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Implementing sit-stand desks - a strategic approach

  • 3 min read

Despite the availability of modern sit-stand office desks for nearly 20 years, UK interest in them has grown significantly only in the last year or two. Whilst there are all sorts of scare stories being circulated, the simple truth is that there is genuine (and substantial) evidence that sedentary lifestyles that are now common amongst office workers can lead to Type 2 diabetes, other cardiovascular problems and obesity. Whilst it may seem immediately obvious that too much sitting (i.e. not enough exercise) might lead to obesity, this combination of likely outcomes represents a major cause for concern.

Assuming you have weighed up the evidence (this article provides several useful research links) and agree you need to take action, there are many ways to provide sitting and standing options for computer users. However, they all require careful management both in terms of implementation and subsequent use. In exactly the same way that a good chair will be wasted unless the user has been trained to adjust it and take advantage of its features, a sit-stand desk option will not benefit individuals fully unless they know when to use its different modes, how to do so and for how long.

Evidence from the United States, where employers have been quicker to respond to the research findings, suggests that a successful sit-stand implementation is far from a foregone conclusion. Without proper planning and preparation, any implementation runs the risk of misuse or, worse still, disuse.

UK employers are now considering a number of approaches, including installing 100% sit-stand in new projects, adding a proportion of sit-stand to a general office of sitting desks, providing stand-only tables for meetings and short-term use, adding adaptors to existing sitting desks and  incorporating a mix of options within an Activity Based Working (ABW) approach.

So what should employers be thinking about to ensure they don’t look back in a few years and think “what a waste of money”?

First, don’t be bullied into unplanned, knee-jerk action! Whether the pressure comes from an individual employee or an external third-party warning of dire consequences, you need to be clear about the decisions you make and their likely impact on your business.

Next, look at what work your people are doing. How do they work now? What activities would be done better standing? Or walking? If you have never explored the concept before, this is an excellent time to look at an ABW (activity based working) approach. Unless you are moving premises or carrying out a complete refit, full ABW will probably be too radical for your organisation but understanding the underlying concept will inform your decision making and allow you to consider the more distant future.

Then see what furniture and space you already have. Are there areas that would lend themselves to different ways of working? Could existing break-out areas be adapted? You probably have areas that have never really worked in their current format: might they achieve that elusive popularity if they were redeployed with sit-stand furniture? What about some sit-stand workstations at the end of each row of sitting desks? Or are there any desks that could be easily adapted to sit-stand? Sometimes such an adaptation requires hardware on top of the desk but it might be more effective to retain the desktop and simply replace the standard framework underneath it with a sit-stand mechanism. And don’t forget meeting tables: could some of these be standing versions instead?

Having thought about what might be done with the furniture, you need to think about the impact it will have on your people. How will it change how they communicate with one another? Will some people feel claustrophobic if others are standing over them? Will everyone have access? If you decide to start with a small number of units in a hot desk environment, will a minority ‘hog’ them and prevent others benefitting?

It may sound trivial but don’t forget the IT infrastructure. Make sure there are lots of extension cables available for mains, keyboards, mice and peripherals.

Finally – and probably most important, plan your training. Ensure people understand the benefits and know how to use the equipment. And that they know how to stand! Getting up from the chair has cardiovascular benefits but poor standing posture can create as many musculoskeletal problems as poor sitting posture. Each individual needs to be able to set themselves up in standing-mode and know what ‘good posture’ feels like so that they can replicate it for themselves in the future.

Alongside all this, remember that there are many other ways to complement your sit-stand implementation. Use it to reinvigorate any established wellbeing activities and be aware that it should always be regarded as part (albeit a crucial part) of the bigger health, engagement and productivity landscape.

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