Holistic Ergonomics™ for the Evolving Nature of Work

Ergonomics is broadly defined as “improving the fit between the person and their immediate environment.” Over the previous quarter century, office ergonomics has emerged as an important force in creating healthful and productive work environments. However, in recent years the focus of office ergonomics has failed to evolve along with the increasingly collaborative nature of work and its variety of workspace types and locations.

The First People to Practice Ergonomics Were Engineers and Psychologists

The field of ergonomics was originally called “human factors” and began in World War II when engineers and psychologists began to examine soldiers’ physical and mental capabilities. Engineers studied body size, reach and strength to make weapons easier to handle (ease of using the standard issue rifle). Psychologists studied how pilots gathered and processed information when operating complex aircraft (to improve layout of instrument panels and reduce accidents).

Today, the principles of ergonomics are applied to the design of an almost unlimited variety of products, software interfaces, and physical settings for human activity. In terms of the latter, the design of every type of setting imaginable, from children’s playgrounds, to the interior of the space shuttle, is influenced by ergonomic principles. In addition, ergonomics considers the needs of special user groups such as the elderly, visually impaired, and people with differing mental abilities in the design of work, play and learning spaces.

Traditional “office ergonomics” has been practiced for decades, with a focus on the individual in their workspace. This area of ergonomics emerged directly from the engineering and psychology approaches developed during World War II. In fact, much of the data that influences office ergonomic standards today comes from a military database of soldiers’ body dimensions.

Engineering ergonomics focuses on body size, physical capabilities (also known as “anthropometrics”) to improve the fit between people and the office workspace.

Typically trained as an engineer or in health and safety, an engineering ergonomist who works with office environments can develop workstation design specifications or training on how to use seating or work tools to minimize injury. While this approach plays a significant role in determining design and furnishings in the office, it focuses exclusively on the body mechanics of work. The engineering approach is limited because it does not consider the “mental” part of work— decision-making, work process, and similar issues.

Cognitive ergonomics seeks to optimize the fit between technology, job design, and mental capabilities.

Cognitive ergonomists are usually trained in psychology, and focus on “job design” issues (as opposed to physical, workspace design)— developing job tasks that address issues such as mental work load, decision making and work processes. In an office setting, a cognitive ergonomist’s role could be to develop training programs to help call center agents effectively use software systems to provide the best service to customers— or even to redesign the agents’ jobs. Cognitive ergonomics is limited because it does not consider the physical context of work.

For 25 years, these two traditions have dominated the practice of office ergonomics.
The scope of concern has largely been limited to individual computer work in the primary office workspace with a desired outcome of reducing discomfort or preventing injury, or increasing individual work efficiency. Both approaches narrowly focus on the “micro” work environment— the immediate space around the worker and computer. And in practice, both approaches operate in isolation from the other.