Office Regs are Behind the Times
- Date: Wednesday 23rd October 2019
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Regulations governing office workspaces need to be revised to take into account modern working practices as well as ergonomic principles.
For employers, achieving “more with less” involves helping employees achieve better results and more ideas through creating inspiring workspaces and more collaborative work environments. On average, employees make up approximately 80% of a company’s annual costs, so increasing productivity is the best way to secure the future viability of the company.
This is evident in today’s offices, where the traditional workplace with individual desks is increasingly being replaced by hot-desking, agile working and open-plan spaces. “Agile working” refers to using efficient multi-space offices, home offices, co-working centres and external meetings. Alongside hot-desking, an agile working environment will typically include areas for concentrated work, collaborative work and “fun zones” featuring table football, lounges and extended kitchen zones.
However, productivity research and workplace regulations are based on the traditional office workplace, and do not really address these newer types of workspaces. The science of office ergonomics, developed over decades, has faded into the background.
Many companies carry out workplace assessments only when it is absolutely necessary to do so. Compared to industrial settings, the productivity of office staff is very difficult to measure, so meeting the minimum requirements set by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 is viewed as a chore that will not contribute to wider gains.
The DSE questionnaire is often filled out as part of a formal risk assessment and is not seen as providing information to contribute to improvements in the ergonomic design of the office environment. For instance, the working environment includes surfaces, acoustics, lighting, heating and ventilation, yet the worker is only asked whether they are “comfortable” or not, ignoring the opportunity to improve other factors that impact on both wellbeing and productivity.
he Workplace Regulations, as updated in 2013, apply to all workplaces, not just offices. But they are also fairly general, with plenty of room for interpretation, or indeed setting a low bar. In Germany, in contrast, direct specifications and detailed recommendations are published by the DGUV, the association representing German insurers and “Berufsgenossenschaften”, the sectoral social insurance bodies that all employers must join. Desktops and office workstations guidelines for design (DGUV Information 215-410) contains detailed specifications that allow the responsible person to “measure” if the guidelines are being followed.
Different countries also evaluate office space differently. The HSE’s Approved Code of Practice amplifying Regulation 10 of the Workplace Regulations suggests 11 m3 per employee, calculated from the floor to the ceiling height. In a room with a height of 2.40 m, an area of 4.6 m2 would be required. In other words, the higher the ceiling, the smaller the floor space required.
In other European countries, such as Germany, space requirements are specified according to office type and the number of people in the room. The requirement for ceiling height set out in German regulations implementing the EU Workplaces Directive (89/654/EEC) is calculated on the basis of the number of employees, and the volume of air needed. The minimum floor area of a work station should be 8 m2, although the requirements can range up to 15 m2 in an open-plan office, if there is a need to include pathways and shared areas such as lounges or meeting rooms.
Ergonomics and wellbeing
In the UK, employers are obliged to carry out workplace risk assessments, which includes the assessment of psychosocial risk. Statistics from health insurers and others have shown increases in mental stress for some years. Yet from practical experience I know that if employees are not involved in the design of new workspaces, they resist it, often citing acoustic problems even if the noise level is lower than before. When measuring noise levels following staff complaints, we typically find physical ill-effects, such as headaches, in 40% of cases, with psychological resistance – which could have been reduced by consultation and participation – accounting for 60%.
A holistic view of the office workspace is an essential success factor for increasing productivity. However, in comparison to the development of research and standards in other areas, many of the effects of changing organisational forms are still unknown. We don’t yet know how the workspaces and technologies of the future will influence health and wellbeing, such as the 24 hour “always on” culture, screen walls, or working independently away from colleagues. We need more research to be able to revisit the regulations on ergonomic principles, instead of uncritically adopting the latest trends and technologies.