As you are reading this, you are probably sitting. So am I, writing this blog at the moment. Sitting is what most people do most of the time during their day, either at work, at home, or in other places. While there is nothing wrong with the activity of sitting per se, it is the duration of sitting that raises concerns. Prolonged periods of sitting, also called ‘sedentary’ behaviours or lifestyles, and physical inactivity in general, have been identified as a serious health risk by researchers. The notion that ‘sitting is the new smoking‘ has made the rounds, popping up at workplace conferences, in press articles and social media alike, as for instance argued in the Harvard Business Review and of course there are a couple of TED talks on the subject matter, too. A new study commissioned by Public Health England and published this week in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, have put this topic high on the agenda again. An article in the Guardian summarised the recommendations and suggested office workers should be on their feet for at least 2 hours per day, but ideally 4 hours.
The authors of the study highlight that it is important to shift postures regularly, since prolonged standing is equally not recommended. Sit-stand desks, which can be height adjusted and are very popular in Scandinavia are suggested as one possible solution.
So should we all stand up now and spend half of our day standing rather than sitting? Possibly, if you can find the right conditions, furniture solutions and supporting organisational culture in your office (think about the raised eyebrows of your colleagues if you suddenly started working with your laptop perched on some shelves, as tested by the Guardian). Maybe that is not quite the way forward for everyone.
We believe that the key to a successful, healthy and enjoyable workplace lies not in sitting or standing, but in moving. Our research has shown that in the average workplace, 85% of people are sitting at anyone point in time and only 6% of people are moving. So today’s workplaces are very static. Increasing movement and mobility in the office has multiple benefits: firstly, movement helps you think. We’ve argued in our recent article on Evidence-Based Design for the Work&Place Journal (issue 6), that movement has the added benefit of increasing cognitive capacity. Secondly, increased movement can also lead to increased sociability and better connectivity of people across different parts of the business. Our research has confirmed that the workplace can foster the ‘Strength of Weak Ties‘, as famously argued by Mark Granovetter.
What is more, the layout of an office is an important factor in fostering movement. Spatial layout is often ignored, yet forms one of the most important design decisions, which will shape how organisational cultures and individual behaviours may flourish later. If walking and movement is built into the design by allowing multiple paths through the office, connecting people with resources and attractors (such as the coffee machine or meeting rooms) and giving enough space to movement and stop-overs, mobility will naturally rise. We’ve seen this in the design of an advertising agency, where the levels of movement almost tripled after our design intervention, based on creating a much more open, visible and dynamic spatial environment.
And there is also research to back up the health benefits of walking, since a study has shown that a 2 minute walk every hour may counter the harm of prolonged sitting. So if movement emerges naturally from a good match between organisational work flows and spatial design, we don’t need to worry about prolonged sitting.