Think of how fortunate you are to have an office job. Only a century ago, office jobs were uncommon, reserved mainly for the elite. The majority of people worked at jobs that required tedious and strenuous activities for most of the day.

It was during this time that the field of ergonomics (or human factors) was born. By applying simple biomechanical principles, early ergonomists were able to identify and combat the sources of many musculoskeletal disorders.

The classic adage by which ergonomists live is: "Fit the task to the worker." It has expanded to a more holistic definition, which includes environmental ergonomics. This extends beyond the physical layout of a workstation to the environment in which employees spend their entire working day. Environmental ergonomics in office workplaces comes with a whole new set of challenges that need to be considered.

There are three common design principles regarding the environmental ergonomics in an office workplace – climate, lighting and noise – and we will help you recognize these principles as they are implemented in your own office, offering a better understanding of how and why to address them if you observe shortcomings.

Climate

People work most productively when they are in a comfortable climate. The climate of your office either can have a positive or negative impact on workplace productivity and comfort. To better understand this, you first should realize that the climate you perceive consists of three main components: air temperature, air humidity and air movement.

Each of these components carefully needs to be adjusted to best suit the working environment. By maintaining a comfortable climate in your office, you can increase the productivity of your employees.

The best air temperature depends on the season. A range of 68-75°F (20-24°C) generally is preferable, but contrast to the outside temperature also may play a role depending on the season. For example, in the summer, an office at 68°F presents a large contrast to the outdoor temperature and may feel uncomfortably cold, and the reverse might be true for 75°F in the winter. Right around 73°F tends to be the temperature at which the majority of people feel comfortable. Depending on the size of your office, you also could experiment with the temperature, determining which temperature is preferred by the most employees.

There is less control over air humidity, although it is an easy measure to take. An increased level of humidity tends to increase the level of perceived temperature. As humidity changes with the seasons, so will the humidity in your office.

In winter, we recommend that you keep the humidity above 30 percent, while in the summer the humidity range should be between 40-60 percent. If your HVAC system allows for control of humidity, we recommend keeping it within these ranges. Otherwise, investing in a humidifier or dehumidifier may be a cost-effective alternative to help maintain the comfort and productivity of your employees.

Air movement typically is minimal in an office setting. The recommendation is to keep drafts below 0.2m/s, which is equivalent to a light breeze. If your workstations are placed in the paths of vents or open windows, this could be exceeded. We recommend selecting an office layout that accounts for the layout of vents to minimize the effect of these drafts.

Lighting

Adequate lighting is essential for any indoor workspace. To keep costs low, it is a common practice to use the minimal amount of lighting needed for whatever task is being performed. An office work surface is considered to be a "fine work" situation, for which medium-to-high levels of light are needed, specifically in the 45-65 foot-candles (500-700 lux) range. The minimum was chosen to best enable computer workstation work, while the maximum was chosen to reduce the likelihood of glare and maintain the most beneficial contrast ratio.

It should be noted that the range of 45-65 foot-candles primarily applies to the actual work surface. Background and general lighting can be significantly lower, around 30 percent of the minimum value required for the workstation levels, e.g. 15 foot-candles. Adequate and adjustable work surface lighting then can be used to reach the workstation specific levels, which may help save on electricity costs.

Glare from surrounding light sources can be a major issue, depending on the positioning of computer monitors. You may have experienced this phenomenon before when a lamp (or the sun) behind you reflects off your screen, or maybe when the light source is in front of you, directly shining in your eyes. Not only does this impede your ability to see the screen, but it may cause you to squint, leading to eye strain, or requiring awkward postures to eliminate the effect.

The maximum recommended contrast that should exist in the field of view is 10:1. Ideally, light sources (including windows) should be positioned to either the left or right. With the line of sight perpendicular to the light source, the amount of direct and indirect (reflected) glare is reduced. Where possible, avoid the use of reflective colors and surfaces, or the use of direct lighting (versus diffuse) to minimize the chances of glare. Workstations generally should be placed away from windows due to the high contrast and glare caused by sunlight.

Office lighting is one small aspect of the office experience. Poor design and placement can reduce productivity and lead to eyestrain.