“Excuse me, you’re invading my personal space”: the importance of social ergonomics in the workplace

By Alice Finney

It’s mid-July and it’s rush hour on a Monday morning. Your hair is frizzy (it’s 25 degrees), your eyelids are drooping and your face is being jammed into the armpit of a total stranger as you pack like sardines onto the Central line. Although obviously gross and totally not what you pictured yourself doing aged 27, it’s kind of what you signed up for. It’s expected that, on your commute to work, you will have to not only interact with total strangers but your space will be totally occupied by them. Unless, of course, you travel like Justin Bieber (strictly private jet life).

picture1I think that we can all agree that knowing how to behave within the confines of the Underground is pretty straightforward. Understanding how to interact with your office environment and how to build relationships with team members is a little more complex. This is where the science of social ergonomics comes into play. It is a broad science, covering everything from how to make people productive to how muscular problems occur in the workplace to how environmental factors affect employee experience.

Why should you care about social ergonomics?

picture2Herman Miller’s seminar on social ergonomics in the workplace provided an insightful look at why exactly social ergonomics is important for your business and how you can improve employee wellbeing and productivity through changing your workplace ergonomics. The seminar focused on relationships at work; relationships between colleagues and relationships between people and their office design.

The importance of privacy

The main thing I took away from the seminar was the value we should place on subjective views on privacy. We all know that valuing and respecting each employee’s working conditions can be hard to achieve in one office space; some people work best whilst listening to music whilst others prefer working in dead silence. Attempting to find a middle ground can prove to be near impossible.  Furthermore, the rise of co-working spaces can exacerbate these kind of problems: in amongst all this co-working hype, the value of privacy can often be overlooked.

Privacy includes auditory, visual and social (can I control the amount of interaction I have with others or is this invaded without my doing?). Privacy needs vary by culture and by situation. For example, an individual may find it hard to concentrate when there is office chat as they want to remain involved; however, if the same individual was in a noisy café they could perhaps tune out the chat as background noise. Giving people the choice to plug into personal headphones, or put up a screen between desks can help productivity and gives people autonomy. That’s not to say that it’s acceptable to put on your Beats headphones and tune into you ‘Summer 2016 Gym’ playlist for two hours. Being aware of what is going on in your office is necessary so that you remain in the loop and up to date.

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You can’t (?) deny it; we are territorial creatures

Chewed up office chairs, gnawed at table legs and dog-eared notebooks. Okay, so that’s going a bit far, we don’t mark our territories like little terriers. We do, however, use other markers of space. Covering your office wall with family photos, tacking your notes up to your desk space, even putting your bag on the chair next to you whilst on that Central line signify to others that this is your territory. Office design should cater to different individual needs and provide people with different options for their work. Design should consider team dynamics, proximity and the need for different work stations depending on the type of work being undertaken. 

It all comes down to company culture in the end

You can have the most progressive office design and the best teams – however, it all means nothing if your company culture itself does not support social cohesion. Agile working, leadership communication and relationships between different management levels need to reflect the ethos of an effective social ergonomics in order for the rest of your business to follow suit.

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Magenta Associates