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Are Sit-Stand Desks the Solution to Our Sitting-too-Much Problem?

Feb. 20, 2018

The industry is trying to find new ways to provide the end user with products that lead to a happier, healthier life. Is the sit-stand solution the way to go?

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion around activity in the workplace, and what is needed to create a healthier environment. One such emerging product category that has picked up speed in the last few years are sit-stand desks and seating. The main function of sit-stand furniture is to allow the user to work at a surface either from a sitting or standing height. Most models are available as a platform that sits on an existing desk and raises manually, or a desk system with an electric mechanism which raises the tabletop.

But while new “solutions” are being introduced to the market constantly, it warrants being asked: Has the sit-stand solution been found?

The simple answer? No.

This isn’t to say the products on the market are unsuitable or off the mark entirely. However, it is possible that the surface has only been scratched.

CSULB associate professor Chris Collins (left) meets with the OM team, including President Wilson Chow (right) to
discuss the students' work for their 2018 collaborative project.

On February 16, 2018, I spent the day with OM Seating and the senior Industrial Design students at California State University, Long Beach. For the last two years, the OM and Cal State teams have joined forces to create design challenges for students. The students are given a prompt, advice from industry experts, and hands-on critiques from OM. Within a couple of weeks, they present their solution.

This year, they had three weeks to tackle the idea of sit-stand.

This was the second year that I sat on the judging panel. Twenty-seven students presented their takes on the sit-stand solution.

What I walked away with was the question of what sit-stand even means, if it’s conducive to the ways in which we work, and if it truly is as important to our health and wellness as we believe.

What is “sit-stand” trying to answer anyway?
In the name of transparency, I’ll say that I have a Humanscale Quickstand and I love it. It took some time for me to get into the habit of actually using it. Between the sit-stand surface and the Indiana Furniture Triple-Play seat, not only do I move more throughout my day but I’ve become known in headquarters as the person who is rarely sitting in an actual office chair.

I know my behavior doesn’t mimic the average worker; I’m often found sitting cross-legged on my desk or stretched out on a mat doing yoga while checking email.

But when reviewing the Cal State seniors’ work, I began to wonder about the question surrounding sit-stand.

The start of the sit-stand solution seems to have centered around the news that a study in 2012 found that sedentary life reduced a person’s life expectancy. By comparing the findings that every hour of sedentary TV watching after the age of 25 reduced the viewers life expectancy by 21.8 minutes to the approximately 11 minutes that smoking cuts from someone’s expected lifespan, articles ran with the buzz-worthy question, “Is sitting the new smoking?”.  The shock-worthy phrase was repeated in conversation and articles on the topic were found plastered around offices to the point that reading the piece seemed unnecessary; both the response in corporate environments and the industry seemed to signal that the answer to the headline was a resounding yes.

In some ways, the far-reaching article may have hindered a holistic response. Sit-stand was the direct reply to whether sitting is the new standing rather than refining the actual questions: In what ways is the average office employee unhealthy in their habits? What can design do about it?

Addressing the elephant in the room
The answers to these questions are difficult to pinpoint because they are both highly individualistic to the employee and corporate culture. In addition, research and technology are always evolving to better inform the solution.

Of course, certifications like the WELL Building Standard and concepts like open offices and collaborative spaces—of which sit-stand solutions play a part—are looking at health in a more holistic manner.

The concerns in believing the answer to whether a sit-stand solution has been found is yes., It centers around the following points:

  • The focus for many manufacturers is to simply come up with their own brand of a current product on the market rather than trying to address the actual problems surrounding health in the workplace.
  • Sit-stand is not conducive to every employee.
  • It can result in standing too much which has its own set of health problems that are frequently touted as a rebuttal to sit-stand desks.
  • Only installing a few sit-stand desks can be used as a Band-Aid to a business’ larger culture issues, disallowing a greater conversation about what is necessary to help improve employees’  health.

How we can rethink the sit-stand solution
Again, this isn’t to say that sit-stand desk solutions aren’t an answer. Believing they are the answer should be avoided.

When discussing their projects with the students of CSU Long Beach, one thing became apparent: Tables became optional when creating a sit-stand seating solution.

At first, I was confused because sit-stand options in the commercial marketplace tend to center around an individual’s work environment; removing the writing surface didn’t seem like an possibility.

CSULB competition winners, left to right: Devon Encheff (3rd place), Rene Zavala (1st place), and Karoline Davidian (2nd place).

However, of the three winners of the competition, only second- place winner Karoline Davidian created a design to be used at a desk. Third-place winner Devon Encheff designed a task chair with a  built-in work surface and grand-prize winner Rene Zavala created a seating option that allows more than six different posture positions in any environment.

Think outside the cubicle
The solution to creating healthier environments is nowhere near found but the reactions to this point have been heartening. When designing answers, it’s important for designers to think outside the cubicle.  

Where else can we implement the lessons of “Is sitting the new smoking?” What about sit-down restaurants offering perching options rather than simply sitting at a variety of heights? What if airports were to install low-to-the-floor seating that encouraged users to relax in a reclined position or stretch? Hospital waiting rooms that provide strength-conditioning fixtures or stationary bikes while waiting? Couches that become increasingly uncomfortable over an hour’s time to encourage the user to stand and walk around during TV commercials?

I love to say that designers are just people who never grew out of the question “why?” so I want to put it out there for the industry: Why can’t every place we inhabit regularly be skewed toward health? How can sit-stand solutions break out of the mold?

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About the Author

Kadie Yale | Former Editor-in-Chief

Kadie Yale holds a BA in Industrial Design from San Francisco State University and a MA in Decorative Art History and Theory from Parsons the New School. In her role as editor-in-chief from 2015-2018, she led the interiors+sources team in creating relevant content that touches on sustainability, universal design, science, and the role of design in society.

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