How to work standing up
Sitting is the new smoking, according to recent research. So can chair-free offices really lead to happier, healthier and more efficient staff? Jane Taylor investigates
Tuesday 03 December 2013
This autumn Simon Marshall, 33, landed a great new job: lovely leafy location, excellent salary, go-ahead US company. Simon was joining a small, newly-formed UK sales team for software management firm VM Turbo.
Just before Simon started, he got a call from his new boss, Sanjoy Bhose, to let him know that, by the way, the entire team would be working standing up. All day, every day. "It seemed a little bit eccentric," Simon says with a laugh.
Sam Hesketh, 21, also joined Bhose's team in the summer, having already worked a few months at VM Turbo's modest offices in Fleet, Hampshire. Overnight, his job went from sitting down to standing up. "I thought it was ridiculous," he says.
But there they are: Sam, Simon, Sanjoy and three more colleagues, sharp-suited, polished shoes, audio head-sets, laptops and straight backs, all gathered around their bank of standing desks. They come in at 7.30am and finish around 5.30pm. At lunch and break times they can wander off and sit or even slouch around in the bean-bag room down the corridor. Actually, there are a couple of chairs and desks in the main office, available but rarely used.
Incredulous at first, all have become converts to standing up at work, as Hesketh testifies: "The first day, my legs were genuinely ruined. Now I can stand up all day. I was quite worried about my posture beforehand, but when I'm standing it's completely different. It has improved how I am on the phone. I'm more than happy."
The standing desks are part of Bhose's personal workplace revolution. An experienced telesales manager, he says: "I would always stand up and walk around when I was on the phone; it's much more dynamic and makes you sound more fresh. I didn't want the team to be trapped by the mentality of a call centre, so my vision was that we should be more like a trading floor on the stock exchange."
The commercial justification for standing is sound. The best telesales people, it seems, stand up to sell, for the same reasons that Radio 1 DJs these days all stand up to present their programmes. It just makes you sound more alive. But Bhose, at 44 a self-confessed non-exercising workaholic, was also influenced by recent media reports of the health benefits of standing more and sitting less.
It's two years since the UK's chief medical officers officially warned us all that too much sitting is seriously bad for our health. And nowhere do more of us spend more time sitting than at work, hunched in front of our computers for endless motionless hours.
Dr John Buckley, exercise physiologist at Chester University, says: "Most people are awake for 16 hours a day and will spend probably 15 of those hours on their backsides. In fact you're spending almost 23 out of 24 hours a day in a sitting or lying position."
Buckley is leading a research study into the health effects of standing-based office work. He recently revealed some of their findings on the BBC2 show Trust Me I'm A Doctor, after monitoring 10 staff at a local estate agency who were asked to stand up every afternoon for a week.
Two clear health benefits emerge: you burn more calories standing, and your body processes its glucose more efficiently. The first is crucial to tackling excess weight and its knock-on risks of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease; the second is the key to avoiding diabetes – a complex and nasty long-term condition that is also very costly to the NHS.
Buckley is keen to emphasise that an hour's burst of gym work or running at the end of the day is no protection: "You can gain benefits from exercise but some of that can be cancelled out by the sitting."
The perils of prolonged sitting had started to really worry Paul Matthews after 25 years of screen-based office roles. So much so that in 2011 he abandoned his consultancy work with blue-chip companies to set up his own business, Office Fitness Ltd. Matthews supplied the standing desks for Bhose.
He has just dispatched another desk to Rachel Greenham. Employed by an IT firm, she works from home in Devon, where, a year ago, she rigged up her first standing desk from a wardrobe shelf perched on a couple of boxes. Greenham says that in 10 years of desk work she'd expanded five dress sizes. "That and other health issues mean I now feel I've used up my lifetime quota of sitting-down time," she says.
Like Bhose and his team, Greenham found standing hard at first, especially on the feet. But the longer she continued, the better she felt. "People who think they can't do it often assume it means hours of standing still, whereas what happens is you step away, wander, pace, fidget productively."
It's precisely the productive fidgeting that makes standing so much better for us. Buckley has calculated how the tiny incremental calorie-burn from standing adds up over the course of a year. At three hours a day over five days a week, you get to burn an extra 30,000 calories. "It's the same as running 10 marathons," he says.
In the privacy of one's home (with shoes on or off as you fancy), or on the "trading floor" of VM Turbo's small office, the standing and moving around habit works fine. But, Matthews says, "in an open-plan office, it's incredibly difficult to work standing up in a sea of people sitting around you. I was doing it just because I was getting lower back ache. It was viewed with suspicion."
Matthews looks forward to the day when, as in several Scandinavian countries, work-stations come equipped with adjustable height desks and offices incorporate a range of design innovations that encourage more movement and interaction. His own ambition is even broader: to build not just health but fitness into the heart of the workplace, with mini-steppers and walking treadmills under the desk, Swiss-ball chairs, dumbbells ready at our sides for a five-minute upper-body workout.
Sitting, you increasingly hear it said, is "the new smoking". As that message hits home, Britain's millions of sedentary office workers are on the cusp of a revolution. And Sanjoy Bhose, slightly smug and 10 kilos more svelte than when he installed his bank of standing desks, is a clear beacon of change.
HOW TO GET MOVING
* All movement at work is better than no movement. Currently gaining momentum are the following ideas for active offices:
* Remove under-desk waste bins, forcing people to walk to a central rubbish/recycle bin
* Reduce availability of water-coolers or kitchenettes, forcing people to walk farther
* Encourage use of stairs instead of lifts
* Encourage people to stand up to take phone calls
* Remove chairs from meeting rooms. Or remove meeting rooms, using "bird-table" worktops to serve as meeting points instead
* Hold walking meetings outside the building
Jane Taylor is a specialist fitness trainer and writer. ifgingercandoit.com
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