In the U.S. workplace, a standing desk has become an important benefit

JASON HENRY, NEW YORK TIMES
Standing desks have emerged as the fastest growing employee benefit in U.S. workplaces, according to a June report from the Society for Human Resource Management.

At a bank headquarters in St. Paul, some workers keep an extra pair of sensible shoes at their workstations, just so they can more comfortably use their new sit-to-stand desks.
In St. Louis Park, an entrepreneur said the extra expense with height-adjustable desks was worth it, especially when it comes to recruiting and retaining millennial workers.
One state worker said he’s such a fan of his new desk that he doesn’t even use his government-issued office chair.
“I think it’s a happier perspective when I’m standing,” said Tim Hoeppner, 56, of Apple Valley.
Standing desks have emerged as the fastest growing employee benefit in U.S. workplaces, according to a June report from the Society for Human Resource Management. The group’s annual survey of HR professionals found that 44 percent said their company this year is either providing or subsidizing the use of standing desks, up from 13 percent in 2013.
It’s not known what share of office workers are using sit-to-stand desks. Peter Segar, chief executive of Ergotron, an Eagan-based maker of adjustable furniture, puts the figure at about 2 percent.
The medical rationale for the standing desks took a hit in 2016. Researchers found that studies purporting to link health benefits with the furniture actually provide only “low quality evidence.”
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Even so, Segar said standing desks constitute the biggest change in office furniture since the dawn of the cubicle in the 1960s.
“Sit-to-stand really does change the way people work,” he said. “They’re more dynamic. They’re up-and-down. I think it’s easier to collaborate with people.”
Motorized desks that rise and fall with the push of a button are priced from $1,000 to $3,000, according to websites from some of the nation’s largest office furniture manufacturers. Michigan-based Steelcase said bulk discounts are available, and prices vary based on features. That’s also true of standard desks, which the company said generally start at $400.
Websites are teeming with less-expensive options for workers who want to alternate between sitting and standing. Online retailers charge $200 to $400 for full-size desks that move up and down via a hand crank, and a few hundred dollars more for powered desks.
There’s a growing number of devices that convert a regular desk into a sit-stand workstation. Earlier this year, Maplewood-based 3M launched one such product called the “Precision Standing Desk,” which is similar to other devices in looking like a collapsible set of metal risers.
“If you go online now, you will see literally a dozen if not more companies dedicated to selling this type of office furniture,” said Dr. James Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. “This has become, if you like, a booming industry.”
For years, Levine has cheered the growth of standing desks and other furniture technologies that help workers get up and move during the workday — everything from wiggling chairs to low-speed treadmills that are paired with standing desks. The point is to help people be less sedentary, he said, in hopes that movement can help people avoid chronic diseases associated with excess sitting.
The medical rationale for the standing desks took a hit in 2016. Researchers found that studies purporting to link health benefits with the furniture actually provide only “low quality evidence.”
Nico Pronk, a researcher with Bloomington-based HealthPartners, said the review raised valid questions, but also pointed to the need for better studies including research on the effect from reduced periods of prolonged sitting.
“That’s where that emerging evidence is starting to come in,” Pronk said.
In Minnesota, 58 percent of respondents to the recent Human Resource Management survey said their companies use standing desks. Many are adopting the furniture as they expand into new office spaces or renovate old ones, said Paula Storsteen, director of interiors in Minneapolis-based HGA Architects and Engineers.
HGA itself is installing sit-to-stand workstations, Storsteen said, adding that chairs aren’t going the way of the Rolodex.
“To stand all day is not good either,” she said. “You still need your chair.”
Health care companies were among the first in the Twin Cities to widely adopt standing desks. Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota started installing the desks in 2006, and the trend spread by 2013 to all 4,400 workstations at the insurance company. About 2,500 standing desks are being used at HealthPartners, which is both a health insurance company and hospital operator.
Pronk, the health system researcher, points to writing by a physician in the 18th century who claimed tailors and cobblers were more susceptible to disease because they sat while working.
When the forerunners to modern offices started spreading in the mid-19th century, writers routinely denounced the lack of vigor in office life compared with other lines of work, said Nikil Saval, author of the 2014 book “Cubed: The Secret History of the -Workplace.”
While the cubicle is often held up as the symbol of office monotony, the designer who developed the idea did so as part of a vibrant vision called the Action Office. Sold in the 1960s by the Michigan manufacturer Herman Miller Inc., the original plan included a prototype for sit-stand desks.
“There was this recognition in ergonomic thinking of the 1960s that it was better for people to move around,” Saval said.
It didn’t happen. Cost was an issue, as well as the introduction of desktop computers that limited mobility. Now, the goal is closer to reality in places like St. Paul-based Sunrise Bank, where workers this year have gladly adapted their footwear to take advantage of standing desks that came with the move to a new headquarters.
“Wearing tall heels is not a good idea when standing at your desk a lot,” said Melodie Carlson, the bank’s chief operating officer, in an e-mail. “Some will have a pair of office shoes for standing during the day.”
When St. Louis Park-based Irish Titan moved into new office space two years ago, the firm opted for standing desks in part because millennial employees and potential hires have come to expect the furniture, said Darin Lynch, the founder of the e-commerce and digital marketing company.

“My industry — my employee demographic — is trending strongly that way, and so I wanted to be in front of that,” Lynch said.
Tim Hoeppner, the Apple Valley resident, said he cheered this year when his employer, the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology, took new office space that includes standing desks. Due to back troubles, Hoeppner started using a product a few years ago that converted his stationary desk, so he was familiar with the concept.
The back problem has largely gone away, but Hoeppner continues to work on his feet — a posture that fits with his on-the-go work as an inspector. “I’ve never sat in a chair at my station,” he said. “I’d rather stand.”