Tom Chi  

Re-inventing the workplace

October 24th, 2003 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

I have really bad posture — pretty much since the Apple IIe. Thus, over the years I’ve tried to remedy the problem with fancy configurations and chairs (including the one in panel 2), and nothing works. The problem is that I want to move, but ergonomic setups give me the sense that I shouldn’t. As soon as I do move, I’m on the slippery slope that will end with my shoulder blades nestled against the lumbar support.

I think a large portion of the problem lies in the hardware. We need to invent ways to sit still because our computers sit still. And while laptops bring us a little ways toward goodness, they still have eyestraining screens, and when you use them you still essentially sit still. The other difficulty is that the physical spaces, the established history, and the social norms of work all point to sitting at a desk all day as being *the* way that work should be done. So it’s a tough one. To fix these problems we’ll need to employ a tried and true method called “just make stuff up”.

Let’s brainstorm on how to change the workplace to eliminate the “sitting in one spot for 7 hours a day” problem…

13 Responses to “Re-inventing the workplace”
Mike Hillyer wrote:

How about we use a tool like VNC that allows us to move our one session to any machine, then put various machines in various places around the office with various possible positions. If I get tired of sitting at a desk I close my VNC client, go over to a PC at a counter that I can use standing, and login to my VNC session again and pick up where I left off.

Sure, it’s not like I can work while moving, but I can at least take work to a new location/position without having to login and get all my apps up and running again.

LVK wrote:

Moving while working/working while moving might not turn out to be such a good idea either, unless we can dispense with the screen-centric way to use a computer. When moving, unless something automatically moves you (and thus foregoes the whole point of moving in the first place), you got to keep an eye on where you are moving, what’s in front of you, how close that big pole that will poke a hole in your stomach is, etc. You can’t really use a screen at the same time, which is why most cars with tv’s or other screens turn them off above 3 mph/kph for safety reasons.

I was actually in the process of typing up the same comment as the VNC comment above when I noticed it, and I too believe it would be a good way to deal with this. However, you also loose a lot of the sense of personal space you got when you have an office, except if you can place a multitude of computers in your office. Ah, the dream…

Toby Tellier wrote:

I know a women who uses an exercise ball to sit on instead of a chair. It looks rather silly but she isn’t stuck to a chair and says she is very comfortable. I find that I get stiff after a day of sitting and I find that I also slip into terrible posture. One of my challenges is that as a consultant I am at a different desk every few days. Hmmm, where can I find a portable exercise ball?

Frank Spada wrote:

I would argue that ergonomics teaches us to not sit still for too long. It’s true that a proper “neutral” ergonomic position should limit frivolous movement; BUT, it’s essential to balance that with proper breaks and micro-breaks. In my (HR) experience, this neglect of taking breaks for the sake of trying to get more work done is the biggest culprit of repetitive stress injuries. The internet also seems to have compounded the problem, as many users take their “breaks” while surfing the web. One simple solution I’ve discovered and strongly advocate is the use of a break timer that (gently) enforces breaks and micro-breaks. is a good free one.

By the way, nice homage with the TPS reports; but did you get the memo? We’re putting new cover sheets on all our TPS reports now: ;)

Jason Wall wrote:

Part of the problem lies in the rather large span of differences in the “natural” state for people. I find most ergonomic devices uncomfortable because they demand I augment my posture physically to stay in the right position to use them, and its distracting.

The other problem is there’s no standardization among ergonomic devices. If you work in an environment where you use between 5-10 different computers in a day, you never have sufficient time to learn the new environment. Changing it constantly doesn’t help. Even if the computer is ergonomically effective, if you don’t use it correctly, you won’t benefit.

I think if designers would start thinking in terms of very small incremental changes, it would be more effective. That and a lot of ergonomic issues are due to the user, not the product. You can’t fix stupid.

Tom Chi wrote:

Being an HCI dude, I’m programmed to never blame the user and I’m pretty sure that in this case it is justified. Our bodies were just not designed to do this. When we see stupid uses of ergonomic devices, I tend to think that its because we are solving a stupid problem. The engineers who came up with the first computers didn’t imagine they were creating a device that would be used by 100s of millions on a daily basis to get work done.

So what’s happened in the last 20 years is incredible improvements to the internals of the personal computer but essentially no improvements to the form factor with regard to ergonomy.

I think Mike Hillyer is more on the right track, thinking of ways that we are not tied to a particular machine. If computing is ubiquitous and we take our data with us, we can talk about existing in an environment which is computationally aware.

And LVK has a good point that screen-based computing is at the heart of the problem. What other ways could we get to our data without depending as much on screens? Or, how could we switch around the way that screens work so that they overcome their ergonomic drawbacks?

Dan Moore wrote:

This is a lowtech solution, but it is immediately applicable. I had a co-worker with a 2 liter jug of water that he drank from constantly. I poked a bit of fun at him, but he said it kept him from staring at the computer screen too long, because eventually he had to go to the restroom.

Seriously, I’m not sure that computer work is going to be amenable to movement until we have the gargoyle setup that Neal Stephenson wrote about in Snow Crash. You have to focus too much (when thinking, typing, or reading) to be able to move.

So, perhaps the best solution is to actually take those recommended breaks, even if it means drinking 4 gallons of water a day.


Sam wrote:

I think sitting is like eating: if you always eat the same you’ll end up sick (and bored) soon.
And if you sit all day long in the same position it’ll kill your back in the end.

So I believe in change and movement. I’m constantly restless on the chairs I sit on, and I can’t stand chairs for long that try to keep me in one fixed position. The last ten or so years now at work I sit on exercise balls and at home I use a standard kitchen chair for comp sessions. I hate chairs with weels or sidebars or other funny ‘ergonomics’. With my ball and chair I end up sitting in very strange positions and change between them a lot, and I think this movement keeps my back in good shape.

Oh, and I drink loads of water at work, too. Keeps me in movement, too :)

Meri wrote:

I had lots of problems with my back and got quite scared about RSI when my 22 year old housemate got it so bad they had to give him an extra hour in every exam because he couldn’t hold a pen for that length of time.

On the one hand I’ve tried to set my computers up so I sit right, but to be honest the thing that has helped the most is going down to the gym every morning. I had rounded, sloping shoulders and terrible posture … so I had a chat with the trainer and we designed a weights routine that improved my shoulders and pulled my back straight.

I have far fewer problems now (and better posture!) and find that how I sit when working doesn’t matter so much. I still try to sit right, but the best way to combat the “sitting 7 hours a day” problem for me was to engage in exercise for an hour every morning! I also use the water trick .. it really works!

Saying all that I’ve just downloaded Workrave and will see if that helps even more!

Meri wrote:

In terms of the screen interface problem — I know the HCI guys in my uni dept are investigating stuff like those glasses with a screen in the corner (sorry, dunno what they’re called). Could this sort of thing (having your “screen” permanently in your field of vision) help, or will it just result in even more short-term short-sightedness?

Wyatt wrote:

I’ll second the motion on WorkRave.

I’m sure the problem is that we don’t move enough. It probably doesn’t matter how “perfect” your position/posture is - if you’re not moving for 4 hours you’re not doing your body any good. I was at the Relax The Back store a few years back and they had one product in particular that caught my eye.

They had a cool table with a footpedal and spring/air pumps that would raise and lower the ENTIRE DESK between a sitting height and standing height. The idea was that after you’ve been sitting at the desk for a while, you simply pushed your chair away, stood up, and had your whole desk lifted up to a height that was appropriate for using the computer while standing. Then you could do your computer work for a few minutes standing before you pushed on the foot pedal again to return the desk to it’s original height for use sitting.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I have an addition to Mike Hillyer’s comments, to ease switching to new PCs. When I was at college there was research at the Olivetti/Oracle/AT&T research lab about Active Badges (infra-red based location devices - everyone wears a spiffy name badge that says where you are). It can be a big Big Brother if you get it wrong, but it also promised to let you log on to a PC just by walking up to it. (Problem if you have your badge stolen / cloned etc.) Coincidentally, the lab was also the home of VNC. Shame it’s been disbanded now. There’s a pile of interesting usability questions around this technology - worthy of a separate discussion (Tom and Kevin)?

Mildly amusing side anecdote: All the PhD students and academics in the university computer lab could wear one of these, and so the doors round the lab would automatically unlock themselves if you had a suitably authorised badge. It worked fine apart from the odd days when the servers crashed and all these mega-brains bounced off the doors that they assumed would be unlocked!

John wrote:

No matter how hard one tries to sit in the right way or how good ergonomic devices one gets I think you will always end up with bad posture. The problem is that even something brought to perfection becomes bad, if it means you end up doing the same thing all day. The site goes through everything that is required for a mouse to be good - to fulfill all those things is completely impossible!

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?