If you learned that you could increase your productivity by almost 50% by making one near-effortless change, you'd probably try it. But at what point would you question whether the advice was too good to be true?
A recent study from Texas A&M University found that employees who used sit-stand desks were 46% more productive than those at traditional desks. Major news media ran with the eye-catching stat, and readers gobbled up the information, believing they, too, could be wildly more productive if only they had the right desk. Who wouldn't want to be more productive by putting in so little extra effort?
Unfortunately, the research was far from a slam dunk, as Dr. Jack P. Callaghan, a professor at the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo, explained. "There was no randomization of the workers," he said, "and there were no historical performance data as baseline."
The study was about a very specific group of people, call-center employees, and the employees who had adjustable height desks were all newer employees with only a few weeks of experience on the job. Additionally, they only took calls from new clients, whereas the more experienced employees who were seated only took calls from existing clients. The sitters, on average, successfully resolved 0.57 calls per hour, whereas the employees who had the option to stand resolved 1.26 calls per hour, but the nature of the calls were totally different.
Knowing the details of the study casts a very different light on the validity of the findings and how applicable they are to other kinds of knowledge workers, but what does other research reveal?
There is no current consensus on sit-stand desks and productivity. Callaghan and a coauthor analyzed eight studies that looked at whether adjustable height desks affect productivity. Three of the studies showed an increase in productivity, four of them showed no effect at all, and one reported mixed results.
An even more recent review of studies from this year found that sit-stand desks had "no considerable effect" on performance. They also didn't significantly affect the amount of sick time employees took, which is often included in productivity measures.
"My own stance right now is that the implementation (of standing desks) tends to be neutral when it comes to productivity," Callaghan said. "If there are changes, they do tend to be marginal, certainly not the 50% type of change reported in the [Texas A&M] paper."
Adjustable height workstations do have some benefits, although they have little to do with productivity, according to Lucas J. Carr, assistant professor in the Department of Health & Human Physiology at the University of Iowa. Both standing and taking breaks from sitting are beneficial for your physical health. "Standing increases caloric expenditure by about 30% over sitting," he said, while "taking regular breaks from sitting (altering posture, standing up, stretching, etc.) has been shown to reduce musculoskeletal discomfort, reduce fatigue and stiffness, and increase blood flow."
But, Carr noted, more standing is not necessarily better. "Standing for prolonged periods of time has its own problems, including increased joint pain, swelling, restricted blood flow, stiffness, and fatigue," he said. In other words, we have to find the right balance of both sitting and standing, and we're still not talking about increasing productivity at all.
Sit-stand desks might not directly benefit a worker's productivity, but they could have an indirect effect, according to Dr. Laura Hamill, chief people officer at the corporate health and wellness organization Limeade.
"When employees feel their employer cares about their well-being, they're 38% more engaged at work. Providing flexible work stations—whether they are individual desks, group pods, collaborative tables, yoga balls, treadmills, bikes, or sit-stand desks—is one clear way organizations can demonstrate that they support their employee's well-being," Hamill said.
John Carew is president and CEO of Karēlia Health, another corporate health and wellness company. He agrees that providing an employee with a sit-stand desk is largely about supporting the individual. "It allows you to help your people," he said. "People who come to me and say, 'I want that.' Sure, no problem."
When asked whether organizations tend to want to roll out adjustable height workstations to all their employees, lured by the supposed benefits, Carew said, "It doesn't come up that much. It's not like people are looking to buy 250 of them and include them in their overall wellness plan. We're not seeing that."
Part of the reason is that adjustable height workstations are expensive. The most basic models that are sturdy enough to support real equipment start at around $400. A top-of-the-line model, however, can go for close to $3,000, which is not exactly cost effective for a whole office.
That said, Carew does have a sit-stand desk in his own office, and he loves it. "I don't think there's a good, a bad, and an ugly about sit-stand desks. I think there's a certain appeal. I have one. I've had it since January. It's the best thing ever, personally," he said. As a marathon runner, Carew appreciates being able to stretch his back throughout the day. "Having the option to stand has made a tremendous difference."
Sit-stand desks might make workers happier. They could even ease some of the pains associated with sitting for extended periods of time. But they aren't going to magically make anyone more productive.
Jill Duffy is a writer covering technology and productivity. She is the author of Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life.