KANBrief 2/19

Will the office of the future still lend itself to regulation?

In our digitalized world, developments are taking place at an ever increasing pace. This includes developments in VDU and office workstations. Co-working spaces, open spaces, agile working, Office 4.0: these are just some of the buzzwords used to describe the office of the future and the work performed there. But what about the occupational safety and health regulations in this area? Are they still fit for purpose, or have they long been rendered obsolete by the pace of development?

If we consider the development of the office, from the mediaeval scriptorium, in which a monk copied texts and produced transcripts, through to the office as we know it today, in which text can be copied and pasted with a couple of clicks or entire texts translated online in a matter of seconds, there can be no disputing that the scale of progress has been tremendous. Over the same period of time however, human beings have barely changed at all. Our earliest evidence of Homo sapiens dates back approximately 300,000 years. The “design” of human beings now is exactly the same as it was then.

As in other areas, the principal parameters for planning of the office of the future must be human beings and the requirements imposed by their biology. As a rule, office work is designed to involve little movement. The human body, however, requires movement. A workstation should permit frequent changes between sitting, standing and walking postures. The design of a suitable working environment and the provision of suitable work equipment are fundamental to the furnishing of modern, ergonomic office workstations.

In Germany, numerous regulatory requirements are already in force in this area. These range from statutory provisions such as the Ordinance on Working Premises (ArbStättV), through the associated technical rules for working premises (ASRs) and the publications issued by the German Social Accident Insurance Institutions (e.g. DGUV Rules and Informative Publications), to DIN and VDI standards. The full body of regulations must be considered, and their order of precedence observed. Companies can obtain support and advice from the accident insurance institution responsible for them. Information is also available on the relevant web page of the VBG concerning VDU and office work.

Regular checks

Regulation must of course take account of new findings and observations. For example, human beings are on average taller and heavier than they were 30 years ago. Only a little over 20 years ago was it discovered that hormonal regulation in human beings is influenced by photoreceptors located in the eyes. These are examples of how new findings have been incorporated into current regulatory activity.

Digitalization in the office environment can be said to have begun with the introduction of punched cards. Since the 1990s, companies have sought to make offices paperless. As a result, office workers may be more open to the topic of digitalization than their counterparts in industry or other sectors. The working conditions in offices will change all the same. Cloud computing, crowdwork and artificial intelligence are topics that many employees find unsettling. How will such working methods impact upon the tasks of individual workers?

As elsewhere, the application of existing provisions may be beneficial. Application of the principles of software ergonomics, as described in DGUV Informative Publication 215-450 or the EN ISO 9241 series of standards, makes software more transparent and intuitive for its users. Methods such as cloud computing, crowdwork and artificial intelligence could also be used to speed up the development of new provisions. However, a risk then exists of lobby groups exerting undue influence, as the topical issue of electoral manipulation has shown. Suitable safety mechanisms would therefore have to be put in place in order to assure the required neutrality of the procedure.

In short, the existing provisions governing VDU and office workplaces are certainly suitable for modern conditions, and are conducive to assuring safety and health. The problem is more that of keeping step with the dramatic pace of change and innovative developments. Regular review of the situation as a whole enables obsolete provisions to be identified and withdrawn, and consideration to be given to the need for new provisions.

Andreas Stephan
VBG - Head of the Office Sub-committee of the DGUV