Adonis Diaries

Who should be in charge of workspace design?

Posted on: July 11, 2009

Article 36

“Who should be in charge of workspace design?”

There is a perception that designing workspaces is mainly hardware oriented to providing adequate environmental conditions in the work area in order to maintaining a certain level of performance from workers and employees that satisfies the requirements of management and shareholders of a company.

The previous perception is ingrained enough in the mind of engineers that the social and psychological conditions are belittled and considered not worth discussing or factoring them in their designs.  Engineers who are not initiated to the discipline of human factors view the latter profession as a redundant engineering field because they have the tendency to restrict this field to the design problems of workspace physical environment that protect the workers from extreme variations such as indoor climate, heat, cold, humidity, fresh air inlet, exhaust of noxious gases, noise, vibration and acceleration of machines and equipments, lighting and glare, radiation hazards, and electrical shock hazards within a functional working spaces.

Mechanical, electrical, HVAC engineers, separately or as a team, rely on the specifications of the head architect to study the proper hardware requirements and their locations based on the appropriate standards.  It is assumed that the architect following the specifications of the owner as to the number of workers or employees, the functions and general tasks in the manufacturing process or any other transformation processes, the dimensions and volumes of the work departments has designed an ideal workspace for a uniform mass of individuals confined in closed spaces.

The study of the physical environment variables and conditions in workspaces and the knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the targeted employees form at best one fourth of the body of knowledge and practical design guidelines of the human factors field of study.

Beside the physical environment there are a variety of work environments that are no less practical for the employees to holding a continuous and stable level of performance. The working conditions such as the monotony and repetitive nature of the tasks, the work shifts allocations whether day or evening or night shifts, the frequency and duration of shifts variations, the characteristics of employees in gender differences, age, attitudes, temperament, skill levels, and organizational structure of the enterprise can affect performance in a greater amount than just the physical conditions of the workplace.

The social environment such as conformity in the organization, sense of opportunity for privacy, territoriality, perception of crowding, and social facilitation when under the weather or feeling of anxiety can affect performance, turnover, and production.

The example of the president of a knitting mill who reduced the overhead costs of the physical conditions by saving on the comfort level of the workers and who discovered that performance deteriorated because the workforce resented to be treated as indifferently as any machine or equipment in order to save a little more on the expense of running an enterprise can shed some light on the complex nature of the social and psychological demands of human in an environment.

The performance support system of safe, healthy, and comfortable working environment is as intrinsic in the design of a system as any other parts and it cannot be regarded as a static and mechanical process.  For example, what social environments are better suited individual/private spaces, or a design that promote interactions among the workers and encourage close proximity?  What organizational structure and image should be adopted so that the design of the meeting atmosphere in furniture, window covering, and spacing among the hierarchical levels is reflected accordingly? What learning support system are designed in the workplace to enhance knowledge, skills, and attitudes such as training facilities, corporate libraries, safety posters, flip charts, bulletin boards, and blackboards?

Designing workspaces include decisions on the human-environment interaction, adaptation, and control such as how much control the workforce can have over changing the level of comfort in lighting, temperature and noise background.

The design of workspace environment should not be focused just on the physical conditions necessary for a productive level but envelop the social, psychological and organizational environments as well, and they are as practical and essential for performance of the workforce.

The human factors engineers should and are trained to foresee the many problems inherent in workspace design from the physical to the human behavior and are well oriented to ask the right questions in the expected errors, hazards, health, safety and comfort for a sustainable working environment.

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July 2009

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