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Future workplaces will function best with Stone Age features, UC Berkeley professors suggest
29 Aug 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Pull up a rock.

  Galen Cranz
  Galen Cranz may look like she's relaxing, but actually she's hard at work
  Seth Roberts
  Seth Roberts prefers working at his computer while walking on a treadmill

The contemporary office needs to be more Stone Age and less high tech, according to a University of California, Berkeley, professor of architecture.

Galen Cranz, who in 1998 wrote "The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design," a book that berates the traditional chair as a source of back pain and illness, now wants people to rethink office furniture and design. She indicts almost all office furnishings and is spreading her message as she teaches on the topic and travels in search of the optimal workplace.

Offices need less uniformity and more design, she said, to support a wide range of seating options such as sitting up, lying down, kneeling, squatting, sitting cross-legged or perching halfway between sitting and standing. Workers need to exercise more than one set of muscles usually used in the standard seated position.

They even need to move about sometimes, like hunters and gatherers, said Cranz. Some people think better when in motion, she added, and walking should be integrated into the workplace.

"We need several different positions for working - something more like a par course," she said. Instead, people are trained early on to remain seated, Cranz said, noting that one of the first lessons for youngsters starting school is to "sit still."

"The Stone Age office, that's what we're designed for," she said.

Cranz said her position is borne out by medical records showing that back problems account for the primary reason workers call in sick, as well as for the escalating numbers of cumulative trauma disorders (previously known as repetitive stress injuries). "My evidence is so compelling, people say, 'You know, she's right. Maybe radical, but right,'" said Cranz.

Cranz is teaming up with UC Berkeley associate professor of psychology Seth Roberts to teach a course on the office of the future, thanks to a Hewlett Foundation grant. It will be on the campus's 2001 class schedule.

"I guess we both believe that sitting is bad for you," said Roberts. On Aug. 27, 1996, Roberts decided to start working while standing up. He raised his computer screen and keyboard so that he could stand while writing and talking on the phone. About a week later, he made an unexpected discovery - he was sleeping much better. For many years, he had awakened too early in the morning.

"After I discovered how much standing a lot helped my sleep, then I got a treadmill," Roberts said. He still works at least eight hours a day while standing or walking.

This work style makes sense for many people, Roberts says in a handbook written with Reed College colleague Allen Neuringer in 1998. The book, published by Plenum Press, is called "Handbook of Research Methods in Human Operant Behavior."

"The muscles we use to stand no doubt did more work in an average Stone Age day than any other muscles," said Roberts. "Because we sleep lying down, sleep time can be used to do routine maintenance on these muscles. And if these muscles were shaped by evolution to take advantage of sleep for maintenance, then they will need sleep for maintenance...

"At the time our sleep-controlling system evolved into the form it now has, people probably stood many hours every day. Without the pressure to sleep provided by considerable standing, sleep is not deep enough."

While Roberts said he is reluctant to make any sweeping recommendations about offices and furniture, he thinks the topic merits further study. He has checked out purported cutting-edge offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and London.

He said he found a lot of flexibility, allowances for employees to move from place to place within a work environment without walls or assigned desks. Workers can plug in their laptops at multiple stations of their own choosing.

"(The offices) are not incredibly innovative, but they're modern," Roberts said.

Many companies breaking some of the unwritten rules of office design don't want to pay the high cost of real estate for a building that provides every worker with an individual space and desk, he said, particularly when many workers are out of the office.

"We're not just nervous systems," Cranz said. "We have mass, muscle and joints and connective tissue and fluids that need movement. We need to develop some type of cultural image to appreciate and enjoy our three-dimensional nature.

"The computer has amplified our nervous system and given us the metaphor of the branch or tree diagram for the logic of our thinking," she said. "We push ourselves mentally, not wanting to pause for breaks."

Cranz said she's reminded of what someone once wrote about the difference between travel by horseback versus using the automobile.

"Riding on horseback was physically demanding," she said, "so people looked forward to rest stops, whereas, in our case, we tend to press on thinking we can 'get there' without a break, and, of course, end up fatigued by lack of movement."



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