Standing Up for Productivity
The next move toward affecting change in sedentary work environments could very well be the "stand-up" meeting, which new research shows may benefit collaboration and, indirectly, work performance.
By Kecia Bal
Standing up during meetings increases group engagement and decreases territoriality, both of which result in better information sharing and improved group performance, according to a study from Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
Those two changes make it more likely that groups trying to achieve new ideas will be productive, says Andrew Knight, first author of the study and assistant professor of organizational behavior at Olin.
"Standing increases peoples' physiological arousal, so it actually is more activating for people," he says. "When people are in groups -- especially those working on a common goal together -- activation seems to facilitate collaboration. And, standing tends to make people more interdependent as opposed to independent in their thinking. When someone hasn't claimed a chair --a space -- they are more focused on working as a group as opposed to promoting their own individual ideas."
The study looked at 214 undergraduate students broken into groups of three to five -- some groups with chairs and some without -- and tasked with the same goal: to work together to develop and record a university recruitment video. Researchers used wireless sensors around participants' wrists to measure electrodermal activity, associated with arousal. They also used self-report surveys and third-party ratings of both group interaction and their work product: the videos.
"I think the biggest and clearest take-away for HR is to explore the idea of using non-sedentary workspaces beyond just standing desk stations, which are starting to become more prevalent in organizations, but to also explore their use during meetings, especially those that last less than an hour," Knight says. "Those standing-oriented workspaces not only might be more efficient, as prior research suggests, they might lead to actual enhancement of creative thinking and problem solving."
Other potential research of workplace space may explore the benefits of "walking meetings," Knight says. Another study already has examined the link between walking and creative thinking.
To ensure the changes are well-received, however, they should not feel forced, says Knight.
"I definitely think if it were something completely top-down driven or driven specifically by an HR function as opposed to something people can opt into and self-select, that certainly can create feelings of resistance, that something is being imposed on us," he says.
The research is compelling, especially in the context of what has been written about the effects of a sedentary workplace, says Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos, a global workforce-management firm. The American Heart Association has gone as far as saying that too much sitting can be as detrimental as smoking.
"Obviously, if you get that physiological effect -- get your blood moving -- you'd be more likely to work productively," she says. "What's interesting is the concept of territory, of sitting as claiming a space."
At Kronos, engineers already use a huddle concept, where employees are standing, during "scrum" meetings -- quick gatherings for ideas, common in the tech sphere. The company's headquarters in Chelmsford, Mass., has both a walking workstation with a treadmill and a 24/7 fitness center for employees to use, and the company also uses physical arrangement strategies, such as natural light and open space, to create an environment more conducive to alertness and productivity, Maroney says.
"Those are the kinds of strategies companies can consider," she says. "The other thing is that, generally, workplaces have all this technology, but sometimes if you encourage employees to get up from their desks and go talk to somebody instead of sending an email, it can lead to more collaboration, too."
Finkelstein, professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, uses a standing
desk and encourages movement among M.B.A. students in his strategy and
leadership courses through impromptu teams or discussions.
He says standing meetings would help with performance and productivity for a couple reasons.
"One is, you are not standing, so there's a touch of variety," he says. "That in itself is beneficial. The other reason is you would be more naturally engaged in the meeting by standing. You're doing something else."
HR can benefit by sharing the research, and by trying the tactics firsthand.
"I think it would be a good idea to try it out and encourage it," he says. "It creates a different element of feeling active when you're in a workplace situation. I didn't even mention the physical side to it. The truth is, you do burn more calories standing than sitting. That's another benefit for employees."
To avoid pushback, Finkelstein says the best approach may be suggestion.
"The way to do it is not necessarily by sending a note out; although that might work for some," he says. "Talk directly to supervisors to managers. Let them know or suggest it."
Policies still should be mindful of employees with disabilities, he says.
"That is a relevant concern," he says. "This should not be a 'have to.' You can make it optional. If it's still beneficial for most people, then I think it would be a win-win."
WorldatWork has looked at the health-related issues of sedentary workspaces in research and surveys on wellness plans, says Rose Stanley, WorldatWork practice leader.
"The trouble is, it's hard to measure the effect on productivity, unless you are making a widget," she says. "If you look at it in terms of how much more alert a person is standing or being active, it makes sense. Also, think of an employee who is suffering from obesity, high cholesterol or diabetes -- those take away from productivity, too. It's a good idea to step out of the box to help employees create behavior modification. Not sitting as much is one more tool in your arsenal."
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