The standing desk has jumped the shark

Herman Miller's action office
© Herman Miller

In his wonderful book Cubed, Nikil Saval describes the development of the Action Office for Herman Miller in the early sixties. He tells of Robert Propst developing and testing a series of workstations at different heights and different shapes.

And rather than the sedentary monotony of normal office work, Propst found himself constantly in motion, moving from one working area to another, standing to sitting. All this activity made him feel more productive, alert, vital.

Propst studied the work of Edward T. Hall, who looked at how people used their work surfaces:

Hall disclosed that an office contained three “hidden zones,” which most designers tended to ignore:
1. The immediate work area of the desktop and chair.
2. A series of points within arm’s reach outside the area mentioned above.
3. Spaces marked as the limit reached when one pushes away from the desk to achieve a little distance from the work without actually getting up.

© Herman Miller

That's one of the reasons that I think adjustable height standing desks are a mistake. Look at Propst at his standing desk; it is wide and shallow. That's because when you are standing, you can easily move side to side. Your sitting desk is deeper and narrower, because your arms can only reach so far from a fixed point. He has a stool to make it a little easier, but you can't get too comfortable on that Nelson perch chair. It has a foot-rail so that you can change it up a bit. It's designed for flexibility.

Saval writes:

As George Nelson, one of Herman Miller’s most illustrious designers, stated loftily, “The Lord never meant a man to be immobilized in one position … These are not desks and file cabinets. They are a way of life.”

Yet studies show that after a period of time, people with adjustable standing desks end up sitting most of the time. Because you may be going from sitting to standing, but you are not changing your environment, the things around you, the things you look at. You are still immobilized in one spot, working on the most portable piece of equipment, the notebook computer, that anyone has had since before the invention of the typewriter. Why are we spending money on desks that tie us to one spot? As Mark Schurman of Herman Miller explained to me last year:

As a trend the sit/stand issue has obviously picked up momentum in recent years, but in some ways it’s ironic as the primary concern (sedentary work styles) has also been shifting, with the miniaturization and mobility of technology, coupled with flatter organizations and more emphasis on collaboration, increasingly leading knowledge workers to spend less time at a personal workstation. Our own data shows private offices are unused more than 70% of the time, and open-plan workstations’ typical occupancy at less than 50%. That trend seems likely to continue, or at least unlikely to revert to earlier norms. This doesn’t mean standing work/desks are inappropriate, but it does suggest that at least for many it is perhaps less of an issue than it might have been 5+ years ago when most people were tethered to individual workstations by their technology needs.

He goes on to explain that in a modern collaborative office there should be a mix of standard and standing desks, that you move to as required. "However more of those are simply fixed standing height, which is obviously less costly than height adjustable."

When we have computers that run for 10 hours on batteries and weigh three pounds, why are we buying $2000 desks that fix us in one place? Why move just up and down and not left and right?

© Storkstand

Then there is the shark-jumping StorkStand, the standing desk that clips on to the back of your chair. First you have to lock your springy chair back into place. Then you have to probably have to adjust the height of it. Then you clip on this tiny little board and hope your chair doesn't roll away from under you. This is not casual and easy, it is a conscious decision to change your chair into a desk. A truly second rate standing desk that misses the point completely, that a desk isn't just about standing, it is about creating a decent work environment.

According to Saval, "Propst was among the first designers to argue that office work was mental work and that mental effort was tied to environmental enhancement of one’s physical capabilities. To change a desk, then, was to change one’s entire way of being in the world."

With today's cordless and lightweight technology, we can move in ways that Robert Propst never dreamed of. So why spend the money on an expensive desk that moves up and down, when we are perfectly capable of moving horizontally as well?

Tags: Standing desk

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