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Is the future of work standing desks?

Standing while you’re working may seem rather odd to most people, but it is a practice with a long tradition. Winston Churchill wrote while working at a special standing desk, as did Ernest Hemingway and Benjamin Franklin.

 Why standing desks and why now?

Standing desk at Xero

Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that sitting is killing us. A recent survey found that many of us spend up to 12 hours sitting on our bottoms – at work, at home, in the car, in the movies, and even in the gym! Add that to seven hours of sleep and we spend nearly 19 hours every day being sedentary. That is incredibly excessive. Human beings are not designed to sit down so much.

Several studies have also shown that stand-up desks do really offer better health benefits. Fewer medical issues, less back problems, increased productivity, increased energy, higher calorie burn, living longer and healthier are just some of the numerous benefits that have been documented scientifically and anecdotally by stand-up adopters. However, as in everything in life, there needs to be a balance. As it turns out, standing all day is not very good either – it can lead to enlarged veins, or the hardening of arteries.

Change your posture constantly and move around, whether you sit or stand at work – because standing all day can be as bad as prolonged sitting.

In the past 3-4 years, a number of scientific studies have been published proving that sitting all day, every day is killing us. A balance between standing & sitting is recommended. The objective should be to vary your position during your day. Additionally, several anecdotal stories have also been published on the web that has led to a dramatic rise in the demand and information about stand up desks. See the google trends graph below:

Google Trends graph about the term standing desk

This is intriguing and exciting. There is a clear trend showing rising demand for stand up desks. But what’s going on at home – like within Xero? What do Xeroes prefer? Have we jumped on the stand-up desk bandwagon yet? Do Xeroes in the USA have different preferences than Xeroes in United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand?

Jeremy Wood (Head of Global Marketing and a stand-up desk afficionado) suggested I do an internal survey to find the answers. So I did, and here is the quick summary of the top insights from the survey.

Top 5 learnings from the Xero standing desk survey

  1. There is a clear and undeniable trend of Xeroes around the world looking for alternative working ways for better health. 31% of Xeroes are using STS (sit-to-stand) desks right now, and 38% are actively considering using them.
  2. US Xeroes are by far the most active users of STS desks compared to other countries.
  3. The design department showed the most interest in using STS desks, while the sales team expressed the least.
  4. The majority of STS desk users tend to spend 0-25% their time standing.
  5. The top three reasons why Xeroes use stand-up desks are: For better health (61%), increased concentration/energy/productivity (17%), and to experiment to try something new (15%).

Before we dive deeper into the survey, here are three stories about how using stand-up desks have changed the lives of Xeroes around the world:

  • It just saved my life with chronic back pain. I stand and pace and can’t stay still most of the time anyway so I’m just so happy that its socially accepted and hip now and I don’t seem so much like a freak getting up every 20-30 minutes because my body tells me that I need to get up and get moving.” – Female Xero from the tech department.

  • I like using the stand-up desk after I have eaten breakfast, so usually in the morning. But definitely after lunch. I feel better and not sluggish after a meal.” – Female Xero from the Marketing team at the San Francisco office.

  • The guy next to me started doing it. I felt intimidated so I joined in.” –  Male Xero from the Tech team at the Xero Auckland office.

Sitting versus standing: The status quo

A high level view of the data shows a total of 69% of Xero employees are either currently using sit-to-stand (STS) desks at Xero (31%) or are actively considering using one in the near future (38%).

However, 23% were happy with the normal sitting desk and have no intentions to opt for an STS desk, even if given the option.

Xero is a fast growing company, and one of the biggest challenges the facilities team has is to set up beautiful and functional offices around the globe to keep pace with the new recruits joining the team every week. While all new Xero offices are equipped with STS desks to cater for diverse needs of employees, some of the “older” Xero facilities are not equipped to house STS desks. The “Other” 3% in the pie chart represents those respondents that would love to use STS desk, but don’t have a choice.

 Work preferences for STS desks at Xero

Xero standing desk preferences by region

Based on the survey, US Xeroes are miles ahead of everyone else with a staggering 98% of them using STS desks right now. This is based on a total of 53 US employees who completed the survey. Denver had a 100% adoption rate with all 15 respondents using STS desks, while San Francisco was a close second with a 97% adoption of STS desks. Since both US offices are relatively new, all workstations are fitted with STS desks, giving employees the flexibility to work as they want. It’s remarkable to see this level of enthusiasm in adoption of STS desks.

In the UK, work preferences are evenly split between “actively considering to use STS desk” and “happy with the normal sitting desk”. Both UK offices (London & Milton Keynes) don’t yet have STS desks fitted. However, with the team soon to be moving into a new (and much bigger) office in Milton Keynes, this option will be available.

Headquartered in Melbourne, Xero Australia employs more than 100 staff across five offices. A majority of 53% respondents are actively considering trying out an STS desk. With another 6% that have previously used STS, we’re nearing two thirds of the staff looking to switch over.

Thanks to Xero’s stupendous growth in Australia over the last 12-15 months, it has been challenging for Facilities to respond to the growing needs of staff. The Melbourne office doesn’t have the option of STS desks. However, a new office that’s already under construction is expected to offer STS desks. This will help nearly 60% of Australian Xeroes improve their health.

New Zealand is where the global headquarters for Xero is based, and has the largest number of Xero employees. Wellington has three offices with 350+ employees and Auckland’s office has nearly 75 staff. Only 22% of NZ employees said they are happy with the normal sitting desk. Of the remaining 78%, 22% are using STS desks right now, while 48% are actively considering using one.

Wellington is where the Xero HQ is based, and houses 250 employees – but there are limited STS desks at this stage. However, Xero 2 (which is a relatively newer office in Wellington) is fully fitted with STS desks.

Time spent standing

Chart showing time Xero staff spend standing while working

For most, the STS desk is like a new toy that they fall in and out of love with very quickly. In all regions, nearly 60% of the respondents that already use STS desks or are actively considering using one, spend (or will spend) less than 25% of their time standing.

US Xeroes lead the pack with the highest amount of time spent standing – 71% of them spend more than 10% of their time standing. Within that, 10% spend more than 75%, and 25% spend between 25%-50% of their time standing.

NZ has the second highest availability and demand for STS desks. 23% of Kiwi Xeroes spend more than 50% of their time standing, while 45% of them spend less than 10%.

It’s no surprise that NZ and USA have the highest uptake and usage of STS desks, as either one or multiple offices offer this flexibility. While the enthusiasm is certainly there in UK and Australia too, the current offices are not flexible enough to offer STS desks. British Xeroes have nearly outgrown their current office in Milton Keynes and are about to move into a new office, which I believe will be fitted with STS desks. In Melbourne, a new office is currently under construction to cater for the needs of the fast growing Australian team.

What this means for employers

So the benefits of standing desks are pretty clear. But it’s important to note a couple of things. For one, not everybody wants a standing desk.  A clear majority of Xeros aren’t using standing desks (69%) and a significant portion (31%) aren’t considering them. So it’s probably a little early for an employer to buy standing desks for all their employees – particularly given the fact that standing desks do not come cheap.

We don’t offer a standing desk for each employee. We’re hiring hundreds of new people every year, most of whom don’t want standing desks, so it wouldn’t make financial sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars offering one to everybody. Instead, we’re taking feedback from employees, gauging the level of interest in standing desks, and offering enough desks to meet that demand. This means there are sometimes more desks than there is demand for them, and vice versa, but it saves us the resources that of buying more standing desks than there are people who want to use them.

Put another way, it’s better to have 4 standing desks for 5 people who want standing desks than it is to have 10 standing desks for 5 people who want standing desks.

This is the approach we recommend if you’re thinking of offering your employees standing desks. Rather than just buy lots of desks and hope people use them, you should work collaboratively with your Finance, Human Resources and Facilities departments to slowly ease the right amount of standing desks into your workplace.

To conclude, there is a clear trend of Xeroes and other employees around the world currently using, or actively considering STS desks mainly for better health benefits – but also to try out something new. It’s the responsibility of the employers to take note of this trend, and equip their offices to respond to the changing needs of the employees.

 

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9 comments

Ed Henry
24 March 2014 #

Why not buy electrically operated height adjustable desks that can be raised to Stand and lowered to Sit. A friend of mine runs a company that sells these and they would seem to offer the best of both worlds and are not expensive.

Lee Mallon
24 March 2014 #

Loving the level of stats in this post, you should keep an eye on standdesk.co who are launching their affordable sitting/standing desk on kickstarter soon.

Tanya Hulme
24 March 2014 #

Interesting article! Nearly 70% of our team have standing workstations and we also provide a technical chair to sit at the standing desk when we feel like it. Standing encourages us to be more interactive and alert on training calls and cases of back pain have disappeared! I hear the latest craze is adding a treadmill underneath the standing desk too, maybe Xero could try this out and let us know how that goes!!

Sandra Hunter
26 March 2014 #

I got my husband to build me an adjustable stand for my computer that allows me to raise and lower the monitor, keyboard and mouse space so I can either stand or sit. I enjoy standing for part of the day but need to sit as well. Working on increasing the standing time!

Michael Wood
2 April 2014 #

I have order a treadmill desk! Looking forward to seeing the results…

Michael Wood
2 April 2014 #

* ordered

Trudi Ballantyne
2 April 2014 #

I have been using a Standing desk since the beginning of the year – spend probably 85% of my time standing. Love it. Wouldn’t go back to a 100% sitting desk again. Can’t wear the heels to work now though – need comfy shoes!

I designed my own standing desk when I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for, which was something that I could set up easily and fold down quickly to a compact size when I wanted to sit. My workplace isn’t investing in this type of infrastructure at the moment so I also wanted something that was going to be affordable for my budget.

That’s how Meerkat Desk was born, it’s cheap and cheerful for those of us who have read about it and want to try it but don’t want to spend a fortune in order to give it a whirl to see if it suits.

Ray Finkle
4 June 2014 #

Wouldn’t it make sense to have foam mats for the employees to stand on when they aren’t sitting. Standing flat footed on worn out carpet really does a number on one’s back. Would be a shame to get OSHA involved…

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