With diversifying ideas about what ergonomics really means in today’s workplace, Steelcase is undertaking smart research to create the future of the workplace

By Leon Lee

When you’re sitting at your desk at work for long periods of time every day, it’s important to have right chair. But what exactly is the right chair? Is it one that offers superior back support? Is it one that has the most comfortable seating?

In the past, ergonomics was a popular buzzword when it came to office furniture design. But according to Michael Held, Director of Design at Steelcase Asia Pacific, the use and understanding of ergonomics has evolved.

“There are two sides to ergonomics. One of them is maybe the more dated perception which is in a time when people had a job where you were required to sit at a desk for eight to 10 hours a day, you needed very high performing furniture that would support you through the day so that when you went home, you wouldn’t have back pains, posture problems, or things like that,” Held explains.

Offices in the eighties and nineties were designed for workers to stay at their desks and do their work. The use of ergonomics then dealt with issues such as the distance of the eye to the computer screen and what is the right posture for the worker’s hands to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome.

“Today that is still applicable to some people in offices… But the vast majority of people in offices today don’t sit for eight hours at their desk.” People would visit other offices for meetings, work in cafes or coffee shops or perhaps even work from home as it might be easier to concentrate there. Only in very specific industries such as software engineering are workers expected to sit for long stretches of very concentrated work.

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In offices today, you would find much more diversity in regards to ergonomics as the idea of productivity has changed.

“We acknowledge that nobody is productive for eight hours a day. We may be productive twice a day for 15 minutes or there is this one really important coincidence every day that triggers your imagination or creativity,” Held says.

He explains that a person can stay in that productive, creative state for about 45 minutes. This is why many classes in schools last that long. Steelcase aims to foster and maximize that amount of productivity time with their products.

The need to move

Since people today are not meant to work all the time at their desks, it’s important to provide the space for them to move around. Space is important to the engagement of employees. Steelcase strongly believes in choice: where employees choose to work and how they work.

“We believe that one big element to unlocking the engagement at work is the workplace. That means we have to provide a variety of places to work, a variety of postures to work. In our offices, you don’t see that it is all desks or everybody is at a workstation. You can choose to be private and focus on your work or you can choose to be out in the open or you can choose to go into a collaborative space and collaborate with other people. You’re not forced in one way or another because every type of work would require different contexts,” Held explains.

For examples, taking phone calls can be done in a lounge setup, collaborative work can take place at a work cafe and low-cognitive tasks such as writing emails can be done while walking on a treadmill.

“There is the ratio between fixed desks and collaborative spaces so this is something, from a design perspective, that we can develop solutions for each of those areas.”

In Hong Kong and many places in Asia, he sees companies make the mistake believing that if they have 8,000 employees, they would need to design 8,000 workstations. According to

Steelcase’s research, they should instead have 50 to 60 workstations and an additional 20 spaces collaboratively because not everybody is in the office everyday so having a fixed desk for everyone is quite wasteful.

Asia offers a variety of growth markets for Steelcase, many of whom have space and density concerns. It’s a current focus for their research and insights for product development. “Without the luxury of space or the luxury of designing three different places for every worker, how can we provide flexibility? How can we humanize density and how can we foster dyadic collaborations in a way traditional furniture today does not?” These are questions that Steelcase is trying to solve.

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Research is key

Steelcase invests heavily in research. Based on the data collected, they create unique insights which are usually the beginning for product development.

They have their own research team in Asia-Pacific which is put to good use. According to Held, a lot of the furniture in the area are ones developed in North America or Europe or were inspired by them. Asian brands offer a similar version of those. But Steelcase believes that if the company is in a high growth environment, they have needs that are different from North America or Europe.

But research and insight are just the beginning of the development process. There are other aspects to consider.

“Chairs can mean different things. They can give you a different perception, and they can support you in different ways. They might all look a little similar to people,” Held says.

“But it’s not about if the chair is beautiful or not. It’s more about how you look at it and you feel, ‘this is a chair that looks very comfortable’ or ‘this is a chair that looks like it protects me’. There are chairs like the Gesture that supports you to bring smart devices into the office.”

The executive describes the Gesture as their flagship chair. It’s a good example of ergonomics and task seating as it was very much inspired by users of smart devices. It has armrests that can be positioned in a large variety of positions besides just up and down. It can be adjusted depending on whether the users are using smaller mobile phones or working on larger tablets.

Normal office chairs weren’t designed with smart devices in mind because they didn’t exist then. But Steelcase had insight to realize the growing penetration of mobile devices in our everyday lives so they began development on the Gesture chair several years ago.

Desks are just as important as chairs. Steelcase offers a wide range from height adjustable to ones equipped with a treadmill. “I think nowadays people might even argue that [a desk] is more because a desk allows you to stand up and you work without a chair. With the chair you can only sit. We do have some chairs that can do more but it depends on what kind of context. Chairs are very important but we believe in diversity,” he says.

Going back to ergonomics, Held emphasizes it goes beyond the right sitting posture.

“Ergonomics has a lot more elements to it than just sitting. It’s also about the height of storage elements, the height of sitting, what is the right height to work. It deals with the human scale of things.”