The Take

How to make the 'active office' far more attractive

How to make the 'active office' far more attractive

Posting in Design | From Issue 21 June 30, 2014

A lot of big ideas like exercise-ball chairs and treadmill desks have already fallen flat. But new ideas at the recent NeoCon office furniture fair in Chicago suggest a renaissance of style.

The so-called "active office" is a full-fledged wellness trend, being adopted by corporations and design firms alike. It's an antidote to the recent meme, "Sitting is the new smoking." And it was the fastest-growing category of workplace furnishings seen at the recent NeoCon fair in Chicago.

Yet the active office still isn't a very attractive office. In fact, this relatively new design trend needs remedial design help from our best architects, industrial designers and interior designers.

Active-office furniture concepts -- like standing desks, treadmill desks, leaning stools and exercise ball chairs -- tend to look more like hospital equipment or server room racks rather than the comfy, inviting workstations and lounge furnishings that the best offices now offer.

Yet the active office worker's amenities are smarter and more ergonomically sophisticated than ever. At NeoCon, my fave was a cute desk that gives you a nudge -- quite literally -- when it's time to stand up for a while. The bump is meant to get workers to stand, giving respite to back and neck while boosting circulation and burning some calories. It also tones muscles and improves posture, say the maker.

The gadgety app by the Pasadena, Calif.-based company Stir is a bit of a faddish item, as is the FitBit activity tracker to which it syncs. The CEO is an ex-Apple engineer, which explains why it's at least one of the best-looking sit/stand desks on the market, too.

The term "active office" implies a few things. One, that workers move their bodies more during the day. Two, that they have better occupational ergonomics and postures. Three, that wellness expands from health care to an interest in policies and company activities that help people live longer.

For items one and three, success depends on self-motivation or organizational support (or edict). Unfortunately, many of today's furniture companies are jostling to sell poorly conceived, first-generation active office products that don't always work and that mostly look, well, unprofessional.

The active office implies a new kind of office and desk -- upright or standing, as they are called. (I personally prefer "upstanding desks.") New desks are adjustable by German cranks or electronic controls, such as Telescope, a height-adjustable benching system that is part of Knoll's mod Antenna line.

But not all have such distinguished credentials as Knoll.

Hundreds of companies are hawking height-adjusting products, from cheapo versions like those from startup StandDesk or from online makers and stores, like ErgoDepot. Some companies focus on finish materials to dress up otherwise dull products, like NextDesk's Terra, which is topped in "genuine, solid bamboo."

Many of these companies also want to sell you their chairs, stools and treadmills to go with the standing desks. There are thousands out there, and prices vary widely.

Of the systems I saw at NeoCon in Chicago, many are under-designed or seemingly undesigned. The UpDesk UpWrite is an example as is the dangerous looking Varidesk, which elevates the computer monitor only, and sits on a potentially finger-crunching, scissorlike lift. The Ergotron Worklift series and Ergo Desktop's Kangaroo all look like pieces of gym equipment for a Wall Street trader.

The dearth of great ideas has left for DIY-minded worker-bees building their own standing desks. The fact is, this is a category crying out for design leadership.

At least one promising direction is busting the presumed boundaries of office furniture design, however. The protagonist is Martin Keen, the founder of Keen footwear. He unveiled his Locus Workstation in 2012, and it was the real tipping point to an idea of "body-conscious design" -- a story that Reena Jana broke in SmartPlanet.

Keen's designs look radical. Yet behind them is a close affinity with ergonomics and health experts around the world, such as Dr. Galen Cranz, author of The Chair: Rethinking Culture Body and Design, and a pioneer in the field of body conscious design, as well as "inactivity researcher" Marc Hamilton, a professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., who has pioneered the unlikely field of inactivity physiology.

Inspired by these studies, Keen was at work on new shoe designs in his barn studio when he pulled an old tractor seat up to his drafting table, and found it more comfortable than any of the purpose-built seating he owned. This led to his first innovation, the upright Locus Seat: tilted forward, this stool-ish seat creates "the perfect balance between standing and sitting," Keen explains.

The Keen products look unlike anything we've seen before. They offer a stripped-down, space-age aesthetic that combines health, functionality and efficiency. Many users call them beautiful.

That's not the only reason these upright desks or standing stools rise to the level of one of the most important design innovations in a generation.

For one thing, there's this statistic: "For people who sit most of the day, their risk of heart attack is about the same as smoking," says Martha Grogan, cardiologist, Mayo Clinic. And a 2008 study by Vanderbilt University of 6,300 people showed that average American spends 55 percent of his or her waking time sitting (or driving or such). That's 7 hours and 42 minutes per day. A 2010 study by American Cancer Society adds that women who sit for more than 6 hours a day are 94 percent more likely to die than those more active, sitting less than 3 hours per day.

The proof of "sitting disease" is mounting, and designers who can address this through workplace and furniture design will be addressing a global pandemic.

A meta-study by the journal Diabetologia covering some 800,000 subjects,confirms that those who spend the most time sitting have a greater risk of getting diabetes (112 percent) or heart problems (147 percent) and are almost 50 percent more likely to die from all causes.

Plus most people who spend their days in offices are ready for better ways to work. An Ipsos study calculated that about two-thirds of U.S. workers "wished they had desks that allowed both sitting and standing."

High-tech companies have been among the fastest adopters: Written into its employee-wellness benefits, Google will provide standing desks to those employees who want them. More than 250 employees at Facebook used them as of last year. "I don't get the 3 o'clock slump anymore, I feel active all day long," a Facebook HR executive told the Wall Street Journal.

Now some corporate wellness programs at larger, traditional companies are starting pilots using standing desks. The Chicago Tribune has reported that "hundreds of companies, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Google, offer employees standing and treadmill desk options." This is also the case at government agencies like the FBI and NIH, as well as healthcare providers like Mayo Clinic.

The real barrier to adoption today is not user resistance or lack of proven benefits. It's that a lot of big ideas in "active officing" have failed, such as exercise-ball chairs or the "active footrests" like Webble. (Try a treadmill desk, if you dare -- these things make work of all kinds impossible.) And this burgeoning market promises more high-profile failures, too.

But let's resist the tendency to assume those failures will send us backwards in ergonomics, productivity and design prowess. Standing desks have been around since the 18th and 19th centuries, and BBC News has noted that Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf and Oscar Hammerstein II all used them.

The standing desk is an upstanding idea. It's in your healthy future, if you choose it.

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C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure