When it comes to productivity improvement, the first thing many executives think of is head count, how many people are needed for the job. The last thing many managers think of is the human factor, how to better improve the working conditions for the individual person.
Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.
Ergonomics, strictly speaking, is a subset of Human Factors Engineering (HFE). Ergonomics refers more to the individual’s physical make-up and how it interfaces with the individual’s workplace. Human Factors Engineering is broader as it considers the environment and involves even how facilities are designed and built. Both Ergonomics and Human Factors Engineering have become interchangeable, however, and many people nowadays see both as one and the same.
Whether we call it ergonomics or human factors engineering, the study of how to improve the human individual’s interface can be very helpful to an organisation or an enterprise.
Despite its growth in popularity since the 1980’s, Ergonomics remains a field where applications have been spotty. Certainly, Ergonomics has been a key influence in the development of workplace standards and has been instrumental in the design of products such as automobiles, furniture, tools, and appliances. Yet, there is plenty of potential for Ergonomics and we can see this in our daily experiences.
We notice ergonomic applications in the vehicles we drive. Seats are fitted to the contours of our human physiques. Temperature and humidity inside the vehicles are ‘climate-controlled.’ Front- and rear-cameras supplement the wide windshields, mirrors, and rear-windows that maximise our fields of view. And engineers have invested a great deal into passenger safety, such as airbags and seat-belts.
But for many us who do drive, we still have to contend with blind spots, where we would be unable to see cars or trucks at certain corners of our visual field. We have difficulties reading road signs, especially those with lettering that are too small or insufficiently illuminated. We can’t be expected to anticipate the vehicle that stops suddenly in front of us. And we can’t still see too well during heavy downpours of rain or when there is heavy fog or smoke. There is indeed still much to improve in the ergonomics of automobiles.
The popular coffee shop where I frequently dine in has very comfortable furniture where one can relax while having conversation. But its chairs and tables aren’t that friendly when I want to type on a laptop or just write with paper & pen; the chairs are too low & the round tables don’t provide enough space. As much as furniture may have come a long way in being more comfortable, there is still much room for improvement when it comes to being more ergonomic.
The challenges for ergonomics aren’t limited to driving cars or sitting on coffee shop furniture. We can see the need for better ergonomics in just about every profession, from the cockpits of airplanes to call centre work stations, from restaurant kitchens to factories. Despite whatever progress or awareness we have gained in making workplaces friendlier for workers, we can do better.
Traditional industrial engineering has focused on making the worker more efficient by instituting methods and quotas; the focus is on the workers making more by telling them to comply with standard operating procedures. Industrial engineers would set up workplaces from the point of the view of the job. IEs would instruct workers on how to do their jobs and they would set up reward & penalty systems to motivate them to optimise output.
Ergonomics sees it the other way around. The focus is on the well-being of the worker. The workplace should be illuminated, not noisy, and not burdensome to the physical & mental health of the individual worker. Hence, ergonomic experts establish standards for illumination, sound, environment, and for anthropometry, in which the latter deals with the measurements & movements of the human body vis-à-vis the workplace.
The point of ergonomics is productivity via human occupational safety & health. Just as IEs promote productivity via the design of the job, ergonomics seeks the same purpose but via adapting the workplace to the worker. Hence, ergonomics doesn’t adapt the worker to the job, but instead, the job adapts to the worker.
The major challenge of ergonomics is to find the right conditions, the optimal human factors so to speak, that would accommodate all individual workers and assure the best productivity performance possible. With each person being different, it has been a huge challenge for ergonomic scientists. How can ergonomics tweak a workplace to fit anyone, big or small, petite or tall, young or senior, without discrimination to gender, ethnicity, and other physical limitations?
The obvious answer is: we can’t. We can’t adapt everything at work to everyone. But what we can do is adapt conditions flexibly to accommodate just about everyone.
Furniture companies already supply adjustable office chairs and desks. Automotive firms already build in seats that can be programmed to the anthropometry of the driver. Not everyone (like seven-foot basketball players, for instance) may fit comfortably on a chair, but at least it would to a lot of people, if not most.
One good example towards an ergonomic-for-all-approach is in office space design. Enterprises recently have learned that the fad of open-plan office spaces in which, instead of cubicles, workers share tables in large open spaces, doesn’t lead to better performance; on the other hand, it has brought forth negative feedback as workers complain of distractions, not to mention endless meetings.
Designers, as a response, have put in small private rooms to offices and workers have welcomed not only the privacy the rooms bring but also the exclusivity of environmental control (e.g. the setting of the room thermostat). Offices have more than accommodated most, if not all, their personnel in improving their working environment.
As the coronavirus pandemic from 2020 to 2021 (hopefully) subsides, offices and factories that invest in better ventilation, cleaner surroundings, and exclusive private spaces will have an advantage to attract back their much-valued workers. It’s not only about productivity, nor just safety, but the well-being and health of the individual person. The pandemic may have made offices a pariah but enterprises by their initiatives to improve the office environment can make that negative idea temporary.
Ergonomics is a science that focuses on the well-being of individuals for the sake of they doing better productively for those they are engaged with. As ergonomics and its broader partner, human factors, become more synonymous, enterprises should continue to promote the science of adapting the job to the person and seek its benefits. Ergonomics’ challenge is to accommodate for all types of individuals and this can be achieved through innovation, if not via simple common sense.
Ergonomics can be helpful, really helpful.