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Podcast October 6, 2020

Ergonomics in the Home Office: Part One

Host Gabe Duverge speaks with Dr. Mark Benden and Martha Parker of the Texas A&M University Ergo Center about the ergonomic challenges that the millions working from home during the pandemic may be facing. In part one, Dr. Benden and Parker discuss several studies that show the biggest issues working from home can bring and how people can overcome it.

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Podcast: in the Home Office: Part One from LINAK on Vimeo.


Full Transcript

Gabe Duverge: Hello, and welcome to the LINcast, a LINAK podcast with conversations exploring the latest research and innovation behind actuation solutions. We're improving people's quality of life and working environments through smooth and reliable movement. My name is Gabe Duverge.

Today, I'm very excited to be joined by Dr. Mark Benden, the department head and associate professor, as well as the Director of the Ergo Center at Texas A&M University; and Martha Parker, the project manager and ergonomist at Texas A&M Ergo Center. We appreciate having both of you with us today. Thank you for taking time, remotely, of course, given the times we live in. Thanks for being here on the LINcast.

Dr. Mark Benden: Our pleasure.

Gabe Duverge: Today's LINcast is one of two first. This is the first episode in which we are recording the video, as you can see our lovely faces, giving our audience more ways of enjoying the content. Secondly, we were actually breaking this episode into two parts. As many of us have learned during these unique times, there's a lot to learn about working from home. Both for the employees and the businesses that they work for. One thing that is easily forgotten about, and that what we're going to talk about today, is ergonomics.

We have built this support around ergonomics while working specifically in the office. As many businesses have dove fully into working from home almost overnight, many of those practices did not transition to the home. Many of us were using make-shift desks in kitchens, basements or anything in between. However, there's a lot that we've learned in recent years about the benefit and challenges working both at the office and at the home.

Today, I'm very lucky to have these two experts in the field who bring a wealth of knowledge to the topic. Now, to make sure we are covering as much of these as possible, we are going to break it into two parts, and this is episode one. Here, we'll cover the learnings and the grouping of immense remote and traditional work studies at the Ergo Center recently completed. In part two, we'll be looking specifically at how we can bring ergonomics back to the home.

So, let's jump right into the study I mentioned. It's my understanding, Dr. Benden and Ms. Parker, that several of these studies were the first of their kind. You guys followed a total of 40,000 workers, it sounds like, with constant monitoring over the couple of years. You brought in a ton of data. When you're dealing with that many people, you're going to have a lot of data. Just give us an overview of what the study covered, how it worked and what you found out.

Dr. Mark Benden: Sure. So, the big thing is there is multiple studies. So there's studies with 15,000 people over multiple years. There's studies with 10,000 people over a year. Studies with 5,000 people, several of them over one year or two years each. So, a lot of different looks, but here's what common about all of the studies is they were all focused on office workers. So that helps a lot of us who are office workers from home right now. They were also different in the sense that this was the first really large-scale organized effort to take a look at data that's now available, objectively, through software on a constant basis.

So, when I started in the field of ergonomics, we really did go out on the shop floor and even when we looked at office workers with a clipboard and a stopwatch and if we were lucky, a separate video camera. Of course, now, all of that can be on our phone in some kind of an app or a tablet. What we still didn't have, even for the last few years, was something that could really just constantly be with the employee, as they're going through their normal process of working during the course of the day.

So, these new software, and we've evaluated four or five of them now, including Wellnomics. Also, there's a couple out that are based from a company called Cority. There's Remedy. So there's different ones out there, SitStandCOACH that provide... I know that LINAK has one the tracks desks. So we've been able to monitor, specifically, the activity of the person on the computer and then the utilization if they had an electric desk, of their electric desk. Having that really has been a game changing for us.

Martha Parker: I think what is important is that, that software that we used was the constant in all the studies that Dr. Benden mentioned. So, there were 15,000 at this company and 10,000 over here, and 5, 000 down here. They all use this software. So we have data points, like you mentioned, Gabe, for about 40,000 people over a varying period of time. So it is a broad and deep amount of knowledge that we have about these people working in the office.

As an ergonomist, when you look at productivity in office workers, like Dr. Benden mentioned, it's really hard because you can't measure stuff. How do we know if it's productive work, right? If you're thinking, and you're in the office, is that productive? I don't know. So, we use these measures as a way to mimic productivity and assume that if you're typing on the computer, and if you're clicking on your mouse, and you're actively engaged with the software or any software on your computer, that you are productive. So, that's one of the data points in the study that I think will come out as we talk about the results.

Dr. Mark Benden: Yeah.

Gabe Duverge: Definitely. It's incredibly fascinating, and it's funny that we're talking about it, and then it happened because the study wasn't a reaction to the COVID work-from-home situation and the migration of all of us to our houses and working from home. If I understand it correctly, it was something that started after a natural disaster, Hurricane Harvey, is that correct?

Dr. Mark Benden: So, part of it was there was a large group of those workers we talked about that were two years of monitoring, essentially, a year before Hurricane Harvey hit in the year after. The reason we wanted to take a look at that was that, and this may start to sound familiar, workers were suddenly displaced to work from home. This now has been all of our reality around the world. But for people in Houston, Texas, when Hurricane Harvey hit, their offices were flooded. Unfortunately, also, a lot of their homes were flooded. Schools were flooded. So, it was a really tough time.

Dr. Mark Benden: We were extremely curious to understand that if we could look at how long you spent actively working on your work computer, which, of course, now would be at home. How long you spent in certain applications? What you did with the mouse? How many scrolls? How many right clicks, how many left clicks, how many words you typed? How many errors you made? How much you did in the afternoon versus the morning? Again, there's over 120 of those types of metrics that we can look at very objectively. We wanted to see what was the impact of suddenly forcing people to work from home.

Just without going on and on, talking about it, the workers, in about 30 to 45 days, were able to get back to what we would consider normal productivity levels. So, I think for companies today going through COVID, looking at this quarantine situation, looking at this new normal, a lot more of us, probably, even on an ongoing basis working from home. The good news is we can get it done. We can get back to whatever we were accomplishing on a daily basis on our computers in the office. We can get back to that working remotely. So, that's a positive message, I think, that came out of that research. Again, like you said, we never had any forethought that there would be anything else other than maybe another hurricane that might trigger this type of event.

Gabe Duverge: A metaphorical hurricane.

Dr. Mark Benden: Yes, definitely, metaphor.

Gabe Duverge: Yeah. I think it proves that this is something that isn't just timely for now. When we revert to a normal, closer to the original normal that we had, but it's anytime in the future, I think when companies or cities or countries are going to be affected by any kind of disasters or similar situations. Were there any other key findings from this study that might be reflective of the state that we're in?

Dr. Mark Benden: Yeah. Let me let Martha tell you a little bit about some of the stuff we found with the other metrics on prompting of computer users to be less sedentary. So, I think that's a fascinating piece with within the software.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely.

Martha Parker: That carries both what we know in the office. It carries directly to the home as far as sedentary behaviors. One thing I will mention about that Hurricane Harvey study is that those folks did not get to go back to the office for two years. So, they worked from home or worked remotely for two years. Like Dr. Benden said, after about 45 days, they were back up to their regular level of productivity.

What that means for us today is that, A, you're going to get back to where you were from a work status, right, and you can do it for the long haul. So, both from a corporate point of view and also an individual point of view, I think it's really great to know, "Okay, I can do this. And I can do it for a longer period of time. I don't think I can because I've never done this before. I've never worked from home, but I can." I think that's really super valuable.

What we also learned is that from an activity standpoint, people in the office and people working remotely from home move about the same amount, which is still really bad. They don't move a lot. "Yeah. I'm going to be way more active at home because I'm going to walk the dog or I'm going to go outside, and I'm going to do all this stuff"... No, uh-uh.

Gabe Duverge: Not now.

Martha Parker: So, our hypothesis was one of two things. It's definitely going to be different. People working remotely are going to be either way more active or way less active than their counterparts in the traditional office. No. They were almost the same. It was incredible because what it means is that the same amount of information that we give people in the office, we need to copy that, maybe change the method of delivery a little bit and give them that same information when they're working from home.

Part of that is using software, like you guys have, that says, "Okay. Now, it's time to change positions. Now, we're going to make your desk move up and down" because we know, also, from another study that prompting people to change positions, stand up, move their desk up and down, if they have an electric desk, works. We know that works. As an ergonomist, we always think, "Okay, I'm going to spend all this money on chairs, on tables, on things that move up and down." It's going to be great for 45 days, and then people... the newness if going to wear off, and people are going to use it. Management's going to think, "Oh, I've just wasted all this money because I still see people sit down, and they're not standing up, and they're not moving around, and all those things." 100% true. Except if you tell them with a piece of software, "Now, it's time to get up."

Gabe Duverge: Now, it's time to get up.

Dr. Mark Benden: Right.

Martha Parker: Yeah. We know that works. We know that works in the office. Because of the studies that we've done that compare the office and the remote environment, we know that prompting at home will work, too.

Dr. Mark Benden: Yeah. The other piece probably for the traditional versus remote office, that was surprising. I love it when I have a brilliant hypothesis that turns out to be completely wrong. I was completely wrong on the physical activity. Some people have accidentally called me an expert in that, so that just tells you about experts. I was wrong that the people, like Martha said, were moving about the same amount, not enough.

What was different, and I did see this one coming, was the air quality. So, the indoor air quality for the people working in the home was not as good as the indoor air quality of the people working in large commercial spaces. So, there's a number of different reasons for that. One is that in the commercial spaces, you can program or set the amount of fresh air that you bring in. By the way, this is a really important topic right now with COVID. Fresh air is, outside air, if you've seen any of the recent studies, one came out last week that you're 20 times less likely to contract COVID outdoors than indoors.

When you are indoors, the amount of circulation, the amount that... How many times the air in the room exchanges per hour is very important. Then of course, the amount of fresh air make up. So, you can have a home that's typically sealed up, especially here in Texas, during the summer. It's 150. You can have the home sealed up really well. You just recirculate that cool air. So you don't have to spend as much cooling air. You keep the cool air that you've already pulled inside.

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Dr. Mark Benden: That was great for electric bill, it's not good for our health. So, all of the allergens, all of the pollutants, the volatile organic compounds, from cooking and candles and stoves and pets and carpets. That stuff just keeps recirculating. So, we would rather not have that be the scenario. Then of course, we also have in the homes, typically, you don't bring in fresh air unless someone comes in or out through a door, or somebody purposely cracks a window. That type of thing. You just don't get a lot of fresh air coming in.

Whereas in the commercial spaces, you plan for that. It's been great with COVID in the commercial spaces like here on campus with buildings, where we're going to have class, with dorm rooms, having commercial equipment because we can go ahead and increase the exchanges per hour, and we can bring in more fresh air. It will cost, again, a little more, but wow, what a difference in indoor air quality.

So I think we'll see more research on this moving forward. I think you'll see some cottage industries grow as more is learned, and as the numbers continue to increase for people who not only are working home now, who will continue to work from home in some extent in the future.

Martha Parker: So, Dr. Benden, are you telling us that people with rotting window stripping on their windows and on the bottoms of their doors, that it's good actually? It's good actually?

Dr. Mark Benden: Maybe a better fit. Now, it depends if there's asbestos in the walls or lead paint of the walls, then maybe not. But if they are tracking a window or if they're in a temperate climate, which again, is not Texas right now in August.

Gabe Duverge: No.

Dr. Mark Benden: They can certainly benefit from having the windows open and letting the air from outside floating. The air outside is a better quality, in general, than the air indoors. So, we want to try to bring in as much of that as possible, or sit out on porch or patio, which maybe the quietest place in your house, if you have one of those these days. Yeah.

Gabe Duverge: No. It makes a lot of sense. It's fascinating. Getting a little fresh air, especially, during these times, it definitely makes a lot of sense. I will take a little bit of interest in the physical activity because I'm chasing my 20-month-old around the house at all times. So I think I might be exception to the physical activity rule when I work from home and I got the little guy around.

Martha Parker: Okay. Yeah. Studies show, no, just kidding.

Gabe Duverge: I think laying out those two things is really great. It's great to have takeaways and tangible things that people who are listening to this and people who are trying to create... Maybe they're back in the office and there's something they can look out for, or if they're still working from home, like many of us are, find some ways to improve productivity and make good use of the office space they have around them.

I think that about wraps up what we have for this part one of the work-from-home ergonomics. I want to thank you guys again for joining me and thank the listeners who are now viewers, hopefully, for tuning in to another episode of the LINcast. I'd like to remind everyone, as I've mentioned, there is a part two to this. I'm sure there'll be a link right around here that makes it easy to listen.

If you'd like to learn more about design-related topics and don't want to listen to part two, just make sure you check out what we have at We look forward to talking to you next time. Take care.

Martha Parker: Thanks, Gabe.

Dr. Mark Benden:Thank you.

Dr. Mark Benden Bio

Mark E. Benden, PhD, CPE received his BS in bioengineering, MS in industrial engineering and PhD from Texas A&M University.  He is also a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE #706).  His career includes experience as an officer, an inventor, a rehabilitation engineer, an ergonomics consultant, a plant & corporate ergonomics engineer and executive vice president.  His career includes work for organizations from the United States Army Reserve, Johnson & Johnson, Neutral Posture and to Texas A&M University.  He currently serves as Executive Director of the Texas A&M Ergo Center and Department Chair for the Environmental & Occupational Health Department within the School of Public Health.

He is the founder of three faculty led startups - PositiveMotion LLC, Stand2Learn LLC and the Wellbeing Code Inc and has licensed seven different products to four different companies since becoming a faculty member in 2008.  His 30-year career in occupational safety and ergonomics has produced multiple processes, tools and devices to decrease injury and illness risk.  Most of those devices are still protected by 22 US Patents, and Dr. Benden has multiple patents pending. Sales of those items carrying his patent numbers have totaled over $750 M, and the expected lifetime economic impact of those designs exceeds $2B.  Stand2Learn, his most recent startup, with millions of dollars in sales was acquired in 2018 by Varidesk after a five-year run up.  More than 1,000,000 children in all 50 states and 32 countries have used his desks, and under his leadership as CEO, his company was initially profitable with year-over-year growth averaging more than 100%.  Awards for the success of Stand2Learn include 2019 VET50 list (#35) & 2018 Inc 5000 (#567) and #5 on the 2018 Aggie 100 (#5).

Dr. Benden is the author of many articles, books and book chapters on ergonomics and has been called upon to speak and lecture to multiple professional groups throughout the United States, Canada, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and Central and South America.  He has been married to his wife, Teresa for 32 years and has 3 sons, 3 daughters in-love and 6 grandchildren.


Martha Parker Bio

Martha Parker, M.S., CPE is an ergonomist and project manager with the Texas A&M Ergo Center in College Station, TX. She contributes to and manages multiple consulting projects, continuing education classes, and research projects within the Ergo Center. Formerly with m-erg, an ergonomic consulting firm based in Houston, TX, Martha was president and founder. Her m-erg team technically supported customers by offering ergonomic assistance in design, redesign, and retrofit of new and existing office and industrial workspaces. m-erg also provided ergonomic training through seminars and individual workstation evaluations.

Prior to that, Martha worked for Neutral Posture, Inc. as an ergonomist and was a founding member of the Neutral Posture Ergonomic Engineering Team (NEET). She also worked for ALCOA, Tennessee Operations as the smelting safety engineer and for Texas A&M University as a graduate research assistant. She earned her M.S. degree in Safety Engineering with an Ergonomic Specialty from Texas A&M in May 1997. Her graduate thesis is entitled "An Investigation of the Transportation Methods of Laptop Computers".

She acquired a B.S. in Bioengineering with an Industrial Engineering Specialty from Texas A&M in December 1995. She is a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE), and the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP). She is registered with the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics as a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE).


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