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We’re not Moving at Work, and it’s a Problem – but we as Designers can fix it!

Everyone’s talking about movement in the workplace. Is that the only thing we need to worry about?

Touring the halls of the international office furniture trade fair Orgatec, you can be assured of hearing one term repeatedly: ‘movement’. There’s no surprise there. Every brand with its finger on the pulse of workplace design discourse will claim to have deeply considered the physical need for a range of postures for the seated human body.

There were certainly standout products to be seen in response to the issue of movement, yet some brands achieved more sophisticated outcomes than others via the depth with which they considered and tested the physical realities of that one little word. But is there more we should be thinking about?

“We’re not just physically over-stressed, which is a huge problem globally; we’re also mentally over-stressed,” says Burkhard Remmers, Wilkhahn’s Germany-based Director of International Communication and Public Relations. “It’s the worst combination you can have, and people are feeling it more and more in their lives and work,” he adds.

For Remmers, and for Wilkhahn, this is one of the three biggest problems we face in the workplace. And we embark on a conversation about how the company is responding proactively to the big challenges in today’s work environments.

He explains, “The mixing of professional and private content on the same device means we’re never offline anymore. There’s no rest day. We’re constantly expending mental energy. The normal bodily reaction to mental stress is maximum physical activity, but if you’re restricted in your movement, that’s when health problems emerge.”

He cites a study recently released in Germany that evaluated the reasons for sick leave. “More than 50 per cent of the days off were for muscle, joint and psychological issues. Depressive disorders and burnout are becoming heavy problems in our society,” he says. Wilkhahn’s IN task chair, with its three-dimensional flexibility that encourages changes in posture and therefore the release of muscle tension, is perhaps the brand’s leading product in the quest for a healthy body at work. But perhaps we could all do better at finding our work-life balance.

Number two on Remmers’ list of today’s workplace challenges has to do with the lack of identity in many offices. “Our capacity for virtual communication means we’re no longer forced to go to our workplaces. In response to that we’re seeing a lot of ‘collage’ design concepts. It’s the creation of different atmospheres in a bid to make the workplace more attractive,” he says. “But there’s not always meaning in that diversity; a lot of these spaces could be anywhere.” Related problems, he suggests, are the gamification of the workplace combined with the infantilisation of the worker.

One of Wilkhahn’s new releases at Orgatec, the Occo chair and table range (designed by jehs+laub), targets exactly these problems through enormous versatility as well as an identifiable design language. The familiar forms of an ‘O’ and a ‘C’ can be read in the characteristic shape of the chair’s seat and backrest. But a suite of options for the frame, the cushioning and the shell colour add up to a staggering 72 possible variants through which designers can respond to the particular functional and stylistic requirements of their project. “We think it’s a good answer to the identity problem,” says Remmers confidently.

Challenge number three, he suggests, is a lack of curiosity – or more accurately, a lack of fascinating objects that inspire curiosity and the experience of new forms. “Curiosity is a motivation to move,” he says. “It can animate people because we’re curious by nature.” He points to another of Wilkhahn’s newly launched products – the Metrik cantilever chair. “The cantilever chair is an old topic, but with new technologies it’s possible to have a completely new design approach.”

Metrik was designed by whiteID, a studio that’s best known for its automotive design work, and the parametric design methods of that industry can be clearly read in the chair’s form. Polygonal shapes and rounded edges are part of its distinctive integrated body, which is defined by the form-fit assembly of the tubular steel frame and seat component. “It’s a fascinating aesthetic that can be found in architecture as well,” says Remmers.

And while the smart, self-stabilising mechanism of the new mAx table by Andreas Störiko was a talking point, the sense of fascination didn’t get any stronger at Wilkhahn’s Orgatec stand than around the prototypes for PrintStool One – a 3D-printed stool designed by Thorsten Franck and made with biodegradable lignin. “It’s the perfect example of how we use new technologies to increase the value of an object and stimulate people to use it,” says Remmers. We’re already wondering when we can place our orders.

To think of the work environment as a place where risk dwells seems drastic at first. But when you consider the links between one’s environment and one’s physical and mental health, it’s not such a stretch. If the design of the objects around us can optimise our physical experience of the workplace while also influencing our mental experience of it toward the same end, we’d all have a lot less to worry about.


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