Claremont Blog: Is Emma – the work colleague of the future – just a load of hype? ( a three-minute read)

November 11, 2019    Becky Wilkins     ,

The latest phenomenon to hit the media headlines is ‘Emma’, the life-size model of the average open-plan office worker in 2040. With her dry red eyes, a permanently stooped back, varicose veins and a swollen stomach she’s hardly the epitome of the happy, healthy workforce UK businesses are striving to nurture.

All of her ailments are attributed to sedentary behaviour, increased screen-time, repetitive movements and ‘sick buildings’ and the story has pointed a finger of responsibility firmly at the workplace.  But is the criticism fair or the prediction accurate? And will we all become Emma?

Much of the research used to support the Emma prediction has been on the radar of workplace professionals for many years – the connection between overly sedentary behaviour and the workplace is well known.   In fact, it is because of this that designers have been evolving the workplace away from super-sedentary desk-based habits for quite some time – and at a rapid pace too.

The arrival of Activity Based Working (ABW) is one such response, as it moves away from one-size-fits-all vast, open plan spaces to offer more choice, variety and autonomy.  It might be a quiet space to help with a concentration-based task, a collaboration pod for team-working or a tech free space to recharge.  Other design tactics which respond to the need for greater wellbeing include the use of biophilia and outdoor spaces, the inclusion of more flexibility to suit changing needs and greater consideration to sociability, inclusion and wellbeing.   Quite simply, many of the issues linked with Emma, are already being designed out of our workspaces, or limited at least.

However, wellbeing can sometimes feel compromised by other commercial drivers.  For example, a business might  strive for greater sustainability by introducing paper-light working, but in doing so, they are increasing the screen time for employees and potentially other issues such as eye strain, headaches and poor concentration.  What this tells us is that, regardless of whether the Emma prophecy is fact or fiction, wellbeing has to be factored into the very fabric of modern employers’ operations and made a top priority so that it is never compromised.  Without it, they’ll never achieve their productivity or profitability goals.

With statistics showing that we spend more time looking at screens, less time moving and more time sitting than ever before, we all have a responsibility to change our behaviours for the better.  In the workplace, wellbeing-orientated design can help to promote healthier and more productive lifestyles.  Here are eight ways to do that and design Emma out of your future:

  1. Encourage and support a review of your office to look at ways to improve natural light, air quality, acoustic-management and temperature.
  2. Introduce more biophilia into the workspace – bringing the outdoors in with natural colours, finishes, planting and even sound, is proven to help wellbeing.
  3. Use ‘planned inconvenience’ to encourage mobility around the office – locate the print room at the other end of the office so people have walk to retrieve printing or encourage the use of the stairs by putting an art exhibition in the stair-well.
  4. Take a fresh look at your furniture choices – sit/stand desks, ergonomic chairs and standing project spaces can all help to get people moving and reduce the temptation to be seated for too long.
  5. Use technology to encourage better behaviours – set desktop alarms to remind employees of the importance of movement and the need for screen breaks.
  6. Embrace ABW to promote variety and movement in equal measure – consider areas for teamwork, quiet contemplation and focused study as well as decompression spaces for those that need to relax.
  7. Create a functional and compelling outside space, where possible, to maximise the benefits of natural light and fresh air.
  8. Invest in a wellbeing programme – lunchtime yoga, healthcare benefits, mindfulness courses and social activities can all help to foster better health.

Headline grabbing stories like Emma can lead us to believe that the only way to solve the problem is with a radical rethink. However, in our experience, we are far more likely to make lasting and positive changes to employee health not from seismic change, but from lots of small, non-revolutionary adjustments.   It all starts with really considering employees emotional, mental and physical needs and ensuring they are at the heart of workplace culture, decisions and design.  With that in mind, perhaps it’s  time to ask yourself – “What small changes can I make?”


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