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August 14, 2018

Workplace Culture

An interesting conversation broke out on my Twitter feed recently. A good friend - a photographer and filmmaker - mentioned that he was building a new editing studio and had installed a stand-up desk. He’s hoping it’ll make him more productive and less distracted. Other friends started joining in. There was an artist who works on really fine, delicate pieces. A playwright got involved, a freelance graphic designer and a set designer. And me, a writer. We were all interested in the idea, but for various reasons.

The debate centred around the benefits of standing up to work, and whether or not it's actually beneficial. It turns out that these people, who all occasionally work at a standing workstation do it for a variety of reasons. It’s an interesting subject. We spend so much of our lives seated, slaving over a hot keyboard, with our heads and shoulders hunched into a position we weren't made for. It's an unnatural and position to hold for long periods and we know it can cause serious long term damage.

Some of the physical benefits are clear, standing is better for posture and for blood flow. It can reduce fatigue and we burn more calories by standing than we do when seated. The trouble is, extended periods of standing can lead to similar problems. We’re simply not built to be in the same position for extended periods of time, so variety is what’s needed. We’re built to move. Everything in moderation. So when it comes to the physical benefits of standing to work, the jury’s sitting (or standing) this one out.

Anyway, the physical effects aren’t what started our Twitter conversation. My photographer friend thought standing up would help him concentrate, with less distraction. He’d be more productive. I left it for a couple of weeks before asking what he thought, and yes, he said. He found himself able to work with far more focus, had completed a few jobs in record time, and had surprised himself by how comfortable he felt while editing a film standing up.

The playwright called. He’d tried stand-up writing for three weeks. It wasn’t for him. He found himself spending more time sitting down to get a break from standing than actually getting any progress on his new play. In fact, he said, if anything, he was working slower and with less focus than normal. He returned the stand-up desk to the friend he’d borrowed it from, and returned to his home office and his favourite old well-worn chair. I asked the set designer what she thought. She told me that she felt she was working in a stricter, more organised and controlled way, and that she thought it was because she hated standing up to work for so long that she felt she was disciplining herself and rewarding herself with a sit down at the completion of each stage. But it felt like she was punishing herself for too much of the time, so she was another who went back to her old ways.

I called the graphic designer. He was pleased. He was very pleased. He actually described his new way of working as ‘life changing’. He so preferred standing up to work, he’d bought himself a stand-up desk to install in his girlfriend’s house, so he could work there too. He didn't mention whether she approved of the idea. He was totally sold on the idea of working standing up. He was used to working long hours sitting down, hunched over his screen and contorting his back into shapes it wasn’t designed for. This, though. This was a revelation. A new beginning. He was so concerned with what he saw as purely physical benefits, he completely lost sight of any changes in productivity. He remarked though, that he was more comfortable, and therefore happier, so ‘I guess so’ was all he could give me when I asked.

One of the coworking spaces I use regularly has a few standing desks, so I decided to give it a try. Maybe this was my new future. Distraction and procrastination are the twin scourges of the freelancer. Maybe I could laugh in their face as i’d be more disciplined if I was working on my feet. I tried it every day for a month. The first thing I noticed was that I slept heavier and for longer. It was tiring, switching from my desk and chair to this new routine. But I did find myself working for longer, and like my set designer friend, I thought I was working better because I was being stricter with myself. It was tough. I felt a few physical benefits though. I felt I had more stamina as the month went on, and even noticed a change in my energy levels. Since then, I’ve decided to switch around between sitting and standing, a couple of days at a time, and I feel I’m getting more done. While I don’t believe stand-up working is the future, exactly, it’s interesting what little changes like this can do. I mentioned all this to my friend Jane. Like me, Jane’s a freelance writer. She works a strict 6 day week, 8 hours a day, she works hard, never misses a deadline, and is always finding new clients. I asked her what her secret was. ‘Oh I don’t have a desk, I just work in bed’, she told me. Wow. That’s a whole new blog for another day.

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