The Hong Kong pioneers who work at their desks standing up
Interior design consultant Henning Voss has desks where he can sit and stand in both his offices, one with a treadmill; Amy Tsang rigged up hers using the box her Mac came in. Both have embraced 'active working', and say more of us should get off our rear ends
Years beyond counting ago, my friend Graeme Baldwin stood up. Not seismically eventful, you might think: but we were midway through a maths O-Level exam. Bemused and amused glances zipped around the examination hall, but Baldwin, concentration evidently fierce, remained oblivious. And remained standing. He passed the exam, by the way.
No witnesses knew it, but Baldwin was way ahead of today's thinking on the subjects of ergonomics and desk-bound working practices. Standing while working, it seems, brings a host of benefits denied us when we take a seat - and that's the view of swelling numbers of expert commentators.
Some belong to British organisation Active Working, which calls itself "a partnership of workplace experts" aiming to show employers "the optimum active working solution". Others are part of government body Public Health England, whose remit is to "protect and improve the nation's health". An advisory panel recently convened by both authorities recommended immediate action to promote a daily two hours of work done while standing.
As Active Working director Gavin Bradley told The Washington Post: "However you do it, the point is to get off your rear end," with simple-to-introduce changes including "taking your calls standing. Walking around. Holding standing meetings. Walking meetings. Walking to a colleague's desk instead of sending an email. Using the stairs instead of the lift."
In an increasingly sedentary world of office work, computer games and television, Active Working also advocates a switch to sit-stand or standing desks. And Hong Kong has not been slow to embrace the associated benefits. One enthusiastic convert is German native Henning Voss, by weekday a sales and marketing regional director, by weekend and evening the power behind Vivid Living, which he calls, "an interior design consultancy and property developer focusing on creating healthy living spaces".
In home or office, the company aims to create the healthiest possible environment, says Voss, a mandate that embraces air and water purification, sustainable building materials, mood lighting, ergonomic design and more, including standing desks. In the workplace at least though, employers are likely to be interested in little but the bottom line - a problem that fails to derail Voss.
"Employers have to rethink and treat healthy workplace design as an investment, not a cost," he says. "Healthy design and stand-up desks boost productivity, reduce absenteeism and medical claims, enhance employee morale and improve the corporate image. Once employers see the benefits and understand the importance of healthy design, stand-up desks will become normal. Denmark, for example, has realised the advantages and has made it compulsory for employers to offer sit-stand desks."
Should dire warnings be required, Voss is ready: "It's proven that sitting is bad for you - our bodies are not designed to sit for long periods. Apart from problems such as bad posture and back and joint pain, limited lung capacity, blockages of arteries and slow brain activity, sitting for too long has been linked to certain cancers and heart disease and can contribute to diabetes and kidney and liver problems."
Bizarre though it may sound, some standing desks build in exercise equipment. They need not be extravagantly priced models from bespoke designer furniture shops either, if the ersatz bicycle or treadmill desks peppering the internet offer any guide. "My two offices have standing desks," says Voss. "The Vivid Living show flat features a treadmill desk. Working while standing is tiring at first but if you gradually increase the time you stand it soon feels natural - and it's great for battling the after-lunch slump.
"Treadmill desks are good for losing weight. Walking on one at two to four kilometres an hour I find natural, but design work on a treadmill desk is difficult - anything where you have to arrange images and adjust text boxes. Replying to emails or surfing the net is no problem. I can concentrate better and feel much more energetic after working at a stand-up desk."
Amy Tsang of Sai Kung echoes Voss' sentiments. Feeling increasingly unfit thanks to sitting at her desk for 12 hours daily, she rigged up her own standing zone by using the box her Mac desktop came in, placed on her regular desk, as a platform. "It's a temporary set-up in case it doesn't agree with me," she says, adding that she will consider an adjustable desk should the benefits become apparent.
"I've now worked standing for six hours a day for two months and use a Magic Trackpad, which is perfect. You can have an expensive, bells-and-whistles desk or a basic one; either way it must burn more calories than sitting for 12 hours. I felt like a lard arse."