While hybrid work arrangements are welcomed by many, the impact on workers’ health and productivity remains the subject of study and analysis.
The largest ergonomics conference in the United States began on November 8th in Las Vegas at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.
The National Ergonomics Conference & ErgoExpo is a three-day event with five educational tracks including program management, advances in ergonomics technology, office ergonomics, healthcare ergonomics (with a focus on aging and wellness), and industrial ergonomics and safety.
National Ergo, now in its 38th year, also offered six themed masterclasses that included tips on using exoskeletons and a session on hybrid office ergonomics.
For the past 13 years, the conference has been chaired by Alan Hedge, PhD, CPE, CErgHF, Professor Emeritus of Ergonomics at Cornell University.
The program co-chairs are David Brodie, MS, CPFI, Corporate Ergonomist at Cargill Protein Inc., and Rachel Michael, CPE, CHSP, Head of Consulting Services at Exponent EHF.
Dive into the keynote
During Tuesday’s keynote session, which took place after lunch, Shamsi Iqbal, a senior researcher at Microsoft, explored the many ways the pandemic has changed the way we work.
In its keynote introduction, Cornell’s Hedge reminded an audience of approximately 250 that ergonomics is not just about loss prevention or productivity measures, it is the science of work itself.
“We’re back,” he crowed to broad applause, acknowledging the joy he and others feel at being able to attend an in-person conference following the social distancing we all experienced in 2020 and 2021.
We all know how many of us are now working remotely or engaging in a hybrid working model – something on the order of three days from home and two days in the office, or some derivative thereof.
It has been widely reported that many workers are happier with the hybrid model and remote work in general. They feel it has given them a better work-life balance and given them more control over their destiny.
But as the widely shared and quoted Iqbal pointed out, with every change we experience, challenges arise.
Many workers may be happy with their new work arrangements, but Iqbal says there are big differences in how employers and workers view this new work dynamic.
To name just one striking statistic among many, what Iqbal calls “productivity paranoia,” just 12% of employers surveyed think their employees are productive in this new era of work. Compare that to the reported 87% of employees who feel productive!
Another significant gap, as reported by Iqbal, had to do with the silent cessation phenomenon.
Employees who consciously reduce their work output without telling anyone and shielded from observation and accountability by working from home say they do so to protect their health and well-being and to better manage their workload with their pay to reconcile.
Many employers and company leaders, on the other hand, see “quiet quietly” as intentional underperformance and also characterize it as unprofessional.
Listeners from organizations such as Tesla and Kaiser Permanente asked Iqbal about the role technology is playing in bringing about better collaboration across teams and within organizations given the changes we are seeing in the workplace and the challenges these changes bring could .
She said Microsoft is exploring ways that virtual reality could be used to create work scenarios where people in remote positions can better interact with those still in the office, factories or other stationary facilities.
When asked if ergonomics or ergonomics could be used to create better work environments at home, Iqbal replied that it would be worth investing in supportive work furniture and workplace assessments.
“It’s a smart investment that will yield long-term results,” she replied.
Looking ahead, numerous challenges remain and need to be addressed, most likely through a combination of technology, including artificial intelligence, and additional human innovation.
“We need to reset the way we have worked in the past,” Iqbal said.
Fatigue affects many of us; As Iqbal described it, activities that used to be conducted in an in-person environment became confined within the confines of a computer screen. For example, according to her research, conference calls are much more tiring than face-to-face meetings.
Meeting coaching can give remote meeting leaders clues as to when they are speaking inappropriately or inappropriately, and using artificial intelligence to improve remote meetings can help in this area, she said.
What we do know for sure is that many of us will never return to the insane experience of enduring commutes every day to earn our daily bread. However, with the help of Iqbal and others, we also see that there is nowhere near universal agreement on whether remote work or hybrid working models is a good thing.
It remains to be seen whether our technological expertise can close this gap.
But judging by the animated lunchtime conversation at National Ergo and the enthusiastic reception Iqbal and Hedge received at Tuesday’s keynote, many ergonomists were quite happy to be holding an in-person conference once again. &