Standing desks may have unintended consequences for workplace productivity and efficiency. Image: Juhan Sonin/CC BY 2.0

Many of us have heard that “sitting is the new smoking” and, as a consequence, a number of progressive workplaces have started incorporating standing desks and active workstations.

It seems to make sense – if prolonged sitting is problematic for our health, then the obvious answer is to stand up and move around more often.

However, this is actually having some unintended consequences for workplace productivity and efficiency because we still don’t fully understand the best ways of incorporating more movement in our working day.

As designers, we seek to incorporate evidence-based design strategies in our work as much as possible, and to deliver workplaces that enhance organisational performance and culture. To that end, HASSELL recently reviewed existing research, and the results in our Standing Room Only report highlight that while encouraging movement is important there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered to help designers and employers find the right balance.

At the moment, the jury is still out on touted solutions such as treadmill and standing desks. Walking meetings and the like certainly have a role to play, however simply replacing an ordinary desk with a standing desk can have its own set of consequences, with prolonged standing known to lead to back pain, varicose veins and even increased stroke risk.

Recent research has sought to quantify how much movement is required to avoid the health consequences of a sedentary office life – consequences such as increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

A number of recommendations have been developed. Public Health England has drawn on international expertise to suggest that office workers should ideally start with two hours of standing and light walking each day and progressively increase this to four hours a day, and that they should regularly shift from sitting to standing/light walking and back again.

This is quite ambitious but a key question for a workplace is how to enable more movement without it being unduly disruptive. Most of us need to be able to concentrate without interruption in order to be at our productive best, with one US study showing that when workers are interrupted from a task, it can take them up to 23 minutes to get back on track.

So, while prompting staff to change position between standing and sitting is admirable, the end result could be a less productive and focused office with a very real impact on the bottom line.

To complement the growing body of research on how much activity is required to avoid the consequences of prolonged sitting, we also need more research to tell us how frequently and at what intervals it is required in a typical work day and, importantly, which activities can be adapted to suit which tasks.

That is, rather than simply interrupt work activities to move between sitting, standing and walking, we need to better understand which work activities are best suited to each of these from both a productivity and effectiveness viewpoint.

For instance, researchers have found poorer cognitive and typing outcomes for people on treadmill desks compared to those sitting, suggesting that employers need to be selective about what tasks are completed at these type of active workstations.

Further research will also tell us whether is it better to encourage staff to change position between tasks rather than during, and whether it is appropriate to schedule interruptions into lengthy tasks.

Once we have the answers to such questions, designers and employers will be better able to incorporate effective solutions and to design workplaces to encourage the optimum level of activity and productivity while mitigating some of these inadvertent health risks.

It will inform the next step in the evolution of workplace design, and allow employers and designers to refer to best practice when it comes to decisions such as which type of desk to use, how many, and where they should each be located. It will also help employers of choice to create the healthiest possible environment for their most important asset – their staff.

Needless to say, any “solution” would need to be tailored to each specific workplace and its unique environment and practices. This will allow the most appropriate settings to be created to support the particular nature of each task.

As we say in our report, the ultimate goal is to have everyone in a workplace being more active and spending less time sitting, without reducing work performance – and potentially improving it.

Brett Pollard is head of knowledge and sustainability at international design practice HASSELL.