Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Aetna's Edge in Office Ergonomics

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Aetna's Edge in Office Ergonomics

Article excerpt


How will office automation impact our company?

That was the question Aetna Life & Casualty's management team asked itself in the late 1970's as the company began to rely more and more heavily on office computers.

Fred Schott, senior consultant, People Technology Services, says the company's corporate planning department in 1980 presented top management with a report called "Aetna in 1990." That report said that with Aetna's involvement in the insurance and financial services business, computer technology would be increasingly important to the company. And the report warned that this technology could be imitated by any of Aetna's competitors.

"Technology in and of itself is not going to give us a competitive advantage," Schott recalls the report saying. "The key thing will be how readily our people accept the technology. The chairman of the board at the time asked what we were going to do about that. Senior management decided that we should set up a special group to look at those issues."

Thus was born People Technology Services, a group which Schott described as acting as "catalysts and communicators" in getting different divisions and disciplines within Aetna to focus on issues such as office ergonomics and systems development and design.

Schott said this group's existence reflects Aetna's corporate culture. "We have a statement of principles. One of them says that we believe our employees are our greatest asset. That's a simple conviction that manifests itself in lots of little actions as well as in major policies. The decision to set up the People Technology group is obviously one of them."

After gaining expertise in ergonomic issues in the early 1980's, Schott and his group sought to educate the company's facilities management and planning personnel about office ergonomic issues so that they would begin to factor ergonomics into facility planning and purchasing decisions.

In some ways, Aetna proved an ideal laboratory for introducing ergonomic work concepts. Throughout the 1980's, the company was undergoing rapid growth at the same time it was being reorganized to provide more divisional autonomy. New buildings were being built or leased by the company. Existing buildings were being renovated. As more computer equipment was being brought into offices, it became clear that employees needed to be provided more working space.

Unlike some companies where management has balked at the cost of new furniture for computer work stations, Aetna has treated office furniture as a necessary element of the office automation process.

"Our group tries to present the implementation of technology as a holistic process," says Schott. "You start by focusing on your business basics. What is your business mission, and what are the critical success factors for accomplishing that mission? Where do you have gaps in your organization? What do you need to close them?

"Having done that, you move on to system development. System doesn't mean just the computer system. It means the organizational system, like a social system. You're not just designing data processing. You're designing new work processes, new organizational relationships. When you do that, you're also creating a physical working environment for the employee.

"Now step back, and you'll see that your total investment in new technology will include the equipment, software, furniture, and training. If you educate managers to understand all the different pieces that are essential for successful use of technology by employees, they'll see the value of ergonomic furniture in the equation.


Aetna's first major ergonomic project was the selection of new seating for employees. For the most part, the company had been using a chair designed in the 1940's. While it provided some adjustability, it also had obvious drawbacks. …

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