Ergonomics is beginning to yield tangible results for business. The roots of ergonomics go back to attempts by Westinghouse and other corporate titans in the 1930s to create a more enjoyable workplace. In the 1970s, ``human engineering'' became a fad, centered on so-called ``open'' offices. But many manufacturers overpromised on what work stations, desks, and chairs could do for a company. Many of them overspent.
Then in the late 1970s, concepts involving color, sound, and light were introduced. A new breed of interior consultant emerged, and ergonomics itself became a vast industry. Unfortunately, problems of traffic flow, uninspired clerical staff, and clatter from computer printers soured the dream of an ``office of the future.''
Today, the telecommunications boom has forced interior designers and architects to reexamine layout, furniture comfort, light, and office machines.
``Before now, we weren't looking at a really comprehensive approach to comfort,'' says Noe Pallacios, a design chief at Steelcase, the Grand Rapids, Mich., leader in sales among companies in the $6 billion-to-$7 billion industry. ``Comfort is still the bottom line, and the tools for research have progressed a lot in the past few years.''
The rush toward the ``paperless office'' brought mixed results. Behavioral studies since the early 1980s contradicted some notions about worker relationship to the video terminals and proved that many office furnishings were geared to ``average'' body frames. Those not complying with ``average'' norms experienced fatigue and stress at troublesome levels.
In another key shift, many Fortune 500 companies have retrenched from the ``open'' office plans that were proclaimed as the ultimate in workplace environments.
``Furniture access plays a part in leadership within companies and still affects division of labor,'' Mr. Pallacios says. He and other experts say the ``open'' plan of a decade ago is under attack by corporate managers, because it does not always offer an image of authority.
``I foresee a trend toward true flexibility in office design,'' says Carl Ruff, a New York consultant.
Today, a notion of office integration is emerging. Robert Blunt at the Integrated Facilities Institute, a nonprofit center in Houston, thinks there is ``better communications between all the players'' in ergonomics, automation, and ``intelligent'' buildings. This is necessary, experts say, to help improve worker productivity.
Computers help Steelcase, Herman Miller, in Holland, Mich., and other companies plan more efficient layouts by taking into account company objectives, work flow, performance expectations of the work force, amounts of work surface needed, and projections of space.
For the first time, ergonomic experts are pooling valuable data and new products are beginning to use recent research. The Harter Corporation offers an array of forward-tilt control chairs. Modernfold in New Castle, Ind., has a floor-to-ceiling portable panel system.
Movable furniture, modular design, private space partitions, and ultraflexible desk arrangements are augmenting or replacing earlier concepts in ergonomics. Interchangeable wall and desk arrangements, chairs with special padding, and ones said to enhance back comfort aim to relieve workers of at least some portion of job stress.
Meanwhile, state legislatures are examining the issue of glare from video terminals, especially on pre-1982 units. Most expect regulations in a number of states during 1986, and some may be patterned on stringent European models.
In recent months, industry groups such as the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers' Association have turned their attention to the VDT issue, too. As outlays for office workers mount and numbers of VDTs in use spiral -- tripling the current number of 17 million before 1990 -- attention to white-collar productivity factors will grow.