Human Resources, Manufacturing, and Technology

Pondering office posture

Steelcase claims sitting at a desk has changed due to electronic technology.

March 22, 2013
| By Pete Daly |
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Pondering Office Posture
Barbara Rounds, a workplace ergonomic and injury prevention specialist, demonstrates proper posture to Kelsea Rounds at Family Capital Management. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Steelcase has rolled out a new office chair that it claims is “the first chair designed to support our interaction with today’s technologies.”

Barbara Rounds, a Grand Rapids professional in workplace ergonomic consulting and injury prevention, who is not affiliated with Steelcase, said she doesn’t necessarily think today’s office workers are using their chairs differently, but she does believe they are sitting still for longer lengths of time — and that has an impact.

The marketing text on the Steelcase website says the new Gesture chair is “inspired by the movement of the human body. Created for the way we work today.”

Laura Van Slyke of Steelcase corporate public relations said the company researched 2,000 people in 11 countries and found nine new postures that have emerged from the office worker’s relationship with technology.

“Today’s new technologies actually demand a new way of sitting and working. Because these postures are not adequately supported, workers are in pain and uncomfortable and doing long-term danger to their bodies. Out of this study came Gesture; a completely new chair,” wrote Van Slyke in an email to the Business Journal. The new chair goes on the market this fall.

According to Steelcase marketing, it “studied how the human body interacts with technologies and how it responds as workers shift from one device to another. Research revealed ergonomic implications that, if not adequately addressed, can cause pain and discomfort for workers.”

The arm on the Gesture chair “moves like the human arm, which allows users to be supported in any position. Arms and shoulders remain supported when texting on a smartphone, typing on a keyboard or swiping a tablet.”

The website provides illustrations, using a crash test dummy-like figure to show the new postures, which are labeled The Draw, The Multi-Device, The Text, The Cocoon, The Swipe, The Smart Lean, The Trance, The Take It In and The Strunch.

Rounds said that, in her opinion, what has changed in the way people work in offices is “primarily in the fact that people are sitting at their desk much longer than they would have before, because of technology.” Sitting without moving for long periods of time can be a problem if the person isn’t comfortable in that chair to begin with, she said.

The extent of emailing today has largely eliminated the need for people to get up and retrieve documents from a printer for mailing or faxing, and also has eliminated the need to file or retrieve documents in a file cabinet, she said.

“We’re just sitting much longer in our chair at our desk. We’re more static than we used to be before,” she said.

“There are some subtle differences” in how people seated in an office work today, she agreed, but “regardless of what chair we’re sitting in, we’re sitting.”

Rounds does note that desk chairs have changed a great deal over the decades. “There is so much more adjustability, so that’s better — if you make those adjustments” to match your chair with your body, she said.

“If” is the issue, however. Many office workers “have very good chairs, but they’ve never been educated in regard to how to make those adjustments. So they just sit in the chair the way it came out of the box. Many times, people are not even aware of what adjustments can be accomplished with their chairs,” said Rounds.

The Gesture chair is “quickly adjustable to meet the needs of each individual user,” according to Steelcase.

Rounds agrees with Steelcase that there are a lot of subtle changes a person can make in their office that make a difference in their comfort, and more comfort generally means the individual can be more productive. “It’s not just the chair. It’s the height of their monitor, the distance your monitor is placed away from you,” she said.

She noted that adjusting the height of the chair seat too high or too low can cause discomfort in the legs and lower back, which might then necessitate another adjustment, which might lead to yet another, and so on. That anatomical connectivity is well explained in the “Dem Bones” song, as performed many years ago by the Delta Rhythm Boys.

Laptops, in particular, can cause ergonomic problems. Some people — especially those with a laptop literally on their lap — must crane their neck downward in order to see the screen. When the laptop is placed on a work surface so that the screen is more level with the user’s eyes, the built-in keyboard may be too high or too far away to reach comfortably.

“There are so many different aspects of office ergonomics. It’s not just the chair you’re sitting in,” she said.

Rounds said about 30 percent of her work is ergonomic consulting for industrial plants and about 30 percent is office ergonomics. She has a graduate degree in occupational therapy for injured workers, which makes up the remainder of her work.

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