Work and lifestyle on the cutting edge. In discussions with contemporary figures we review the assertions, clichés and ideals which circulate around work envi-ronments. On this occasion we chat with Burkhard Remmers, spokesman for the German furniture manufacturer Wilkhahn, about ergonomics, motion and office trends.
Wilkhahn specialises in the design of high-quality, ergonomically designed chairs and related furniture. What developments have you observed in the last few years? What have been the noticeable trends and most important innovations in the world of work, and how has Wilkhahn responded to these?
Working cultures change much more slowly than people generally think. A good example is the paperless office, which people have been predicting for over 20 years now. It is only now that the internet allows us to work practically from anywhere that the paperless concept has gained real practical relevance and led to a decrease in demand for storage furnishings. It is important to distinguish between narrowly focused, often marketing-driven fads targeted to a very small minority and actual long-term trends. Digitisation with smart technologies is one of these trends that has an impact on all of our lives. It is exciting to see smartphones, tablets and related technologies being brought out of the world of consumer electronics and into the office — even with the related security concerns and the headaches for staff in IT departments. A second trend is related to this first one: the boundary between a person’s private life and their job has grown murkier. This in turn leads to a demand for offices to be more in tune with the way people live, warmer and more liveable. Furthermore, these new technologies, and the changes they have brought in terms of how and where people work, have forced people to rethink the key strengths and competences when it comes to office buildings. These have increasingly become places for communication and cooperation, especially since focused individual work can theoretically be done anywhere you like now. And this means, too, that it is all the more important that people come together in one place for cooperative work.
It is unhealthy to spend too much time sitting down. In spite of this, we spend hours every day sitting in front of our computers. What should a good office chair provide to prevent the user from developing back pain?
We have spent the last five decades researching this very topic and transform what we have learnt into constantly updated product standards. Back in the 1970s, the first Wilkhahn study advocated a transition “from stationary sitting to mobile sitting”. Since then, it has broadly been recognised that a lack of active physical movement plays a role in almost all illnesses associated with the developed world. On the other hand, when it comes to micromotor work, sitting is an absolute necessity in ensuring the concentration and efficiency required. And finally, sitting, along with standing and lying down, is a basic natural position for our bodies to take. It is not the fact that we are sitting that is the real problem, it is how we are sitting.
That is why starting ten years ago, we stopped referring to traditional posture-oriented ergonomics and began working instead with health and sports scientists. Taking the concept of incorporating walking into sitting as our starting point, we developed an entirely new kinematics that supports a diverse range of three-dimensional motions while securely maintaining the body’s balance. According to the state of the research today, the two most important parameters for quality office chairs are the stimulation of diverse motions as frequently as possible and allowing for the change of posture while preserving a high level of comfort and “feelgood factor”.
Ergonomics has been a hot topic in offices for several decades now. In spite of this, health complaints continue to rise even as physically demanding work has become less frequent. Why is that? Why is it so difficult to work in a “healthy” way?
We are naturally lazy – or to put it more politely: we are programmed to be energy efficient. Calories, which we may or may not be able to easily replace, tend to be dedicated first to survival and reproduction. The relief brought by ergonomics has led to huge advances in life expectancy and health. But it now seems the case that this relief has allowed for a comatoselike under-use of the body in which the necessary minimum of physical activity is no longer something we do as a matter of course. In the past ten to fifteen years, we have seen ever increasing numbers of people earn their living and even spend their free time without moving anything more than their fingers. This is not what our bodies were built for. Our metabolism requires stimulation and activity in the form of motion. Traditional ergonomics, therefore, have become part of the problem. When it comes to our understanding of efficiency and proper organisation, we need a major shift in the paradigms that are based on early 20th-century Taylorism.
How can a well-designed office contribute to employees’ sense of wellbeing and health?
Watzlawik once said that we cannot not-communicate. The same is true when it comes to our interaction with space. There is an enormous potential in this interaction, good and bad. We can use design to express appreciation, promote health, encourage creativity, support professional work and communicate a sense of shared purpose. Or we can use it to prevent all of those things. You could say that we create “spaces of possibility” which provide the prerequisites for meeting those goals that have been expressed. This includes visual aesthetics, haptic aspects or usability as well as the “social prestige” that is attached to well-known and superior brands. But we also know that leadership plays the greatest role when it comes to employees’ wellbeing and productivity. Office design is therefore just one of a number of important components — not anything more, but not anything less, either.
How can we make the normal workday more dynamic?
We should start where there is the least amount of movement: sitting. This has to do with the interaction between body and chair in the case of diverse and frequent movements that take place intuitively and should be stimulated unconsciously — otherwise, they do not happen at all. Alternating between sitting and standing — the so-called standing-sitting dynamic — is another aspect. Finally there is the organisation of meeting and conference spaces in a way that promotes involvement or the design of break spaces that stimulate more movement. These are ways to incorporate this objective at the design phase. It is important, though, to pay attention to the entire interplay between organisation and spatial concepts. Nowadays there is emphasis on targeting space changes and creating greater distances to planning parameters to promote both movement and meetings. But for this to really work, we need the paradigm shift in our understanding of productivity and efficiency I mentioned earlier. Consolidation strategies, cockpit philosophies and one-sided lean concepts are counterproductive in this case since they will all come up against natural human laziness.
What does the term “new world of work” mean for you?
To me it primarily means the decoupling of specific tasks from both space and time through the use of mobile communications and information technologies. These create a significant amount of freedom and design possibilities, but also require a good deal of discipline and awareness of one’s responsibilities — not least to oneself. Medical researchers have been warning us that the distance between rapid technological development and the biologically determined abilities possessed by human beings is growing ever wider. A flood of multimedia stimulation accompanying decreasing levels of physiological activity, for example, can lead to depression and can harm the immune system. We need to be more aware of both the potentials and risks if we are to develop the means culturally to deal with these issues in the new world of work. This would mean, for example, being able to simply “switch off” in spite of being technically reachable all the time – and actually being allowed to do it! This would allow us to better handle even the darker sides of this “Brave New World” as so insightfully described by Aldous Huxley. We would do well as furniture makers to keep these things in mind.
Developing new office furniture also means being able to predict the trends of tomorrow. What directions are we going to take in the working world, in your opinion?
The trend of knowledge work has, for the very first time in economic history, placed the individual person at the centre of the creation of value. This is both an enormous potential and a possible bottleneck for companies’ development. That is why we are fairly certain this is not the only direction that developments will take, but just one among many trends that speak to a variety of needs. This can be seen in spatial and organisational concepts like the “activity-based workplace”, for example. Health will continue to gain in importance, not least because of the demographic shift, shortages in skilled labour and longer working lifetimes. Shortages in resources will also be responsible for greater cultural diversity amongst a company’s employees. This is why achieving the right balance between individuality and standardisation in processes and the design of workspaces will play a key role. I am convinced that the potential isolation and loneliness we associate with the concept of the “free roving office nomad” will mean that the spatial and social aspects within a company’s organisation will gain in importance. The “home” is always connected to place and social ties.
How do you yourself work? Do you have a “primary workspace”, and, if yes, where is it?
I tend to spend 20 per cent of my time working traveling, ten per cent in my home office and 70 per cent at other companies’ locations. In these places in turn I tend to spend 70 per cent of my time at a desk and 30 per cent in meetings. The relatively significant amount of time I spent at companies’ locations has to do with the number of meetings and telephone conferences that are vital to the work I do. I tend to do my best thinking and writing at home and even on the train – in the quiet compartment, which means that my own mobile also needs to be switched off.
What is the most important tool for your work?
My brain, my ears and my voice.
Thank you for the interview.