In the beginning, there were no chairs. People sat on the ground, on rocks, on fallen trees. Then society began to become organized, and chairs were invented as “status symbols” for the powerful and wealthy (“Fitting the Task to the Human,” by Karl Kroemer and E. Grandjean). High stools were crafted, along with regal chairs and thrones. Leaders in some societies were carried in elevated chairs to announce their importance.
Over time, society began to industrialize and to democratize in some areas of the world. Chairs were considered a way to rest the legs and allow the body to relax in both manufacturing and office environments. But chairs, while having their own set of advantages and being status symbols, also have their disadvantages.
If a chair is introduced to a work situation in a manner that is inappropriate, then it can actually cause more problems than it could help to solve. For example, a chair is best used when reach distances are minimal, when force exertions are light, and when there is adequate room underneath a work surface for the legs and feet.
If the workstation is not optimal and the criteria of good work design are not met, then the stress on the body from an improperly designed workspace (or improper work habits) can lead to serious issues. For example, according to Grandjean and Kroemer, sitting upright increases stress on the lower back by 40% versus standing, and sitting and leaning forward increase stress on the lower back by 90% versus standing. However, they also write that an inclined backrest transfers a large percentage of the weight of the upper body onto the chair and reduces pressure on the muscles and discs of the spine.
What Is Ergonomic?
With the modern advent of a knowledge-based workforce, whether in finance, engineering or contact centers, the type of chair became a new status symbol. The “more ergonomic” a chair, or notorious from television and other programming, the better, many have said. But in recent years, the question of “what is ergonomic” has come to have multiple meanings, including the ability of a knowledge worker, such as one at a contact center, having the option both to sit and to stand.
Standing to work is not a new phenomenon. As discussed previously, standing, pre-democratization of society, was the societal norm until chairs were invented and became ubiquitous in the office environment. But not everyone liked to sit while working, whether from the need to burn nervous energy or the litigator who commandeered a traditional drafting table and used it while courtroom arguments were written and rehearsed.
A few years ago, a collective “murmur” of sorts rippled through the work environment. While employees in stand-biased manufacturing operations began clamoring for the opportunity to sit while working, employees in knowledge-based, seated-biased operations began asking for the opportunity to stand while working. In addition, the opportunity to sit is codified in the State of California with its “Suitable Seating Standard,” which focuses on stand-biased work, and this author has conducted third-party worksite assessments regarding labor grievance issues over standing versus sitting at work.
Meanwhile, in the office environment, due to an early lack of research data regarding the effects of standing workstations, some people, literally tired of sitting and, possibly, of management inaction, took the matter into their own hands via drafting table mentioned earlier, the use of multitudes of cardboard boxes, and countless reams of paper to craft unique, homemade solutions.
Medical Community Weighs In
The medical community has also begun to weigh in regarding physical activity (or lack thereof) in a traditional, sedentary office work environment. One study, (“Sedentary Behavior and Mortality in Older Women,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine) found a linear relationship between sedentary behavior in women aged 50 to 79 years and mortality. Thus, the more they were sedentary, the more likely they were to die.
A groundbreaking book about 10 years ago (“Could You Stand to Lose? Weight Loss Secrets for Office Workers,” by Mark Benden) laid out the benefits of a more active lifestyle. In his book, Benden mentions that about 60% of Americans are obese or overweight, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that 1.7 billion people worldwide may be overweight or obese and that standing burns 40% more calories than sitting. Benden then goes on to say that by standing 2.5 hours per day, the average adult can burn 350 calories, and to lose one pound, a person must burn 3,500 calories. Extrapolating that to the average year of work, which includes about 200- to 250-days, if a person stands 2.5 more hours per day at work, it can result in 20 to 25 pounds of weight loss in that year, respectively.
Another method by which the option to stand has been introduced into the office environment has been via doctor’s notes for specific people with specific physical issues, for which the option to stand has become an accommodation issue. These needs have been addressed in various ways that range from desktop add-ons to brand-new work surfaces with electrical adjustments.
Sit-to-stand workstations are quickly becoming the norm in the office environment, particularly when organizations decide to restack large offices or move to new locations altogether. These moves are being investigated carefully by the contact center industry.
According to a 2016 study published by Texas A&M University, standing at your desk instead of sitting all day can increase your productivity and reduce body discomfort. The study, published in the IIE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors journal, compared groups of call center workers, those that had traditional seated desks and those who had standing options, over a six-month period.
“Interestingly, we saw a small productivity increase at the beginning of the six-month period of about 23% for those with the standing desk option, but at month six it was much higher, at 53%, with an overall average of 46%,” says lead study author Gregory Garrett. In addition, he notes that 75% of the standing desk users saw a decrease in overall body discomfort.
Garrett emphasizes, “Even though we saw good results from users who stood more during their day, it is important to point out that those that stood didn’t stand all day. They actually sat for roughly 96 minutes less per day than their seated counterparts.” Light levels of physical activity have an impact on attentional processes in the prefrontal cortex region. As physical activity increases, cognition as a function of memory and executive function is enhanced, with productivity being that by-product.
“The overall purpose of this study was to illustrate that frequent movement, transitions between sitting and standing, have a positive impact on productivity and body discomfort,” Garrett explains, “If you have the option to stand at your desk while working, great! If not, plan on getting up and moving during regular breaks and while performing normal job-related tasks throughout the day, such as walking to the printer, participating in walking meetings, parking farther away, or even visiting your co-workers across the floor rather than sending them a message.”
During a recent client visit to a well-known provider of leisure travel, I presented Garrett’s research findings to the company’s chief marketing officer. Once she had taken a few moments to peruse the article, and once the impact of potentially increased productivity by call center employees could have on her company’s occupancy rates (and profitability) registered in her mind, she erupted with a whoop of “Holy !”
At another client, this time with a green energy provider, I asked the location contact which outbound sales representatives were the most successful. Of an office with around 150 people, four of the five sales representatives who had the option of standing to work were anecdotally referred to as the top sales representatives in the office.
If You Build It, Will They Come?
The challenge with sit-to-stand workstations is, to paraphrase a line from an old movie, “If we build it, will they come?” In other words, if an organization implements the sit-to-stand technology, will employees make use of it? Some people are reluctant to stand, as they are “comfortable” sitting. That said, this may be an erroneous assumption, as our bodies are not meant to sit, or to stand, all day. Thus, if I were to sit all day, versus taking occasional standing breaks, I would tend to be less healthy.
When I work with clients that are considering implementing sit-to-stand desk options, the question is always, “How do we get people to stand more?” Parag Sharma, graduate research assistant at Texas A&M University, explains some of his work: “We are exploring behavioral interventions that use computer software prompts that will aim to increase and sustain the usage of the electric sit-stand desks. This can be a simple pop-up reminder to change your desk position, and the frequency can be changed by everyone. We hope this can be [an] effective method at increasing movement without having to leave your workstation.”
In the meantime, simple techniques like asking people to leave their desks in “standing mode” when they go to a break, lunch, or leave at the end of the day (so they start the next period of work standing) are also good options. Keep people from “overstanding” at the outset by encouraging them to work up to increased standing by starting with five- to 10-minute increments several times per hour.
The integration of emerging trends into the workplace can be wrought with angst, as often there can be an added investment, however, an organization may begin its effort to provide the option for their employees to stand periodically by installing an assortment of “hoteling-style” standing workstations. This way an organization can pilot the technology, gain increased health benefits from a more active workforce, plus potentially enhance profits gained from a more productive and engaged workforce. Once contact center operations can prove via additional careful, in-depth studies of productivity data that the option to stand while working results in increased sales, occupancy and/or bookings, then a contact center may not be able to afford not to provide the option to stand on a widescale basis.