First there was the desk. Then there was the standing desk. Next came the sit-stand desk. Now, even that improvement is getting an update, as the focus turns to creating movement throughout the workplace, since simply standing and sitting is not sufficient for good health.
Actually, to appreciate the importance of that recent trend, another historical perspective is needed. First there were hunter-gatherers, then farmers, then the industrial age. More recently, we have moved into the technological era, in which we work long hours, much of it at a desk. "In the last 50 years, we are confined to a cubicle. In many companies you are perceived as not working if you aren't sitting at a desk," says Lauren Beckstedt, director of marketing and strategy for InMovement.
The Chicago-based company is an offshoot of Life Fitness, a global manufacturer of fitness equipment, formed when it became evident that certain people weren't candidates for its equipment because they were short on time. "The workplace is a big hurdle because it's so sedentary," she says. The result is a host of negative health ills, including decreased energy; higher cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight; and greater stress. "Movement is the key to body health," she says.
The past couple of years, this movement for movement has taken off, with a new niche market for standing and sit-stand office furniture, as well as an even broader look at how to build movement into the day, including meeting rooms designed for standing.
Leon DesRoches was at the Futurecom trade show in Brazil recently to show off the high-tech moving desks that his Moncton firm Smartpods produces. While studying the biomechanics of the spine for his doctorate in the science of physiotherapy at Andrews University in Michigan, he became concerned that workers at desks tend to have their head leaning forward most of the day. In the long run, that compression of nerves in the neck can cause tennis elbow, carpal tunnel, and sciatica problems. As well, compression on the lumbar can harm discs.
To understand, he asks you to imagine a Boston Cream doughnut from Tim Hortons: If you press down on it, the luscious cream will squirt out. Unfortunately, the discs in your back are like that doughnut, and the liquid squishing out can affect the nerve roots and create stabbing pain. But if you move, it can restore good health. "Movement is critical. It gives nutrition to the cartilage and joints," he says. "But there's no quick fix. The quickest fix is integrating movement into the day."
Adjustable-height desks offer some relief but the reality is that many people don't use them properly. Companies purchase the desks but after their initial enthusiasm, users are not changing positions regularly enough and therefore missing out on benefits, he says. Even when used, the range of motion is limited.
He calls Smartpods the Mercedes of sit-stand desks. They are driven by software and move automatically, so workers don't have to think about changing positions any more. They are meant to be purchased by companies for "hotelling" situations, with employees sharing workstations and using the pod for different periods of the day. You enter a health profile of how much you want to move each hour and then press the "Make Me Healthy" button. The basic pods move up and down and forward and backward, with the premium version also moving left or right. As you follow your desk, you are getting the movement you need while completing your computer work. The software stores your profile and you can pick it up when you return – even to a Smartpod in another city.
Essentially, the desk – the lowest price is $2,900 – tries to mimic the proper movement of the spine. The movement, he says, increases productivity on average by 5 to 15 per cent. "We're bringing high tech into the workplace to create a dynamic environment without adding any responsibility for the end user," he says.
If you already have a sit-stand desk, he encourages you to use it, keeping in mind that you should be standing for two to four hours a day. You won't achieve that at the start and must work up gradually. But don't go to the other extreme: If you try to stand all day it can be just as unhealthy as sitting. "The rule of thumb is that your next position is your best position. The more you move your positions, the better. Your spine and quads and glutes are all changing and moving," he says.
Many offices, of course, can't afford such an expenditure – indeed, even bringing in an array of new sit-stand furniture can be formidable. InMovement's line of elevated desktops offer a variety of clamps and platforms that can be placed on or attached to existing desks to give adjustable possibilities, for $299 (U.S.) to $649, depending on your situation. It also has treadmill desks for those seeking more intensity of movement.
But the company also consults with organizations interested in heightening movement in their workplace. A big area of concern is meetings, and the company has a solution that retrofits the conference room so chairs and the table are at bar stool height, meaning that some people can sit while others stand – and nobody towers over the others, changing the meeting hierarchy and dynamics.
Over all, the message is to reassess your workday, and how much movement is in it. A variety of companies – not just these two – offer adjustable-height desks and other solutions that can help you heighten activity. "Very small changes can make a big difference," Ms. Beckstedt said.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter