In recent years, as employers have fought double-digit increases in health premiums while trying to squeeze maximum productivity out of their workers, a hot trend in office decor has given new meaning to the term “multitasking.” So-called kinetic office furniture—standing desks and treadmill desks—lets workers burn calories while performing sedentary activities.
Kinetic furniture is showing up in more workplaces as employers buy into evidence that sedentary work is bad for workers’ health and their output. In some Silicon Valley firms, kinetic furniture has achieved iconic status, signifying the type of techie who refuses to plop down on a Goodwill sofa amid empty Skittles packages to write code.
Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill famously used stand-up desks. Thomas Jefferson designed one of his own, convinced that standing while working made him more productive.
Ergonomics experts aren’t so sure. A recent study suggests that increased activity does not necessarily lead to heightened productivity. In fact, there appears to be a trade-off that employers should factor into any decision to purchase kinetic office furniture—especially considering that even basic models cost $1,500 or more.
The study focused on treadmill desks, which feature a conventional computer monitor and keyboard instead of the digital biometric display usually found on exercise treadmills. In the study, workers walking at a slow rate on the treadmill were asked to type words that appeared on the screen before them. A control group sitting at regular desks performed the same task. The treadmill walkers made more mistakes and typed more slowly than the control group.
Researchers also gave the workers cognitive tasks to perform while walking, trying to memorize a series of words and perform math problems. The seated workers outscored the walkers even more significantly on these tests.
Study critics have noted that cognition usually improves after exercise, not necessarily during. Still, it appears that employers should perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether treadmill desks are a step in the right direction.