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Technology vs. The Body: Designing For The Modern Worker

The nature of work has changed, therefore the design of the workspace is changing along with it. These changes also create a shift in office culture - workspaces have become more open planned, casual and collaborative. With technological advances we have become faster and smarter (we would hope) - constantly racing to catch up to the ever evolving knowledge and practices being developed at an even more accelerated pace. However, as technological advances change the nature of work, has furniture design caught up?

Author: Siphilele Magagula

I mage 1 - Left: Guiding a beam' From the series 'Empire State building' by Lewis W. Hine, c. 1931.

Image 2 - Right: by Stefan via Unsplash.


Could you survive an entire day without your electronic devices? As society has shifted from the manual worker, to the service worker and finally the learning worker, so has the type of work and the working environment. With modern work, employees have the ability to learn information and conduct business from any location, with just a smartphone, tablet or laptop, and of course - high speed internet. From checking work emails, conducting research, using social media, to navigating through a busy city - digital devices permeate every part of our lives. A recent study conducted on digital habits of 1,800 persons in the US by Common Sense Media, has discovered that we spend an average of over 9 hours per day in front of various screens (smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs).

New Era, New Problems: From Backbreaking Hard Labour To ‘Tech Neck’

When manual labor was predominant in most Western countries, these different types of jobs demanded physical exertion - the body was constantly at work, which often led to injures. Nowadays, the physical inactivity caused by sedentary work and excessive time spent on electronic devices puts people at risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart conditions, however there are other health implications of the dependency on electronic devices that you may not be conscious of.

Ever texted so much that your thumbs hurt? Excessive use of touch-screen devices can result in de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, which involves the inflammation of the tendon sheath in the thumb. As Professor Dr. Peter Vink at TU Delft (Delft University of Technology) in the Netherlands put it, “Repetitive movements of the arms and hands in awkward positions can lead to disorders and pain.” This pain extends far beyond the thumbs - the postures we engage our bodies in when using our devices puts strain on the back and neck.

Images: Top left - Courtesy of Andrew Neel / Top right - Courtesy of Linkedin Sales Navigator / Bottom left - Courtesy of Pexels. Bottom right - Courtesy of Bruce Mars via Pexels

When sitting at our desks in front of the computer we often sit hunched over, with our necks forward and when using a smartphone or tablet our heads hang low to read our screens as they are placed below our comfortable eye level. Our bodies were not designed to assume these uncomfortable positions. Experts at Premier Orthopaedics share that the human head weighs 10 -12 lbs on average when evenly balanced over the shoulders, however tilting up to 60 degrees - to the point where the chin is edging closer to the chest equals up to 60 lbs of head weight on the spine. This position leads to lower spine collapse, ‘tech neck’ (headaches, back pain, and achy shoulders) and other serious long term conditions such as arthritis, at a young age. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation the most significant cases of head posture issues are currently seen in people ages 12-22 years old, far more than adults.

Has Furniture Design Kept Up With Technological Advances in the Workplace?

The gap between the design and production process of furniture and digital advances represents unique challenges, as Professor of Ergonomics at Cornell University, Alan Hedge says “In the furniture world, it can take you several years to develop a product. In the digital world that’s the kiss of death.”

Office furniture designer Steelcase is dedicated to staying at the helm of innovation and conducted research to understanding the impact of tech devices on postures in order to design products that help “people work safely, comfortably and productively”. This was a global study conducted in six continents, observing over 2,000 people in varied postures. They found that touch-based devices, unlike computers, cause work to become asymmetrical and contribute to neck flexion, meaning a need for furniture with more adaptive arm approach and allow for a greater range of motion. Ergonomics researcher Professor Peter Johnson highlights that “the forces and stresses on the body, muscles and joints can be magnified when asymmetrical work is not properly supported.” They also discovered 9 new postures that existing seating solutions do not adequately address.

Image courtesy of Steelcase

Steelcase’s team of ergonomic researchers determined that the design of ergonomic furniture needs to be reimagined, with emphasis on a new design approach for back and arm support. They sought to understand the science of sitting and the interface between the human body and chairs in order to create solutions that improve their users’ health and wellbeing. Their response is their new ‘Gesture’ - an intuitive ergonomic chair created for the modern way of working.

Image courtesy of Steelcase

As the work simultaneously evolves with technological advances, so should product design dedicated to the workplace. Dynamic solutions are needed and at a faster pace in order to keep up with ever changing work processes and tools. Steelcase has been a pioneer in designing for the modern worker, we hope this encourages more and more designers to pay close attention to the body at work in order to create effective solutions which contribute to better health and wellbeing within the workplace.

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