Julia Kitchen talks to Alex Long from AP Ergonomics about delivering occupational health and wellbeing at work, agile working, what makes a good client and combining work with parenting.
AP Ergonomics provide a range of consultancy services around ergonomics in the workplace and wellbeing. They operate in the UK, France and Switzerland
Julia: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I interviewed someone last week and he started off by saying “I’m really apprehensive about this”. I don’t know what he thought I was going to ask. I was interested in interviewing you because I think wellbeing at work is uppermost in people’s minds at the moment
Alex: I come from a healthcare background. Previously I had a physiotherapy business. In the UK there is a limit on the number of physiotherapy sessions a person can have before they are signed off and sent away with instructions about what to do at the gym
Julia: Is it different in other countries then?
Alex: In other countries such as France for example, there is no limit on the number of sessions – you identify the problem, treat it as long as necessary and put into place a strategy to avoid recurrence.
Most people spend a lot of their time at the office sitting working at a screen – the younger generation will spend even more than we have done because they will have started earlier in life. Therefore, I found that by going to the workplace and doing a DSE workstation assessment this would usually be more helpful than just treating the patient outside the workplace. You start thinking about the person and their interaction with furniture, equipment and environment. These days it is very interesting because of the whole co-working thing – if you look at the DSE regulations the assumption is that the person is just working at one desk. For many people now that is no longer the case. Hot desking and agile working are the norm. Making sure that someone can easily replicate a set-up is key
Julia: In terms of adjusting an ergonomic chair or a monitor arm?
Alex: Yes. It is about educating people and preventing problems – all the feedback on agile working from the users is that not enough is being done by the employer to ensure that the potential for problems is minimised
Julia: The employer has an obligation under the Health & Safety at Work act to educate and advise as well as identify the risks and take any practicable measures to reduce those risks
Alex: Quite. Often the employer seems to introduce agile working without thinking about this side of it. They say: “You are agile and can work from home one day a week, off you go”. It is a huge cultural shift in the workplace yet in our normal lives we already behave in this way
Julia: Yes, we are all agile outside of work
Alex: Some companies decide to go agile but still keep the same way of working. If the screen is not adjustable or the person does not know how to adjust the chair the impact on the neck or the back is predictable
Julia: I always say to clients – spend the budget on the chair and the monitor arm. Don’t buy a cheap monitor arm. Don’t buy a cheap chair. Everything else is ok
Alex: A lot of offices invest in sit stand desks, spend a lot of money on them and then compromise on the rest. Not everyone needs or wants to use a sit stand desk but they will all use a chair and a monitor arm
Julia: Tell me what a typical assignment is for you with a client
Alex: Because I am from a healthcare background quite often we are talking about someone who has gone through the first steps of the DSE. There has been an internal workstation assessment either through the Facilities team or the Health & Safety team.
Julia: So something has been flagged up as part of that initial assessment?
Alex: Yes. Or something has not been flagged up but the person has pressed for a second opinion or review if they are not happy with the findings of the initial workstation assessment. Quite often the internal approach is not about the person so much as about the equipment or furniture. For example, if someone has wrist pain they give them a wrist rest – but that approach does not always work. That is where I come in – sometimes it is really complicated if you are seeing someone with a long list of ailments. So much so that sometimes you wonder whether they should even be at work
Julia: Yes, maybe they are not cut out for a desk job at all. Those people normally produce notes from the physio, the doctor or the hospital
Alex: With all respect for my colleagues in Health & Safety or Facilities a lot of them do not have the knowledge to read and understand medical paperwork. That is where my background helps
Julia: How do clients find you?
Alex: Word of mouth
Julia: How long have you been working in the UK?
Alex: For over ten years now but only workplace health and wellbeing solutions for about three years. Previously, it was a sideline from my physiotherapy business
Julia: What made you move to just doing this?
Alex: The change to widespread agile working. The focus on work life balance. Some frustrations in my former work. The desire to see a positive impact on people as a result of my work. I switched to just workplace work which I like – you meet people, you look at the furniture, you start to understand the combination of factors. We are really at a massive shift change in the workplace as everyone moves to be agile. The way we work, the way we interact with the furniture, the property, the location. With agile working it is important to engage the people who work there before it is introduced. I am working at the moment with a client where the staff are not happy
Julia: Inadequate training, insufficient communication, limited consultation, not enough planning leading up to the change, introducing it too quickly without proper consultative planning
Alex: From a company point of view the big responsibility is the planning and the leading
Julia: And also selling the concept of agile working
Alex: Absolutely. If the manager does not have confidence in it then they will not sell the concept. A lot of the planning is usually about crunching the numbers and identifying what needs to be bought sometimes not even considering the people it will affect. In France Jones Lang Lasalle produced a 40 page study on agile working across 18 of their clients in support services including banking, insurance and real estate services. In the companies where it worked well the difference was the effort put into consultative planning with the staff. You start seeing reports from every European country stating the same, so clearly it should be a matter of concern when you plan the implementation of agile working.
I read an article in Le Monde called “The Deskless Office”. Everyone was basically saying we hate the rush in the morning to find our space. You can book a hotel room – why can’t you book a desk? I know software exists for that
Julia: It does exist. There are compelling reasons not to have it though. With agile working what you have to get away from is the notion that a desk is the only option and that finding a desk is the priority. If you have a booking system for desks what that creates is the idea that a desk is the only desirable. Whereas if it is more fluid than that and you say there are desks but there are also tables and pods or booths that you can use. We encourage you to work wherever you want to work – wherever suits the type of work you are doing – we facilitate that – we make it so that it is easy for you. We also encourage you to change location throughout the day. That is a better approach. The experience I have had desk-booking is that everybody gets very focused on desks and they don’t work anywhere else
Alex: The interesting thing in the article was that everyone was complaining about the desk not being bookable or not being able to find a desk, they were also linking it to hot desking which for me is very different from agile working
Julia: It is.
Alex: It is a completely different approach. Lots of companies are doing hot desking and calling it agile
Julia: That is true. You can have agile with some hot desks but hot desking has negative connotations. People think of hot desking as something undesirable. When you plan agile working, you want to communicate that it is exciting, easy, modern, great for the company and great for the employees
Alex: It is about breaking down barriers and can be a real struggle
Julia: Taking something away but not perceived to be giving anything back
Alex: I have been looking at Zipcar, the car-sharing app – I am not that old, 40, but to me you still need to have your car. Young people see it differently
Julia: Attitudes will change with services like Zipcar as they did with companies like Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon. At first that new approach is surprising and people are wary but then very quickly it becomes routine and the norm. Things can shift but not if the perception is that what comes is worse than we had before.
Alex: Which again is the issue with hot desking – the other issue you have is the ergonomics – if someone had a specific chair or piece of equipment how do you cope with that in an agile scenario?
Julia: For me I always say at that point – “this person needs to have their own desk. This person can’t be agile”. That creates an environment of someone being treated differently, as a special case
Alex: You hit some walls within the organisation
Julia: Yes, I often hear “Everyone has to be agile” If someone has real issues – they have to have their own desk, it is not feasible to do anything else
Alex: We were talking recently with a client about the provision of sit-stand desks – the cost is high if you roll it out for everyone and not everyone wants or will use one – why not create sit-stand desk pods and then those who want that facility can use them?
Julia: That is certainly one solution. Wellbeing in the workplace is quite a buzz word these days which is good for us
Alex: Yes. If you have the wrong chair or the right ergonomic chair but not adjusted properly for you that will cause problems particularly given the hours people work. You cannot do wellbeing in just one area, you need to do it across the board. If you have a café on site and you only serve fatty foods and cake then you’re not really embracing the wellbeing concept. It is about consistency. Ultimately most of every office worker’s day is spent sitting at a desk working at a screen.
Julia: So, what makes a good client for you? I always like to talk to people who are self-employed about what makes a good client
Alex: A client who understands that they are not spending money they are investing money in occupational health. Sometimes a hard one to sell. My background is in healthcare, your background is Facilities and we have a lot of experience. A good client is someone who is willing to hear about the full spectrum of wellbeing issues and is receptive to the whole package
Julia: For me a good client is a client who pays me on time or better still pays me when they say they will pay me. In my working life that has always been the biggest challenge – getting companies to pay and the big companies are the worst.
Julia: I find it very motivating. If a client who pays me on time asks me to do something I will change things around and inconvenience myself to do that – it is a win-win situation – I’m happy, they’re happy. I don’t understand why the ones who don’t pay you on time don’t seem to understand that two way bargain. There is a disconnect
Alex: You mentioned big companies – it is always easier working when you have the ear of senior management. The company with 200-300 staff where the two or three top people control payment and the scope of your remit is a much easier client. The layer of middle management can be a barrier when you work with bigger companies. What kind of big projects are you working on at present?
Julia: I am busy with an insurance company and a large media company – projects involving agile working and significant workplace change. What do you do when you are not at work?
Alex: I look after my family. Two little girls. My wife works for herself so we have a degree of flexibility with work and family life
Julia: It is the modern way
Alex: My wife needs a phone and an internet connection and she can work wherever she is.
Julia: When you are working parents you do what you can. Do you have an office at home?
Alex: Yes though I need to upgrade it
Julia: That sounds good. I always say to clients that we need to bear in mind that not everyone’s home is conducive to homeworking – there may not be space or there may be young children being cared for in the home. Sometimes rooms have a shared purpose. You can’t just assume that people can work from home
Alex: That was a big topic on a project I worked on last year – we were having reflection time on the project. There was a push for people to work from home and some resistance from the younger staff
Julia: I have my own room, my own office at home now, I am not there very often – but it was only three years ago that I had that space for the first time. Previously I worked in the bedroom or the kitchen or the sitting room – wherever
Alex: Do you have children?
Julia: Yes I have four. The youngest is 17 now but I remember that phase you are going through. It used to be all organised – I am doing this, the kids are doing that, their father is doing the other – then suddenly something happens – a child is ill, the school is closed – it all falls apart
Alex: On that project where we had the reflection time – they noticed that the pilot space became significantly busier during school holidays. They came for the quiet, the social interaction, the air-conditioning…..
Julia: Do you think that there will be increasing numbers of people like us in the future? Self-employed people working for different clients
Alex: A good example is what people call the gig economy
Julia: Which gets a lot of bad press
Alex: It is kind of what we do though – work when we want, stop working when we want, the major difference is that we are selling knowledge but it is still the gig economy
Julia: But it is not that different from somebody delivering pizza – it is just delivering a different thing. We still have no job or financial security but what we get back is freedom – it works for us because our hourly rate is higher than someone who is delivering pizza so it is less likely to be catastrophic if we don’t have any work. We just think “great, we’ll get on top of admin or clean the house”
Alex: It is all about work life balance. I have participated in conference calls whilst walking alongside the Thames. Does that mean I am not working? Does that mean I am not efficient?
Julia: No, it doesn’t mean that at all – it just means you are very agile
Alex: I still deliver the product
Julia: And for a number of different clients
Alex: What I like is the variety – it is more interesting. Going back to the gig economy and pizza delivery – they typically just work for one client so are over reliant on that client without the benefits of being employed
Julia: Exploitation is possible in that situation
Alex: We sell knowledge and experience – if we only work for one client it is like being employed
Julia: But without the benefits
Alex: Agreed. What is your take on Orangebox and their agile furniture?
Julia: Great furniture. Brilliant factory in Wales. Very happy workforce. Good products. Good design. Good visualisation about where the workplace is going.
Alex: There was an interesting book produced by Orangebox – “That’s not a stick, that’s a log!”
Julia: Yes, really interesting – it was written by Gerard Taylor who is the Orangebox guru on the workplace
Alex: The key thing I say to clients is that we are all going to work longer – the challenge is to last that long, to remain healthy. Our parents went to work, worked their whole life possibly at the same company and then retired. Now the retirement age is going back. You are increasingly likely to hit retirement age with health issues which will prevent you enjoying your retirement
Julia: Also retirement isn’t necessarily a set concept any more. I know lots of people who have retired and then carry on doing bits of work here and there – consultancy, part-time, occasional. We are moving into the semi-retirement age
Alex: Perhaps it is because they can’t afford full retirement
Julia: Maybe but I am not sure it is that for everyone – people like the stimulus and the social aspects of work. They want to have a sense of purpose. People working longer, people working part-time, people working on a consultancy basis – all of that changes the workplace and the demands on it
Alex: The workplace is designed for the millennials but actually as people are working longer the focus should not just be on the millennials
Julia: Agreed. Alex, great to talk to you – thank you so much for your time
Alex: Thank you
What is DSE?
DSE stands for display screen equipment and is how the Health & Safety Executive and the law describe desktop IT equipment.
A DSE workstation assessment is a process for a holistic review of the relationship between person, furniture, equipment and environment whilst that person is in situ at their workstation.
It is a means of identifying any risks to the wellbeing and health of the person as well as identifying any measures to be taken to reduce or eliminate those risks
Thank you to Orangebox for letting us use the fantastic London showroom for this interview
Alex can be contacted on:
Phone: +44 777 292 0843