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Study shows standing desks boost productivity

Published Jun. 28, 2016

The modern work world is proving to be no friend to reclining enthusiasts.

First people eschewed comfy cushioning for ergonomically weird chair designs, then they started sitting on giant inflatable balls (terrible, and slightly dangerous, for napping) and now we're bombarded with news about how standing desks — standing, I tell you! — are the key to workplace health.

Adding to the sizable body of research that shows the health benefits of standing desks, which keep workers more active during the day and relieve nagging problems like lower back pain, a new study has found that working upright also makes people more productive. And not just by a small margin.

Research by the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health found that employees in a call center who used standing desks for a six-month period were 46 percent more productive than colleagues who used standard desks.

The study cited past work that found people using desks that allow them to stand at least part of the time show increased cognitive performance. It concluded that "individuals that have the opportunity to stand throughout the day can operate at higher productivity levels than those that do not have the capability to stand while working."

I contacted Mark Benden, director of the Texas A&M's Ergonomics Center and one of the study's authors, and found, sadly, no conspiracy afoot.

His take on standing desks is: "It's not something that's just trendy. It's how we were designed. We were designed to be up and about and moving around, not just static."

But what about these productivity numbers? A nearly 50 percent jump seems startlingly high.

"I was absolutely blown away," Benden said, noting that he had the study's lead author go back and review the data twice. "We hadn't seen anything this significant ever. It was a consistent pattern. They outperformed their seated peers for six straight months."

The research didn't examine why productivity increased in the call center, but Benden said it's consistent with his past research.

"We followed high school students for a year who were given standing desk stations in their high school and we monitored them using brain scans and other cognitive tests. There was about an average of 10 percent cognitive improvement."

Possible explanations for these boosts include increased energy levels from being upright and moving around and decreased physical discomfort, which has been shown to reduce productivity.

Benden said he thinks the high productivity jump in the call center might relate to the nature of that type of work, as the way you feel can directly impact the way you come across to people over the phone.

"Those percentages are very high," he said. "Do I think they're unique to this environment and this culture? Yes. But my goodness. If you got half of those results you'd be thrilled. The small investment you'd make in the workplace environment would be well worth it."

I get it, Benden, you want me to stand up all the time. Fine.

At the recent NeoCon commercial design show, he said visitors saw not only a wide array of sit-stand desks but also greater incorporation of technology into office equipment.

"We're starting to see more reliance on wearable technology that can provide healthy reminders," he said. "These type of upgrades are the next phase of this whole discussion. We've realized there are some benefits (to standing); now how do we get people to do this? If you start walking the aisles at NeoCon you're going to see more and more examples of computer chips in pieces of furniture."

Rats.

I asked Benden what hope there is for workplace horizontalists like me.

"With the sit-stand desks being so much higher, somebody asked if I could outfit a hammock under the desk," he said.

Now we're talkin'.

"I'm a big fan of this little factoid — your best position is your next one," Benden said. "If you tell me you want to work reclined, I really don't care. I'm all about, 'What's the end result?' Are you more productive at the end of the day because you were able to spend a couple hours in a reclined position? Maybe we need to explore that."

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