How ergonomics can be used in smart office technologies to increase collaboration

Oblong CEO John Underkoffler discusses how the ergonomics of attention play into how office design, software, and dynamics work in modern workplaces.

How ergonomics can be used in smart office technologies to increase collaboration Oblong CEO John Underkoffler discusses how the ergonomics of attention play into how office design, software, and dynamics work in modern workplaces.

TechRepublic's James Sanders spoke with Oblong Industries John Underkoffler about how the ergonomics of attention play into how office design, software, and dynamics work in modern workplaces. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

James Sanders: The new UI philosophy at the core of Oblong prioritizes collaboration and physical space over the keyboard and mouse gooey paradigm pioneered by Apple in this Macintosh right behind me. Thinking about how people collaborate, what smart office technologies do you use in your day to day, other than Mezzanine, the product that you sell?

John Underkoffler: I think the field of office technology and ergonomics writ large is still in a moment when we're not exactly sure what shape the whole thing is going to take in the long run. And there are... People have started to spend a lot more effort and in some cases money on physical ergonomics, and that's incredibly important, whether it's... A few decades now of RSI and carpal tunnel and stuff like that that's very real, very damaging, and is the consequence of becoming information workers or workers in an information-led world, and being forced to use arguably badly designed input devices and posture and pose in the way you hold your body and the way you hold it still, versus move around. All of that is really really important.

I've become interested recently in a parallel kind of ergonomics, which is the ergonomics of attention. And I think very little is known about this topic right now, but just as we know that sitting... being sessile for eight hours a day is incredibly bad for you, incredibly unhealthy, and that leads to armchairs in the early days, and chairs and balls and all sorts of standing desks and other things along the way.

What does it mean to have your attention kind of cemented or segmented or fragmented in the way that in a daily modern office work... information-centric office work does so, especially when a computer is now at the center of it? What does that do to you? It's not the way things used to work. So some sort of historical survey is probably required. I don't even know what the difference is between how a 1960s office worker' attention was spent and apportioned versus how a 2010s office worker apportions her or his attention, and whether it's similar or different.

SEE: Smart office technology: What's working, what's failing, and what users want out of it (Tech Pro Research)

But I think there are health and wellness consequences to different ways of using your attention. I feel keenly those days when my attention is just repeatedly fragmented. It's probably illusory that multitasking is a good or even achievable thing. I think we have mounting evidence that it's not really something that a human apparatus does at all well, despite what people like to think.

And so organizing your day and your hours differently to avoid that is something that we can do to better fit the world of work to how our own hardware and software works.

But there's an area of inquiry around the idea of attention itself that will feed back ultimately into the way UI works, into the way office software works, and into the way that office dynamics themselves also work now that software's in the middle of people. I'm thinking of programs like Slack and so forth. Now even the human-to-human interactions are digitally mediated, this idea of attention, the question of attention and how we deploy it and how it gets shaped and contoured will become one that people pay attention to that gets some real thought and that results in new kinds of products as well as in new kinds of standards and new kinds of practices.

So I look forward to the day when a manual of attentional best practices is available. And I just made a motion like there was a three-ring binder. Assuredly it will not be published in physical form like that, but I predict that nonetheless such a manual will be available, and I look forward to it.

James Sanders: Well, moving from human-computer interactions to human-to-human interactions, and I hate to give you an either/or question but between the debate of cubicles versus an open office setup, where do you draw that line? What's the most optimal way to design an office in your opinion?

John Underkoffler: I have to say that I'm no expert on that, and I'd be pretending to be if I attempted any kind of answer. I think there's growing evidence that people don't actually like open-plan offices that much, that it's more a conceit of people who design offices and people who run offices to imagine that everyone who works in an open-plan office loves it.

There's certain advantages for sure, but the idea of personal and quiet and sealable space, cognitively sealable space, is surely important, and so however we can grant that, however we can afford that to individual colleagues is going to be important. It may be physically and architecturally... it might be that cubicles are the right thing because you can kind of husband your own attention if you're not distracted with all sorts of peripheral bits.

It may also be that in a world of collaboration software and so forth, the physical architecture of the space becomes less important. We're actually just a few weeks away right now at Oblong from launching a kind of early preview of some collaboration software that I think is going to be really remarkable. And we're starting to ask ourselves if in some modes this thing that we're building might not actually be better than being there in person for a meeting, which sounds like unbelievable hubris to say, but I'm saying that we're still asking the question.

SEE: Beyond Minority Report: Why William Gibson's Neuromancer points to the future of UI (TechRepublic)

There seems to be some evidence that for certain modes it might be the case that it's better to do certain things using a kind of digital intermediary. If that's true, then the real answer about how to design offices will be a balance of the physical and architectural width of the digital, which hopefully is kind of a design-led proposition.

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By James Sanders

James Sanders is a technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on Asia.