How to Create an Active Workplace

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Monday, April 6th, 2015
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Office workers can gain health benefits from sit-stand workstations, but to truly improve health, it isn’t about a standing environment, but a moving one.

Two workplace experts offer research and tips that prioritise employee health and productivity via active design.

Melissa Marsden, director of design firm the Marsden Collective has found that her clients are taking the path of installing sit-stand workstations for three primary reasons:

  1. Improved employee health
  2. Future-proofing their workplace against coming workplace trends borne out of the increased amount of research supporting the benefits of incidental exercise in the workplace
  3. Capturing the benefits of increased productivity off the back of their employees being healthier

In terms of sit-stand furniture, there is a range of “active” solutions on the market, such as adjustable desks and meeting tables, treadmill workstations and cycling desks, driven by an increased interest in employee health, Marsden said.

“We have seen clients adopting the more conventional offerings such as gas lift height adjustable meeting tables and height adjustable workstations,” she noted. “Whilst I personally see great potential in the treadmill and cycling desks, adoption of these has been low, with clients seeing them as a bit gimmicky and believing that they will be rarely used.”

Marsden said the cost of these options is a key factor, particularly if they will only be of limited use in the office environment. She is currently awaiting results from a recent sit-stand workstation installation to see how the client is responding to the new design, though she said prior installations of stand-up meeting tables and breakout furniture have garnered positive feedback.

Sara Pazell, principal occupation advisor: human factors and ergonomics for Viva Health at Work revealed some interesting research.

A study presented at ErgoExpo conference in December showed the results of workers presented with a sit/stand desk option:

  • they stood on average for 36 per cent of their day
  • they made approximately two adjustments to the desk each day
  • men stood a little more often than women
  • workers in the 25 to 30 and 60 to 65-year-old age brackets stood the most

“During this observation period, findings included HDL (“good cholesterol”) levels increased while fat mass, overall body weight, blood pressure and back pain decreased.

Workers also experienced better sleep.

Designing an Active Workplace

Marsden acknowledged that replacing all the workstations in an office can incur considerable expense, but noted there are other ways to implement an active workplace.

“Change some of the meeting room furniture to height adjustable tables [either electric or gas lift] so that staff can have more dynamic meetings,” she said. “Add a stand up table to break out are encouraging different postures.”

The Centric Desk system by Schiavello is adjustable via electrical/technician

The Centric Desk system by Schiavello is adjustable via electrical/technician

Other suggestions include standing while talking on the phone or eating lunch, and walking over to colleagues to speak with them instead of sending an email.

Pazell noted there can be social resistance that can come with a standing environment.

“One sit-stand desk to one person in open plan can be awkward,” she said. “Anecdotally, I hear and see workplaces not use desks assigned unless a plan is implemented for the entire team – it feels awkward to stand when everyone else is sitting – so consider design plans for standing meeting areas.”

There there is the “moving” culture that can be implemented with subtle changes in physical space and employer communication to get staff up and walking around.

Pazell offered a few tips:

  • Rearrange convenience items including printers, faxes or trash cans so people have to stand and  walk to access them
  • Leaders/managers can book walking meetings with staff
  • Use language to support a moving culture, such as “please stand and stretch as you need in this meeting”
  • Install hot desks in standing areas and ensure the leaders of the business are using them
  • Employees in private offices can implement voice recognition software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking that enables them to talk/dictate while the PC creates their documents. They can walk as they dictate

Active Spaces 

With cycling becoming a mainstream form of workplace transport, many workplaces have begun implementing end of trip facilities, but Pazell recommends taking it a step further.

“(Consider) space allocated for stretch breaks, meditation, yoga or fitness facility access,” she said.

There are also a range of fitness-driven initiatives workplaces can implement:

  • Fitness facility access
  • Employer-sponsored gym packages
  • Sponsored private health
  • Salary sacrifice options to support fitness activities
  • More shower facilities to encourage fitness before/during breaks
  • Pop up walks/break reminders on PCs communicated from the company
  • Assigning a “get up and go” champion at work each week or month to keep the momentum and strategise ongoing ideas

Finally, if it all feels too overwhelming, Pazell recommended commissioning an interior designer, ergonomist or human factors advisor to create a customised solution for the workplace which serves employees, job task demands, company culture and the physical environment.

“The pitfall associated with engagement with traditional workplace wellness/fitness programs is that these programs often speak to those already interested in maintaining high levels of personal activity – so now we, as leaders/designers/HF/ergo specialists, need to think about how to engage all persons at work in more active lifestyle job tasks to encourage all persons at work in more active lifestyle job tasks to encourage low impact physical activity and a workplace based movement strategy,” she said.

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