Seats of Productivity

April 1, 2003
When selecting office furniture, schools and universities should look for workstations that enable staff to do their job safely and efficiently.

When school administrators are making decisions about furniture, they most likely are thinking about the chairs, desks and other equipment for students in their classrooms. But students aren't the only ones in schools who need to have comfortable places to sit and do their work. The offices and administrative areas of schools and universities need furnishings that allow teachers and staff members to perform their jobs effectively.

Like the furnishings for classrooms, flexibility, ergonomics, aesthetics and cost are key factors for administrators as they choose how to outfit offices and other areas beyond the classroom.

“We try to go after things that allow flexibility for us,” says Jan Harvey, senior interior designer with the University of Iowa's Facilities Service Group.

Working in comfort

A critical issue in choosing office furniture is providing furnishings that allow workers to perform safely and efficiently.

“Ergonomics is important,” says David Zeitlin, construction coordinator for the Lake Washington, Wash., school district. “We give a lot of consideration to the health, well-being and comfort of our staff.”

In Lake Washington, office furniture includes articulated keyboard trays so that different users can adjust the equipment to their needs if they need to share equipment, or in the event of staff turnover.

“We make an assumption that there is going to be more than one person using the furniture,” says Zeitlin. “People come and go, as they do in any business, so we build in some flexibility.”

Without the proper desk and chair arrangement, workers can be uncomfortable or become easily fatigued. Over time, employees can develop health problems, such as repetitive stress syndrome, that trigger fatigue and do not allow them to perform up to their abilities.

“Safety becomes a productivity issue,” says Zeitlin. “If someone is out of work because of a health issue, they're not being productive.”

Office seating should allow staff members to maintain correct posture when using their computers — typing, using a mouse or viewing a monitor. The chairs should be adjustable and cushioned to provide sufficient support. Computer monitors should be directly in front of a user, and a user's eyes should be in a line with a point on the screen two to three inches below the top of the monitor.

“We choose desks that can be easily adjusted in height,” says Harvey. “We try to go after things that allow flexibility for us.”

In the Jordan (Utah) district, workers can choose from among several types of chairs and decide whether they want a keyboard tray.

“We let them try them out,” says Diane Cole, a furniture buyer for the Jordan district. “Everybody's different and has different needs.”

Zeitlin says district officials consult with their risk managers before choosing furnishings for their facilities to ensure that the selections minimize the chance that employees will develop health problems from an office setup.

Many schools and universities have enhanced the flexibility of their furniture by putting it on wheels.

“Mobility is the big kick for people now,” says Harvey. “People are putting casters on everything.”

Zeitlin also sees more schools opting for movable furnishings that can be rolled to where they are needed.

“Our district furniture is mostly stationary, but we are creeping incrementally to more mobility,” says Zeitner.

Watching costs

At the University of Iowa, whether it's a graduate assistant or a full-time faculty member, the school provides the same type of desks.

“We don't use a lot of wood for our desks,” says Harvey. “We go with metal — it's longer lasting. And we don't want a dozen different systems out there that we have to deal with.”

Although the desks are similar, a faculty member with more need for storage space may have a larger workstation. For higher-level administrators, such as deans and vice presidents, offices and furniture may need to convey a sense of prestige to visitors. In those cases, the offices often have more expensive wood desks, says Harvey.

But ultimately, furniture decisions, like most every decision in the education business, come down to weighing costs and getting the most durable furnishings with the funds available.

“Money only goes so far,” says Zeitlin. “You have to stretch. We look for something that looks good and is durable.”

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at [email protected].


▸ 100 TO 110 DEGREES

The recommended angle of a chair back in order to provide the most comfortable seating posture.


A computer user's eyes should line up at this distance below the top of a computer screen.


A computer user's elbows should be at this angle or greater to avoid nerve compression at the elbow.


The recommended interval for computer users to take “eye breaks” and look away from the computer screen to let eyes relax.

Source: The Cornell University Ergonomics Web

SIDEBAR: Taming tangles

Not so long ago, the key piece of equipment on an office desk was an electric typewriter. It had one cord, and once it was plugged into the nearest outlet, a worker's wire- management problems were resolved.

Now, a worker needs the manual dexterity of a magician to untangle the spaghetti bowl of cords and wires sprouting behind and below a computer workstation. Lines from monitors, telephones, modems, speakers, printers, network connections, and last but not least, the cord that plugs into the outlet, can make an office environment an unsightly mess.

“You want to have some way of keeping those wires tucked away,” says Jan Harvey, senior interior designer with the University of Iowa's Facilities Service Group. “But you also want to have them easily accessible so you can get to them for repairs or upgrades.”

Many desks come with trays or compartments to help keep wires out of sight. Determining the best way to manage the wires in an office will depend on a school's technology setup.

“It depends on where the wires are coming from — the wall, the floor or overhead,” says David Zeitlin, construction coordinator for the Lake Washington, Wash., school district.

Even a well-contained, well-organized wire-management setup may not survive an encounter with someone trying to rearrange a desk or follow a wire from beginning to end.

“In a lot of cases, no matter how sophisticated the wire management is supposed to be, I can come back, and someone has moved the computer and you have a tangle of wires,” says Harvey.

As technology advances, the problem of wire management may resolve itself.

“As we move toward wireless computers, we can be more mobile and won't need to have as many wires,” says Zeitlin. “But unless you're using a laptop with a battery, you still need to plug it into the wall.”

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