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All Rise - The social minefield of standing in a seated world of work
Monday, 4 March 2019 04:31:57 Europe/London
A recent study by a group of academics across Kings College London, Anglia Ruskin and Brunel Universities, analysed the effects of standing in meetings on a group of 25 managers. The findings uncovered a host of social quandaries ranging from self-consciousness, concern over appearing to act in a challenging manner to the meeting coordinator ( standing in a meeting is very much not the norm), worry over not showing respect ( especially, in one instance, when the meeting subject was staff losses) and thoughts of seeming to be "attention seeking". When the participants explained in advance they would be standing they found this helped but still a level of awkwardness remained.
Essentially, the problems had one common theme, going against the accepted office convention that sitting is expected. Standing at work is not widespread and in corporate culture convention and conformity plays a massive part, particularly as you are being paid to attend. Being seen to stand out in this literal sense is not an easy thing to do even though the situation is steadily changing.
Stand at Ease
Given the downsides, there are positives with the major one being that the benefits to your health more than cut through the social constraints. Socially, though some interesting less observed dynamics come into play. Let's have a look at some of these further:
Freedom to Move, Freedom to Chat - Standing facilitates moving. Once you are on two feet you are more likely to pace around your area. As you are operating at a different height you can see more ( not always ideal for those who like to keep a low profile) but it does mean you can be alerted earlier to people walking by your area. You can more readily choose to engage or find something on the screen that is transfixing until they go past. My own experiences I have found standing has forced me to be more sociable. Not an easy thing for a natural introvert but probably the boot I needed.
Mood Lift - Standing gives you energy which in turn lifts your mood enabling you to interact differently than if you were seated. Post-prandial dips that occur mid-morning, mid-afternoon are bypassed as excess blood sugar is handled by the muscles engaged in standing. The drop-offs that could give an unfavourable impression to passers-by and have an adverse effect on output can be greatly lessened by not sitting at these key times.
Lean in - when you're standing people are more inclined to 'lean in' and engage around your desk area. We've had many customers comment on how they can step away from the desk where someone else readily steps in to see the screen, even taking over the keyboard if required to demonstrate. Often you can get a small group clustering around a screen in a way that does not really happen when one person is sitting. Also avoided is the need to leam over someone who is seated in order to type at their desk.
Seeing eye to eye - having someone walk into your desk area when you are seated ( or vice-versa) sets up another subtle, unspoken tension. Eye level differences ( having to look up whilst being looked down on) often enforces a formality that tends to dissipate when standing. Being looked down on is obviously not literal but eye level disparity often creates a slight unease even if it's not recognised as such at the time
Not seeing eye to eye - Conversely, it's not always ideal to have such direct eye contact. One of the customers of our Table Tennis Meeting Tables commented that for the more difficult chats with his staff on subjects that needed to be handled delicately, ping-pong was far more effective in breaking down barriers and giving space for them to open up. His observation was that meetings across a desk were rather formal and contrived ( as are so many things in office life) whereas chatting whilst looking at a moving ball ( rather than each other) allowed people to relax. This probably goes against all accepted HR practice in how to conduct sensitive interviews but sometimes the less direct approach works.
Walk on the wild side - By the same token Professor Eric Anderson, noted that desk treadmills, particularly when used by management allowed staff to view their bosses in a more human manner. He explains it best in this video interview but distilled it to the fact that wearing trainers, pacing away with the motor running is immediately disarming to anyone walking into their office and presents more of a fun, approachable scene. Quite the opposite of the usual slightly oppressive way manager/staff relations are conducted.
Headspace- not strictly related to social interactions but under the remit of how your brain functions differently when moving but we have had many customers advise on how seemingly intractable problems can be solved when on your feet. Going for a walk around the building and chatting about something unrelated often allows you to come back to your desk to find the answer presenting itself which up to that point has proved so elusive.
Vision Thing - one of the comments in the study is that people felt more visible when standing. This is true whether in a meeting or working back at your desk. In an open plan office where everyone else is seated, not only you but your screen are more visible. For the employer this is good, for the employee it's good and bad depending on viewpoint. Any non-work related browsing or antics has to go else it is visible for all to see thus enforcing a more job centered mindset. From the employee’s perspective this may be 'good' as they may actually welcome the enforced push to become more conscientious ( or at least appear to be)
Bright Sparks - featured in the Independent although I'll not link to it here is an interesting company who initiated a "No sitting" policy for reasons I did not fully appreciate at the time. Health benefits were secondary ( actually, I don’t think they were a consideration at all), as the owner set about removing chairs in order for his sales staff to pace and move whilst wearing phone headsets. He wanted his sales team to sound more engaged and energetic. It worked. Sales rose and after the initial grumblings, staff accepted this new mode of working. Probably more extreme than we would advocate but effective nonetheless.
Fifty years of desktop computing has enforced a sitting culture which has brought with it many nuanced behaviours that have now become the social norm. Given the two million years prior to this where we were doing our best work on our feet ( hunting, avoiding danger, navigating) and only sat to relax and switch off, it's only natural that we find we operate better standing up and on the move. Thinking, creating, interacting are all enhanced if we make that initial slightly challenging initial move. Once we are all up collectively and being on your feet is the default working position we all stand to benefit.