I am often asked to see employees with musculoskeletal problems.  As with all occupational health services, they make up about a third of my referrals.  However I have noticed a recent trend. On four occasions in the last 6 months, the root cause of the problem appears to have been a new chair.  Yes a new chair – not some old crappy one that should have been replaced years ago but a bright shiny new one setting out on its life supporting the backside and other bits of various employees.

The problem in all the above cases is that the chair in question was exactly the same as every other chair provided in a brand new office.  Designers of such spaces have a vision of glorious and highly productive symmetry. Their minds run free imagining glass fronted glistening spaces of even desks, identical chairs, minimalist pillars and pedestals.  The only change in the line of sight might be a break out area of a curved steel breakfast bar (I’m sure they don’t call them that but you know what I mean) behind which sits a neat row of bar stools, whose design blends with the desks and chairs beyond.  All this looks fantastic and I was privileged to see the new headquarters of one of our largest banks a few years ago days before it opened.  All the furniture was in place with all the chairs perched proudly at their new desks like primary school children, hair combed and faces washed on their first day. It was a formidable sight.

But all of this wonderful symmetry has one problem – people.  People are not the same. People are tall and thin and fat and short and stumpy and bow legged.  Some have long bodies and short legs.  Others have long arms and large heads.  They are all different.  My wife and daughter are both a fairly normal 5ft 4inches or thereabouts.  But we have a female friend who is 6ft 1inch and my sister in law is 4ft 11inches.  One guy recently referred to me was 6ft 5inches, yet another barely reached 5ft.  And that is just the physical characteristics.  Once all their preferences, dislikes and prejudices come into the mix you have a huge variety.  Mix with this our racial heritage, sexuality and disability and it actually becomes something very powerful – diversity.  And diversity does not fit well into a uniform office designed for clones.

Okay I hear you office designers say, chairs and desks are adaptable, they go, up, down, in and out.  They tilt and slide and swivel and I agree with all of that but it’s not enough.  People don’t need one basic design that does different things.  They need different designs that do different things. They need a diversity of design that suits the huge variety of their needs. If you put a hundred people into an office with identical chairs and desks, is it really surprising when some find the most comfortable working position they have ever experienced and others start to complain of back pain, leg pain, can’t get comfortable and various other ailments that might or might not be related?

It becomes more of an issue when some of those employees have had chairs purposely bought for them a year or two earlier due to a particular medical problem.  Much time and effort went into the discussions between managers, the involvement of HR, the referral to occupational health if available, obtaining other medical information if not and eventually purchasing a new chair and other equipment to enable the employee to do their job in a reasonably pain free state.  Then someone comes along and tells them that they are moving to a new office and will now have the same as everyone else because the office has to look uniform – and it will be fabulous.  I have even known of specially bought high quality chairs chucked in a skip in the pursuit of a new and symmetrical office.

It’s the same with cars.  About a year ago, a Fleet Manager recently boasted to me that he had screwed down one of the major manufacturers to a ridiculously cheap price by buying 90 identical cars for the reps.   The HR Manager rolled his eyes a few months later when five reps wanted upgrades, downgrades, referrals to occupational health and brought in doctors letters to support their claims due to persistent back or neck pain.  A bit of this may have been brand aversion but most was due to the fact that 90 identical cars, no matter how new and gleaming, will not fit 90 people of all different shapes and sizes.

People matter in any business.  Diversity matters too.  Beware the designer and working environment that doesn’t take this into consideration.