If you’ve been inside any workplace renovated within the last few years, you’ve probably noticed that once-ubiquitous private offices are giving way to open floor plans with a variety of spatial configurations, from desk clusters to counters to lounge seating. At the same time, architects and clients are finding common ground in designing for health, embracing that the places in which we work can help or hinder our wellbeing.
One of the more recent trends in this regard is the standing desk, which, despite having been developed centuries ago, has been adopted more broadly in the wake of sensationalist articles that proclaim, among other cardiovascular horrors, that sitting is the new smoking. Suddenly, there's a growing push to bring wellness to the office in ways both big and small.
In the anti-sitting camp are researchers whose studies (with spine-chilling titles such as “The Role of Low Energy Expenditure and Sitting on Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes, and Cardiovascular Disease”) show that sedentary behavior can have detrimental effects to one’s overall health. And proponents of standing enjoy citing a 2016 study released by Texas A&M, which boasted within its findings of a 45 percent increase in productivity from office workers whose desks could be converted to standing desks. But standing all day may prove as uncomfortable over the long term as sitting. As such, the workplace battle over posterior versus posture may be more nuanced than a simple all-or-nothing approach.
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Standing desks aren’t just today’s trend: Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Woolf, and Winston Churchill are counted among historical figures with a preference for remaining upright while working. An 1883 article in Popular Science prescribed, for the relief of people suffering from dyspepsia (better known as indigestion), a telescoping desk to allow varied intervals of both standing and sitting. And in the mid-1960s, George Nelson and Robert Probst developed a furniture series called the Action Office line based on research by the Herman Miller company.
The Action Office, in its initial iteration, included a standing desk and a “perch” stool that encouraged adaptability both on the part of the worker and the working environment through mobile, multi-use furnishings. A more recent study, “Sit. Stand. Move. Repeat”—also from Herman Miller—suggests that the ideal balance is found in combatting the Newtonian concept of inertia.
To some, merely getting up for a glass of water every half an hour is enough movement to break the monotony of whatever task is at hand, to get creative juices flowing or at least to mute any inactivity alerts. For others who venture a step further, standing desks become treadmill desks. Chairs are replaced with yoga balls. Walking clubs pace through lunch hours, and meetings are conducted on the move. And architects and clients alike are embracing the idea of "healthy design," recognizing an office setting that mitigates stress and increases productivity means happier employees, reduced costs, and long-term economic benefits.
Perhaps the first step to take is not wholesale rejection of one working habit or the other, but rather embrace of flexible furnishings such as adjustable-height desks that can be configured for both sitting and standing. Switching it up every now and then, perhaps with a brisk walk to the restroom in between, is more likely to burn calories and increase productivity than settling on either wholesale strategy. Regardless of your preference, this intensified focus on how office buildings impact health should keep paying dividends for architects, clients, and employees everywhere.
About the author: Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, is a writer and architectural photographer based in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Brutalist DC and the former associate editor of design for Architect Magazine.