Alternative Desks

Summer 2014
With an adjustable-height Steelcase Walkstation, office workers can sit, stand or walk on a treadmill while working.

The foundation of the office — the desk — is changing to meet the needs and wants of a changing workforce. Numerous studies have shown that sitting for prolonged periods can be as hazardous to your health as smoking. Yet prolonged standing at work is not the answer; it, too, has been linked to chronic heart and circulatory disorders. The solution, for many office workers, may be an adjustable-height desk or workstation, one that can be adjusted to sitting or standing heights. Taking this idea one step further, some office managers are ordering sit-stand-walk desks that include a treadmill — or adding their own treadmill or stationary bicycle to a basic sit-stand desk.

Although just a few years ago office employees who wanted to stand or walk while working had to cobble together their own solutions — sometimes by balancing their computer monitors and keyboards on top of cardboard boxes placed on traditional desks — office furniture makers now provide a wide range of alternative desk models. They range from simple hydraulic frames to adjustable-height workstations to products like the Steelcase Walkstation, which features a built-in treadmill. Some have electric motors; others use hydraulic lifts or even hand cranks. They range in price from about $600 for a good-quality basic adjustable desk with an electric lift to about $5,000 for a Walkstation. The good news for office developers, owners and tenants is that most of these products fit in standard cubicle and office spaces.

How much time do office workers actually spend standing and/or walking at these types of desks? Most adapt their work schedules depending on personal preferences; some chose to start the day alternately walking and standing for several hours, then lower their desks and sit during the afternoon; others sit during the morning hours, then get an afternoon “pick me up” from standing and/or walking after lunch. A study conducted by Intel Corp. in 2004 determined that computer workers “with access to electronically adjustable tables choose to stand at their computers about 20 percent of the day.”

office workstation with cubes

Steelcase Height-Adjustable work stations enable office workers to easily switch between sitting and standing at their desks. Photos courtesy of Steelcase

While numerous studies have shown that standing and walking desks are good for workers’ long-term health, a recent University of Minnesota study provides evidence that treadmill desks also boost productivity. Researcher Avner Ben-Ner, a professor at the university’s Carlson School of Management, tracked 43 workers at a student loan company in a St. Paul suburb who volunteered to use a treadmill desk for a year. He found that workers’ productivity dropped temporarily as they adjusted to typing and using a computer mouse while walking. But within four to six months, their performance had improved on all three metrics Ben-Ner studied: quality of work, quantity of work and quality of exchanges with colleagues. Study participants also lost as much as eight pounds over the course of the year.

These research findings echo anecdotal reports from commercial real estate professionals who have incorporated alternative desks in their workplaces, including executives at Transwestern and CBRE. Employees at CBRE’s global headquarters in downtown Los Angeles can chose to work at sit-stand or treadmill desks in open or closed (office) environments. Fifteen staffers in Transwestern’s Dallas office now use alternative desks. Transwestern Principal Nora Hogan has made the transition from a sit-stand desk to a Walkstation and been pleased with the results, commenting that standing while working helps her feel more alert and effective, since she can move and use her hands more freely.

Hogan recommends two important accessories to those who are considering a standing desk: a foot rest, because people tend to stand with one leg forward, and a restaurant-grade rubber mat to stand on. “If you don’t have a mat,” she notes, “your back will get tired.” While she keeps a “dressy” pair of black walking/running shoes in her office to wear while working, she adds that “a lot of our ladies stand barefoot as they think it’s more comfortable on our extra thick mats.”