Over 28 million Americans went to work today without ever leaving their homes, courtesy of telecommuting. And each day, that number is increasing as employers are warming up to the idea that employees actually can work from home.
In a 2002 survey, AT&T, a vast proponent of teleworking, was found to be saving an estimated $25 million each year on office space in addition to over $65 million annually in improved productivity thanks to its home-based workers.
But as the number of teleworkers increases, the question that arises is how ergonomic is the home environment? Desks crammed into corners, sharing spaces with guest rooms, laptop computers on dining tables and chairs hauled down from someone’s attic can all compromise home office ergonomics.
At one point, OSHA tried to intervene. In late 1999, the agency issued an advisory letter regarding telecommuters that suggested employers be responsible for ergonomics at their workers’ in-home offices. The recommendations included periodic inspections by employers, a concept that didn’t bode well with either employer or employee. Subsequently, the letter was withdrawn and telecommuters were given back the responsibility of making their homes ergonomically sound business environments. With offices that double as kitchens and basements, that’s no easy feat.
“The biggest challenge is the space available for a home office,” says home office furniture designer Jack Kelly. “The scale of the furniture is very important. I’ve talked to interior designers who have converted living rooms into home offices. Also, shared spaces are another consideration,” Kelley says. People have to be able to live in their houses, says Kelley and very few people purchase a house with the notion that they may need to secure an extra bedroom for their employer. Plus, ergonomics are rarely at the top of the manufacturers’ to-do lists.
It’s not just the manufacturer, however, who takes the blame for the somewhat compromised ergonomic conditions of the home-based office. Employees tend to look for a couple of things, says Kelley; they either want inexpensive furnishings which could mean hand-me-downs from other parts of the home or they want styles that blend in with their decor