No-cubicle trend will increase jobs for physical therapists

Cisco is the poster company for a new trend in workplace design, the no-cubicle open office. In a study reporting on the topic, the company touts the efficiency of not wasting empty offices on employees who are out that day, the ability to form flexible work groups, and the less drab, more pleasant look to an open office.

The San Jose Mercury News is the latest publication to write about this trend; itâ''s been covered in much of the business press and discussed at conferences,

Youâ''d think it was the greatest workplace innovation, since, well, cubicles.

The photo of a Cisco no-cubicle office in the recent San Jose Mercury News article set off my alarm bells, however. The no-cubicle environment in the picture is an ergonomic nightmare. I canâ''t believe the article didnâ''t discuss this downside to the wonders of the new office.

I called Lisa Voge-Levin, an ergonomic consultant who helps companies design healthy work environments, and asked her to look at the Cisco photo with me. Hereâ''s what she had to say.

â''The chairs look like armchairs. They donâ''t seem to be adjustable for different sizes of people. They are giving no lumbar support. That puts people at risk of lower back injury.â''

â''The people have some kind of support under their laptops, it appears to be the kind with a beanbag or pillow that molds to the legs, with a hard surface on top of it. This makes the computer more stable. If you look at the peopleâ''s postures, their elbows are

bent at 90 degrees, that is good, but their wrists are bent up, and their necks are bent down; thatâ''s bad for the neck, and the taller the person is the worse heâ''ll have it.

â''Notice the one man has water lined up on the ground. That is where heâ''ll be putting things. So how many times a day will he be bending down? Will he bend down to put his laptop on the ground when he gets up to go to the bathroom? So much bending can cause back issues.â''

â''And look at the cords; theyâ''re a huge tripping hazard.â''

All this, Voge-Levin says, contributes to neck and back injuries including muscle and tendon strain as well as such serious injuries as ruptured discs. She also notes that in such an environment, it is hard to control lighting, glare, or noise; all can lead to headaches.

On the positive side, she points out, people have gotten isolated in the workplace, to the point where they spend their days emailing instead of talking to the person in the next cubicle. Addressing the isolation problem is good, but, she says, this solution goes overboard. You can eliminate or reduce the height of cubicles, but still place workers at adjustable desks, with adjustable chairs, working on laptops sitting on stands that prevent neck strain.

These Cisco workers are going to be uncomfortable very soon, she concludes.

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