28 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
The future of ofce ergonomics:
Standardize or optimize?
Accurate measures of workers’ comfort, output can lead to better habits
By Mark Benden
March 2020 | ISE Magazine 29
We have all heard of the many workplace ap-
proaches espoused by leaders in occupational
health under terms such as health, wellness,
total worker health and well-being. But what
does the near future hold for ofce-based
At the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center, we research new
methods to evaluate and then intervene in office worker
behaviors to impact health. These changes are designed to
improve productivity and longevity, which both factor into
workers’ ability to maintain their job over time.
In generations past, a similar approach was used with the
toughest blue-collar jobs. How do you keep a machinist, ma-
son or surgeon healthy performing manual labor? We initial-
ly treated these jobs in an incremental fashion by modifying
a tool, adding a method or making a scalpel fit a hand better.
Generally we were standardizing on a best tool or method.
Those steps led to the much larger progress we witness today
where a machinist doesnt crank wheels on one machine but
instead monitors dozens of CNC mills or 3D printers mak-
ing parts without waste.
We also learned how to lay bricks with machines and even
perform surgery with robotic assistance that will one day
lead to fully robotic surgery in which humans will assist the
machines due to advances in artificial intelligence and more
importantly, machine learning.
One step that we often fail to identify is when our indus-
trial engineering tool kit for improving performance bumps
into humans’ physical strengths and capabilities. We certainly
can bring parts and tools closer and standardize methods that
result in more parts per person. This sounds great unless the
level of forceful repetitions and often awkward postures we
create for workers exceed their ability to perform the tasks
without injury or illness.
Enter ergonomics. Sad to say, many of those manual pro-
duction jobs failed to match worker abilities to company
needs. A few of the worst offenders were addressed by off-
shoring jobs to lower-wage countries whose workers had
less of a voice than do Western workers. In other cases, the
improvement of productivity via creative advancements in
manufacturing technology created environments for work-
ers to be safer and more productive.
But what about the ubiquitous ofce workers? What has
been their journey through the advance of the computer and
internet age? We started that age more than 40 years ago at
a time when such workers were the exception in our work-
force. Then manufacturing and other manual jobs began to
decrease and ofce-based work rapidly increased.
Today, office workers make up more than half of the work-
force in many large cities. Initially, some of the same oc-
cupational hazards we were concerned about for blue-collar
workers – cumulative trauma, awkward postures – showed
themselves in the injury and illness reports streaming out of
the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Ergonomists would all love to claim credit for the decrease
in risk for office workers from many of those early hazards.
But history has taught us that it was at least as much associ-
ated with improvements in technology, especially software
for computing, that led to reduced risk from repeated, long-
term exposures in the office environment. Simply put, office
workers could get much more done in less time (exposure)
spent working on the computer.
30 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
The future of office ergonomics: Standardize or optimize?
We did work hard on improved seating, better peripheral
input devices, improved keyboard layouts and designs and
most recently sit/stand desks to give workers postural options
during the workday. There were a few distractions along the
way, like exercise equipment at the desk that seemed at the
time a viable way to improve output and ergonomics. In gen-
eral, we got back to helping office workers stay comfortable
and safe every time a new IT trend surprised us, such as touch
screens, tablets and multiple monitors.
As technology became more efficient, so did office work-
ers. Today’s office worker spends less than half of his or her
workday actively computing (Gregory Garrett, Mark Ben-
den, Ranjana K. Mehta, Adam Pickens, S. Camille Peres and
Hongwei Zhao, “Call center productivity over 6 months
following a standing desk intervention,IIE Transactions on
Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, 2016; and Pan-
kaj Parag Sharma, Benden, Mehta, Pickens and Gang Han,
A quantitative evaluation of electric sit-stand desk usage:
3-month in-situ workplace study,IISE Transactions on Oc-
cupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, 2018).
Less than half that time is spent on the keyboard with
much of the work done with a mouse. As a result, our focus
on health risks has shifted to include a larger view of workers
total health but also how much time they spend doing their
jobs while sedentary.
This recent risk factor has grown as a workplace concern
as the number of office workers has risen and the work they
perform has become more sedentary. The mailroom down the
hall where we all used to walk is now a server room; the meet-
ings we used to attend across campus are now held from our
desk via video conferencing. Each year, we are moving less
and as a society becoming more obese. During the past three
years, we have also seen unprecedented dips in the U.S. life
For companies, healthy workers are a competitive advan-
tage, and expanding our view of workplace injury and illness
to include total worker health (TWH) is critical. NIOSH
describes TWH as “policies, programs and practices that in-
tegrate protection from work-related safety and health haz-
ards with promotion of injury and illness prevention efforts
to advance worker well-being” (CDC-NIOSH Total Worker
Health, December 2018).
A decade ago, I wrote a paradox meant to capture the odd
phenomenon playing out in ofces all over the globe. Bendens
Paradox stated: “Adults naturally increase their (body mass in-
dex) during their working career and thereby their need for
sustained physical activity to minimize the trajectory of that
increase. Ironically, they unnaturally are coerced to decrease
their physical activity in the work environment via forced
sedentarianism to gain productivity, which results in reduced
productivity and weight gain.
In the office setting, a worker is much more likely to take
home work duties. In many cases, a smartphone or laptop are
all that is required to stay connected. What has occurred the
past decade in office work is nothing short of a renaissance
of tracking ability connected to individual computer output.
Certain software can monitor output, computing time, break
time, electric desk time and metrics such as keystrokes, mouse
clicks and words typed. Others assist with productivity analy-
sis, project management, GPS tracking for remote workers and
utilization analytics for freelancers (see Figure 1).
As we gained the ability to measure such work, we also
gained a new tool for improving those same outputs. Going
back to our assembly line analogy, imagine a machine pro-
ducing 100 parts per hour. If we give that machine a 10% rest
every hour, we assume it will produce 90 parts. Our research
on office workers found the opposite; workers who took regu-
lar breaks, including those prompted by the same computer
software tracking them, were more productive than those who
took fewer breaks.
If one group of office workers spends more time computing,
types more words and has a lower error rate, is it more produc-
tive? This question needs more research and involvement by
corporations using these software platforms. If a group of of-
fice workers gets more done by these metrics, are we exposing
them to levels of ergonomic risk that could result in long-term
Our use of objective measures in the ofce is not new. For
years, we have tracked call center worker output and success.
Workplace tracking software
These products can monitor output, manage time and
suggest breaks.
Office ergonomic software
Enviance: www.enviance.com
RSIGuard: rsiguard.com
Ofce Ergonomic Solution: www.oesofficefurniture.com
Wellnomics Sit/Stand Software: wellnomics.com
Sit/Stand Coach: www.bakkerelkhuizen.com/en-us/sitstandcoach
ErgoSquad Comfort Zone: adapt-global.com/ergo-squad
Worker time and task monitors
DeskTime: desktime.com
TimeCamp: www.timecamp.com
Asana: asana.com
BaseCamp: basecamp.com
TimeDoctor: www.timedoctor.com
HubStaff: hubstaff.com
RescueTime: www.rescuetime.com
March 2020 | ISE Magazine 31
2020 and Beyond: Ergonomics
Our ongoing series continues this month with a look at
innovative ideas in ergonomics. ISE will explore other
topics in the coming months with an eye toward the future
of industrial and systems engineering. We welcome your
input and ideas. Share your views in a letter to the editor
at kalbertson@iise.org or join the conversation in Connect
at connect.iise.org.
Problem Solved:
Sit, stand and shake
You can hear Mark Benden discuss office ergonomics
in an episode of Problem Solved: The IISE Podcast,
“Sit, Stand & Shake: Adjustability and Ergonomics”
at https://link.iise.org/podcast_benden, also available
on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify.
Authors’ work featured at AEC
The authors in this issue sharing their views of “2020 and Beyond” in
ergonomics each will offer presentations at the Applied Ergonomics Conference
2020 March 16-19 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mark Benden of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center will present “Impact of
Alternative Office Workstations on Computer Usability” and “Potential Use of
Optimization Techniques to Refine Anthropometric Design of Products,” both
on March 17 and “The Use of Ergonomic Software as an Estimate of Productivity following Displacement from Natural Disasters”
on March 19. He also will take part in poster sessions March 17 in the Exhibit Hall.
Tim Pottorff of QP3 ErgoSystems, whose article appears on Page 36, will conduct two sessions: “Hospitality – The Industry
Ergonomics Left Behind” on March 18 and “Hand-Held Technology – It’s Worse Than We Thought” on March 19.
Bobbie Watts of Michelin North America will lead a pre-conference AEC Student Leadership Workshop on March 16. Her article
begins on Page 33.
In addition, Indiana State University professor Farman Moayed, whose article on educational lab innovations appears on Page
43, will deliver a presentation on “Correlation Between Sit-Stand Computer Workstations and Musculoskeletal Discomfort” on
March 19.
For a full program visit iise.org/AEC. On-site registration is available after March 6; read more about AEC on Page 57.
Optimize business through applied ergonomics
The 23rd Annual
32 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
The future of office ergonomics: Standardize or optimize?
We have also monitored the number of lines of code produced
by coders. Data entered, claims processed and drawings pro-
duced have all been used to track office worker output. For
many workers, those metrics dont fit. Even in cases where
they do, what might be influencing one group to produce
more than another doing the same work?
The debate around privacy tied to office work has already
occurred. It happened in IT offices and board rooms slowly
and without much feedback from workers; most of us were
simultaneously giving up any thought of personal privacy as
we logged into apps like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat and
gave up much more of our personal information, habits and
interests than ever imagined to Alexa or Siri.
At this point, our phones, software and cameras track what
we do, how much of it we do, when we do it and the quality
of that interaction. Most of us are happy with the benefits we
derive from that tracking.
The next phase of tracking will involve our health. One
popular software, Enviance, measures 120 indicators for each
computer user. Stress levels, heart rate, respirations, EEG and
even data from diabetes glucose monitors can all be presented
to workers in real-time while working at their computer. It
might also go to their family doctor, a wellness staff member
or a psychologist when high stress or anxiety are detected.
For ergonomists, sit and stand time, patterns and transitions
between the two can be monitored and presented to workers.
Will this information be best used behind a curtain and pre-
sented in simple dashboard form via an algorithm? Will it be
combined with other workers on the team and used in some
sort of gamification strategy to encourage competition and ul-
timately performance?
It may be too early to tell, but the approach used by most
companies is most likely to be customized toward each person.
This means that what is monitored and how it is fed back to
the employee could be unique to each person based on their
needs and the learned response patterns to the feedback.
The other part of this data collection effort in the near term
is tied to our smartphones, which have become such a part of
our lives we are rarely without them beyond an arms length.
It is common to tour offices and find workers sitting in front
of two 20-inch monitors connected to a $2,000 desktop while
answering email on their smartphones. How much of our dai-
ly output is performed on smartphones rather than company
laptop or desktop units? We know most adults average more
than three hours per day on their smartphones and our own
research with college students shows even higher usage rates.
Most of the better software for tracking productivity is tied
to one device or the other. In the near term, it wont matter
which device we interact with or which software; they will all
be informed by our biomarkers, behaviors and outputs.
For home-based office workers, much of what has happened
in the corporate office setting has failed to catch up with their
remote options. The clear benefit for companies to employees
working from home is real estate cost. In addition to lease costs
for space, most companies do not furnish, clean, monitor for
hazards or provide utilities for those who work remotely. A
home gym or home cafeteria does not come with each home
Does our duty to safeguard our workforce cease if a worker
performs a job from home or while traveling? I would say no;
it should continue wherever they perform their work. This
means home workers should be provided similar ergonomic
workstations, software and safe environments as those work-
ing in corporate settings.
Should companies monitor the air, sound and physical safety
of these home or remote environments? Our early pilot work
on those home hazard says yes. When deficiencies are noted,
should companies fund interventions and improvements? Is it
time for OSHA to reconsider its hands-off approach to home
work environments?
Beyond these obvious output metrics, how do we measure
the collaboration level of a team or the creativity that one
environment, group or leadership structure enhances? What
about metrics connected to culture and inclusivity?
As industrial engineers, we should seek ways to measure
these types of important metrics to tie them to company per-
formance. It is critical that we be involved in determining the
metrics to be used along with the common set of security fea-
tures that will protect data of individuals while allowing that
sharing across large groups to impact population health and
overall productivity.
No doubt about it, this is going to be tougher than measur-
ing widgets produced from an assembly line to standardize for
mechanical parts. But industrial and systems engineers have a
rich history of not looking away when opportunities to opti-
mize arise. This challenge should not be different.
Mark E. Benden, Ph.D., CPE, is an associate professor and de-
partment head for the Department of Environmental and Occupa-
tional Health at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, where
he also serves as director of the Ergonomics Center. He is the chief
executive ofcer of two faculty-led startups, PositiveMotion LLC and
Stand2Learn LLC, and has licensed five different products to four
different companies since becoming a faculty member. His career in-
cludes experience as an ofcer in the United States Army Reserve,
an inventor, rehabilitation engineer, ergonomics consultant, plant and
corporate ergonomics engineer for Johnson & Johnson, and execu-
tive vice president for Neutral Posture. His 25-year career in occu-
pational safety and ergonomics has produced multiple processes, tools
and devices to ease injury and illness risk. He holds 21 patents in
the United States with several more pending. Benden earned a bach-
elors degree in biomedical engineering, a masters degree in industrial
engineering and a doctorate in interdisciplinary engineering, all from
Texas A&M. He is an IISE member.