Standing desks have generated a lot of news and considerable hype over the last few years, some of which I’ve covered here. Frankly, all of this coverage has been missing something important. Sitting for hours on end isn’t wise, true enough, but nothing in the research proves that the remedy is merely standing up all day instead. As with every question worth studying, it’s not that simple.
A new study may nudge us a little closer to the real issue. At least in the case of productivity, it’s not a matter of deciding to interminably sit or stand--it’s a matter of having flexibility to do either in increments that work for any given person. Productivity increases when people have the ability to sit and stand throughout the work day, and do so over a long enough period of time to figure out what combination works best.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, examined the productivity of two groups of call-center employees, about 170 employees total, over the course of six months. One group was seated throughout the day, the other had stand-capable workstations that allowed them to raise or lower their desks to stand or sit. By the end of the study, the employees using stand-capable workstations were about 46% more productive than the sit-only group (productivity was defined as the number of successful calls each employee completed per hour of work).
A couple of important points make this research notable. First, the difference in productivity between the groups was significant, but the amount of time spent sitting versus standing was less than you might think. On average, the group with the stand-capable workstations sat for just 1.6 hours less per day than the sit-only group.
Second, the differences in productivity only started emerging after a full month of the study. It took that long for the participants to adapt to standing part of the day and figuring out what worked best. No one made overnight changes.
"One interesting result of the study is that the productivity differences between the stand-capable and seated groups were not as large during the first month," said Gregory Garrett, M.A., a public health doctoral student and a lead author of the study. "Starting with the second month, we began to see larger increases in productivity with the stand-capable groups as they became habituated to their standing desks."
The researchers say they also gathered data on employee discomfort and found that “nearly 75% of those working at stand-capable workstations experienced decreased body discomfort after using these desks for the six-month duration of the study.” Which also goes to the point that it takes some time to adapt to a combination of sitting and standing, and no one should go into this thinking they’ll magically acclimate right away.
The biggest handicap of this study was that the group using stand-capable desks were relatively new employees (one to three months on the job), while the sit-only employees worked at the call center for a year or more. So you could argue that newer staff are more likely to benefit because they aren’t used to sitting all day (but on the other hand, all of the newer employees had already undergone at least a month of training before starting their jobs, during which time they exclusively sat). It would be worthwhile to run the same study using employees with more longevity as the experimental (sit/stand) group.
At minimum, this study suggests that getting the most from stand-capable workstations requires flexibility, and it requires time to adapt. I think too often people are investing in these desks thinking they’ll quickly switch to a healthier, more productive standing worklife and then are disappointed with the results, and often quit altogether. In this as with so many areas of life, forget radical changes–success comes from small, incremental adjustments over time.
The study was published in the journal IIE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors.
Shop Deskmate Here