Futures Rambling # 75

By Laurie Aznavoorian

I am sitting at my desk in the ‘turtle’ posture. As many of you know, I’m a big fan of yoga, so enamoured with the practice that I forwarded an e mail to everyone at work from The Healthy Living Lounge featuring the best office chair yoga exercises. The, ‘turtle posture’ was not one of those suggested; it is not a yoga asana.

Many of us who practice yoga, as well as those who wouldn’t know a Bhujangasana from a corned beef sandwich practice the turtle posture daily. We do it while standing or sitting, crunched over our keyboards, telephones or another technology we cannot separate ourselves from.  Professor Alan Hedge from Cornell University provided an excellent introduction to the turtle at a presentation he gave last month in the Schiavello showroom.

The picture Hedge paints for those of us who practice turtle is not pretty. This posture can cause serious issues later in life. For that matter, doing yoga in five caster swivel chairs is also potentially hazardous, and is probably not what the Living Lounge had in mind when they issued the e mail. This could be the inspiration for yet another rendition of the ‘Dumb ways to Die’ video put out by Metro Trains.

The data Professor Hedge referenced in his presentation on the dangers of hunching over, watching television and sitting for over 55 minutes at one time was sobering. Did you know that for every hour you watch television, your life expectancy reduces by 20 minutes? Every cigarette smoked reduces your life by 11 minutes. Imagine if you sit, smoke and watch television!

Unfortunately, the average office worker easily sits for over 55 minutes a day without moving. Studies have proven this kind of sedentary work style increases the chance of getting cardio vascular disease, diabetes, circulatory problems like DVT, and some forms of cancer.  Add that to the host of possible muscle skeletal conditions, particularly those to the shoulder and neck that workers may develop due to poor postures, and we can anticipate a very bright future for physio therapists and heart surgeons.  

Luckily, the furniture manufactures are on to this.  Steelcase recently conducted an 11 country survey observing  postures and discovered nine new ones they have coined: the draw, the multi-device, the text, the cacoon, the swipe, the smart lean, the trance, the take it in and the strunch, which looks a lot like Professor Hedge’s turtle. These new work postures are driven by how the human body interacts with the technologies we work with and how our body moves as we shift from device to device.

Not surprisingly, most of these are not good for your body. The industry has responded with new range of super flexible chairs that react to changing postures. For example, Steelcase’s Gesture recently launched in Australia is designed to support our body as it interacts with technology. Other products like Axia Smart Chair take a punitive approach to poor posture by installing sensors that vibrate when we slump, reminding us to sit straight.

As workplace designers who advise and create contemporary workplaces for major organisations, it is important that each of us considers the implications of these research findings. What is the duty of care for designers or the companies that commission them?

We believe we are doing the right thing by designing workspaces that support variety and encourage movement, but Professor Hedge would argue there is more to it than that. He promotes ‘everywhere ergonomics’ suggesting anywhere we sit in a workplace should have proper ergonomics, including the trendy loose furniture pieces we use. He is an ergonomist so we would expect this advice. He also maintains it’s critical to educate employees about posture and ergonomics, to help them understand how not to injure themselves.

To further complicate the topic and move beyond the physical to the behavioural, posture also impacts behaviour. Charles Darwin started this idea in 1872 when he wrote The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The essay suggests the way we express ourselves on the outside, our gestures and posture, can intensify the emotions we have on the inside.

Studies conducted at MIT have taken this idea one step further and to some degree proven there is an impact on our emotions when we assume particular stances or postures. The MIT researchers were interested in stances associated with power, and concluded posture is shaped by environment. If we sit or stand a particular way we will behave differently.  

In one of the experiments study participants were asked to take a quiz, their answers were carbon copied. Afterward they were instructed to arrange a series of articles on work surfaces: staplers, pens and pencils and pads of paper. Not all participants were given the same size desk and this caused some of the desk tops to be cluttered, while others swam in space.  

The hypothesis was that those with larger work surface, who had to reach and stretch for an item, would be forced by the environment to assume a posture of power. They had no choice but to be expansive. The participants with smaller work settings adopted more contracted weaker postures as a physical manifestation of their environment.

The researchers then handed out the answers to the quiz participants had taken earlier. Surprisingly, they found participants sitting in the larger desks, the ones forced to assume power postures, were more likely to go back change their answers if they got them wrong. They cheated!

A similar experiment was conducted with car simulators. Researchers found participants seated in more spacious simulators were more likely to ‘hit and run’, even though the study rules stipulated they should stop after a crash. Participants in larger car simulators were also more likely to double park.  The research team concluded environment influences our behaviour, and should therefore inform ergonomic design.

They did not conclude, as I would, that people who drive big cars are jerks. It does bring to the surface interesting observations on the audacity of people in power. Would any of you actually even try to hand in an expense report for a hooker or an overseas trip to a friend’s wedding as our Aussie politicians have?

The researchers suggest we proceed with caution as we interpret these findings. There isn’t enough known about how postures change our psychology, it’s too early to rush off and make desks or car seats smaller to prohibit people from behaving like bozos. But the studies confirm what we have intuitively known for a long time, space does influence human behaviours.

With new found knowledge opportunities arise, combining what we have learned from the MIT and other ergonomic studies, we have more than enough to think about. Remember the first reports on the links between cigarette smoking and cancer emerged in the 1950s, and it wasn’t until the late 1990s that plaintiffs began to have success suing tobacco companies. There’s plenty of time, never say never, we don’t want to be the next Philip Morris.

 

Sources:

Hedge, Professor Alan – Cornell University, presentation at Schiavello

Jaffe, Eric; How Everyday Ergonomics Shape Your Behavior; Fast Company Co.Design; October 21, 2013

Jaffe, Eric; Is Google Maps Changing Our Behavior? The Atlantic Cities; March 29 2013

NOLO website; Tobacco Litigation: History & Recent Developments

Steelcase; Steelcase Global Study Uncovers New Postures Driven By Mobile Technology; March 12, 2013