Ergonomics in open concept offices

Aaron Miller, Certified Professional Ergonomist
Monday, July 29, 2013

As workspace design evolves, what new ergonomic concerns are emerging?

The work environment is changing with advances in technology, increases in workplace mobility, rising commercial real estate prices and developments in environmental design standards such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Each of these factors pushes the design envelope to create spaces that are responsive to not only the individual employee but also the ongoing operations of the building. As a result, the open office concept is now commonplace.

To meet these new challenges, the design team must understand the tasks employees will be doing in a space. Failure to consider these factors can reduce employee productivity and job satisfaction, and result in costly continual upgrades and renovations in post-construction attempts to meet occupant needs.

During the design process, the office environment should be looked at as a series of zones geared toward different styles of work. These zones can consist of open collaborative spaces with seating that encourages discussion, private environments that are either closed offices or areas with acoustic privacy, and hoteling spaces for those employees who work occasionally in the office and just need a space to sit with their laptop. Meeting rooms, photocopy areas and coffee spots can be used to provide functional separation between each zone.

Open office environments are prone to lighting issues, especially where there is intense glare from windows. In designs seeking the LEED credit “daylight and views,” which requires 75 per cent of spaces to have access to natural light, it’s important to work with furniture designers on the orientation of desks and computer monitors to ensure glare can be controlled and excess lighting does not fall on occupants’ work areas.

Thermal comfort can include both indoor environmental air quality and temperature. Offices with poor air quality and that are either too warm or too cold can impact work performance and contribute to absenteeism. The design of the office must take into account the types of equipment and number of staff, and be divided into zones to allow for variability in thermal temperature based on occupant needs.

Overall, office design must be adaptive to evolving work styles and integrate with technology to create an environment that is supportive to individual employee needs and organizational cultures, while balancing both the financial and operational requirements of buildings.

Aaron Miller, certified professional ergonomist, is an ergonomic consultant based in Kelowna, B.C. He can be reached at

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