Finding the Right Fit
Colleen Harris Becomes Ergonomics Pioneer with Harris WorkSystems
When Colleen Harris, President of Harris WorkSystems, began her career in computer sales, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who knew what ergonomics was, let alone how important it is.
This ergonomics pioneer would help expand the then-unknown field, building a better work environment and helping employees in every industry find comfort in their day-to-day jobs.
A Shared Passion
It all began when one of her customers, a single mother of four, was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome—a diagnosis that, at the time, was career threatening.
“It was a severe diagnosis back then,” Harris says. “It’s not as challenging today, but 25 to 30 years ago, it was a big deal. I went to my boss and said, ‘We need to figure out how to fix this,’ and he told me to see what I could find out about it.”
Wanting to do everything she could to help her customer, Harris went to the local library—it was the days before the internet, after all—and began researching. She came across a class where she began learning about the concept of ergonomics: the science behind equipment design meant to increase a person’s productivity and comfort.
Taking the idea back to her boss, Harris was given the go-ahead to begin developing an ergonomics program for the company.
Then, about a year later, her boss unexpectedly sold the company—much to the shock of Harris. The new owner wanted nothing to do with ergonomics or continuing the program Harris had begun building.
“I was heartbroken,” Harris says.
Harris went home one day and began looking for other work. As fate would have it, when she opened the newspaper, one job ad immediately caught her attention: an ergonomics manufacturer representative.
Harris couldn’t believe her eyes. She knew the position would be a perfect fit.
When she went in to interview for the job, she met Dr. Elizabeth Dowler, a trailblazer in the ergonomics industry.
While ergonomics was becoming more widespread in Europe, it was still brand new in the United States. Dr. Dowler helped the concept gain traction in the U.S., designing and patenting a group of ergonomic furniture accessories. She was looking for someone to help market her products, and that someone was Harris. The two had a shared passion for ergonomics and for using the concept as a tool to help others.
Harris worked with Dr. Dowler for three and half years, becoming the head of the furniture division and learning everything she could about the ergonomics business. When Dr. Dowler decided to return to her medical practice and to teach others in ergonomics, she sold the furniture division to Harris.
That furniture division would become Harris WorkSystems, based in Tigard, Oregon, the business that Harris has grown over the past 22 years.
Finding the Right Fit
Today, Harris has become an ergonomics expert in her own right, working with manufacturers to help design furniture lines or evaluate products before they go to market. One chair Harris helped design is now the standard for many private-sector companies.
And Harris WorkSystems now sells ergonomic furniture from more than 300 manufacturers. The company supplies a wide variety of industries, including medical, government, education, technology and industrial. Serving offices across the country, its list of customers includes names such as Reed College, Oregon State University, Tektronix, Xerox, the city of Portland and the state of Oregon. But, as Harris says, “There’s no industry we can’t help and no customer we can’t assist.”
Access to more than 300 manufacturers means Harris WorkSystems can work with customers within their individual budgets to make the most of the space they have; the company is adept at blending ergonomics with aesthetics to create a space that is unique and special for each customer—at a price that works for them. Harris WorkSystems also helps customers re-use or re-fit any of their existing furniture, as well as provides new furniture.
But most importantly, with every furniture delivery, Harris WorkSystems provides personalized instruction for how to properly use the ergonomics equipment.
“When I started in the business 25 years ago, there was nobody to instruct people on how to use a standing desk at the proper height,” Harris says.
Each of Harris’ employees has been trained on proper ergonomics by Dr. Dowler herself and will continue to be trained by her successor.
“We don’t do drive-by chair deliveries,” Harris explains. “Each delivery comes with 20 minutes of personal instruction on proper use and proper posture.”
For instance, when Bonneville Power Administration moved offices, Harris WorkSystems fit all 900 employees for their chairs.
Every member of the Harris WorkSystems staff also understands what the mission and core values of the company are: to provide compassionate service that helps make people comfortable and happy.
It’s this mission that has inspired Harris to do what she does. She recalls one woman who cried tears of joy after finding a chair she could finally sit in comfortably. “It was the first time in 10 years she’d had a chair she could sit in. Had she not found us, and had her employer not agreed to work with us, she would have continued to be in pain,” Harris says.
She adds, “Work shouldn’t hurt. We spend a third of our lives in the workplace, and we want all of our clients to be comfortable. Our ultimate goal is for employees to be as comfortable and as productive as possible. We want to help our clients function better, and the companies we work with function better.”
It’s this goal that has led Harris and Harris WorkSystems to not only sell office furniture, but to provide solutions and—most importantly—to ensure that each of their customers finds furniture that fits.