with memory buttons that set the desk to any of several programmable heights. Touch a button and your desktop moves to the new height in seconds, making it all that much easier to move from sitting to standing and back again.

 

Note that it takes some care to ensure your monitors and other desktop equipment have sufficiently long and well-managed cabling to make this a smooth operation. I can assist with all this!

A Good Chair

A decent chair is crucial to comfort, safety, performance, and productivity. Accounting for breaks and other step-away moments, a full time office worker can easily log some 1,600 to 1,800 butt-on-chair hours a year. A crappy chair just makes one miserable and people often don't connect their fatigue to the chair.

I've seen a lot of crappy chairs as I've visited clients: Chairs with completely worn out cushions that feel like a concrete park bench, lopsided chairs because bench brackets are bent or broken, weak seat-back springs, broken or missing arm rests, no lumbar support or headrest, vertical pistons or other adjustments that are omitted or don't work, and more. Why subject your employees to such discomfort?

The best chairs have a see-through mesh bench and a mesh back. Mesh is superior because it provides the best ventilation as air passes through it (no sweaty butt), offers the best elastic resistance (doesn't bottom-out), and there's no foam padding to disintegrate and flatten out over time.

I sit on a Herman Miller Aeron chair. It has numerous adjustments, is very well made, and exceedingly comfortable. It's not cheap, costing upward $900 or so, but it's well worth it. The Aeron is the premier chair loved by office workers everywhere lucky enough to have one. Unfortunately, you won't find the Aeron at Office Depot.

Return on Investment

These improvements are all pretty cheap compared to the cost of human labor. Humans were not designed to sit on a chair all day staring at a glowing panel and pecking little buttons -- so it makes perfect sense to minimize the ill effects of doing so! It just takes a little attention to detail and willingness to spend a few bucks to provide a comfortable workspace for you or your employees. Given their enormous cost, you want your employees as efficient as possible, yes?

References

*1 : Why is an ergonomic workstation important. (Google)
*2 : The Vitruvian Man (Wikipedia)
*3 : Is Fidgeting Healthy? (Google)