Work Desk 2.0
A new crop of "smart" desks is making it even easier for employers to encourage healthy behaviors in the workplace. But will it work?
By Maura C. Ciccarelli
Ever get the feeling that you should be more active during the day? With new smartdesks, your office furniture can remind you to do just that.
With recent research showing that increased standing and other activity throughout the workday can help with health goals as well as productivity, sit/stand desks have become all the rage, along with wearables that track steps and other physical activity. Now, desks are moving to the next level.
Companies such as Herman Miller and Steelcase recently debuted technology-linked desks at NeoCon, the commercial design trade show held this summer in Chicago.
While each design has its own distinctive features, there are some commonalities. Sensor-enabled desks track the desk's position, signal through gentle motions of the desk itself that it's time to stand up or sit down, help employees track their movements through a smartphone app, and keep the employee's preferences in the app that communicates height and reminder info to any smartdesk they choose.
Online dashboards for HR or facilities management will help manage workstation usage for hotelling programs or assess whether people need encouragement to use the desks' features, all using anonymized, aggregated data to protect employee privacy. The sit/stand desks also can be retrofitted with added sensors to interact with the employee smartphone app.
The smartdesk idea was a natural evolution, says Steven Noeldner, an Irvine, Calif.-based senior consultant for total health management at Mercer.
"We are seeing more vendors coming into the wellness/well-being space [using] technology platforms that can analyze big data, identify individual needs and connect them with well-being services . . . that the employer may be offering," he says.
LuAnn Heinen, who oversees wellness and well-being initiatives for the National Business Group on Health in Washington, says smartdesks "fit right in with the holistic trend." These new approaches, she says, focus less on top-down, employer-established goals and more on support-oriented employee programs as a way to help with recruitment, engagement, retention, productivity and diversity.
Jeff Gibson, Herman Miller's director of new product commercialization, says the company's designers have been focused on how furniture can increase microactivity and its close cousin, microexercise. "It's the small things that make a really big difference," he says, adding that, for people who are not fit, sitting or standing a few times a day can make a real difference to their health.
The Herman Miller desk offers quick changes made via control panel, but also changes height every time a person stands up. "It's just one of those crazy human psychological things that hitting the button is just one more barrier," he says. "But, if you stand up and the desk comes up to your [designated] height, that is so seamless that we are predicting that it will help drive more microactivity behaviors."
In addition to the desk, the company's Aeron chairs will be equipped with sensors to similarly track the user's posture, position and microactivity, communicating that data to the desk. (Branded as Live OS, the Herman Miller app, dashboard and sensor-equipped desk were released this summer and the equipped Aeron chair will be available early next year.)
More Active Workers
Ryan Anderson, director of commercialization for Herman Miller's Live OS, says: "Our initial testing indicates that employees using Live sit-to-stand desks have become more active, transitioning between sitting and standing six times as often as previously recorded. We're excited by these early results as we seek to improve comfort and encourage people to adopt healthier behaviors in the workplace."
He also notes that the captured data can help organizations optimize real-estate usage. This is an advantage when companies are looking to maximize the use of their facilities, especially where workers switch between in-person and virtual workspaces.
Steelcase's Ology desks, which will be released this fall, were designed to remove as many impediments to changing positions as possible. "We know that if it's inconvenient, people won't use it," says Cooper.
The furniture company talked with many users who said their behaviors didn't live up to their goals of being more active because they were on their own in remembering to change positions.
Cooper notes that, since it can be just as bad to stand too much as it is to sit too much, the smartphone app can encourage frequent posture changes along with different desk heights.
The desks also have subtle motion or lighting cues that it's time to change position, according to the user's preference and self-established goals, which gives people more control over their workspace and their health.
Employers have also seen the benefits of supporting people in their wellness goals, Noeldner adds, citing research done by the Health Enhancement Research Organization in collaboration with Mercer. The recent study, published by HERO and Mercer in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reported that stock prices for companies earning top scores on the HERO Scorecard for Employee Health and Well-Being Best Practices appreciated 235 percent over a six-year period, compared to 159 percent for companies in the S&P 500 -- a win-win for employers and employees alike.
"In the last couple of decades, there's been a strong focus on financial return on investment for healthcare claims cost avoidance -- essentially, improved health that would lead to less of a need for healthcare and therefore lower healthcare costs," he says. "We have good evidence that that can happen and has happened through best practices."
Noeldner adds, however, that employee privacy can be an issue for employers when they have access to desk usage data. That's why it's important for employers to anonymize the data so that any given employees can't be singled out by their use or non-use of alternate desk heights. As new furniture offerings come from additional manufacturers, there may be a role for third-party providers to profile an individual's needs and serve them feedback on their own opportunities for improvement, he says.
Aggregated overall usage patterns could be used to "support individual job performance and ... even the overall business performance," he says.
Heinen advises employers to communicate clearly to workers that smartdesk data will not be used by the company, thus avoiding the "creep factor" of a Big Brother watching them.