The Most Important Change We Could Make To The Workplace
This post was first published on my business blog, which I’m closing down now that I’ve retired, so I’m archiving some of the better posts to this blog.
I work in end-user computing and we are pretty focused on improving personal productivity, mobile working and collaboration, but the irony is that for all the buzz about mobile working our users spend most of their time sitting down and it’s not good for them. For background I’ve linked to a good summary article, from which the following quotes are drawn:
Over 50 percent of American men, and 60 percent of American women, never engage in any vigorous physical activity lasting more than 10 minutes per week. This despite a growing body of research clearly showing that "exercise deficiency" threatens your overall health and mental well-being, and shortens your lifespan.
This isn’t an issue that employers can ignore, because unfortunately leisure exercise doesn’t really mitigate sitting down all day at work:
This study also confirms the alarming findings of earlier ones, which is that a regular fitness routine does NOT counteract the effects of prolonged sitting. The study—which followed more than 82,000 men for 10 years—found that these risk correlations held true no matter how much they exercised!
This got me thinking that if there’s one thing we could do that would improve the happiness, welfare and productivity of the ‘people we serve’ it would be to make them more effective while not sitting. It seems to me that this wouldn’t require everything we know about the office to be transformed, but instead would need lots of small innovations.
The key is to make sure you move your body frequently throughout the day. The act of standing up from a seated position has been found particularly effective at counteracting the detrimental health effects of sitting. I firmly believe that a reasonable goal is to get up four times every hour or every 15 minutes while you are sitting. Once you are engaged in a project, it is really difficult to remember to do this so an alarm might be helpful
In order to work while not sitting we would have to eliminate lots of little annoyances and blockers that currently get in the way of moving and working, here are some that spring to mind:
- Culture, the culture of most offices currently values conformity and that means it values sitting
- Noise, generally moving involves making more noise, whether it’s the whir of the treadmill or the exercise bike, or the heavy breathing
- Efficiency, a well designed workstation can be highly productive, it’s going to he hard to replace it, so working while moving would need to identify specific tasks that can be done effectively in a non-traditional way
- Cost, most companies partition up their costs into buckets that make holistic thinking difficult, for example the facilities departments budget doesn’t include the costs of people going off sick, or the benefits of increasing innovation
- Standards, changing offices to facilitate movement is inevitably going to increase variety and facilities departments hate variety, they dream of rows is standard desks, positioned in such a way as to maximise density. Having a mix of standing desktops, cycling desks and traditional desks seriously messes with the standards.
Then there’s identifying work activities that could be adapted to increase movement, these might include:
- Desk working
- Lunch and ‘coffee’ breaks
So practically then what are some of the things that we as an IT company might do:
- We provide standard sets of applications on all of the PCs that we supply to our users, this standard software could include timers for scheduling breaks and apps that provide suggested exercises that people can do at their desks. Example applications include RSI Guard
- We could improve peoples productivity while exercising by providing them with audiobook players/podcast players that have the ability to easily record thoughts/take voice notes while exercising. This means for example that while walking I would be able to double click the headphone button and record a voice note. The audio note and the title of the book it’s associated with could them be emailed to me. As an added bonus the company might publish suggested books and podcasts, including for example company meetings and training
- We could design a dictation application for smartphones to be used in walking meetings. This app might automatically associate any voice notes made during the meeting with the meeting description and attendees. The audio notes could be transcribed automatically and all participants could receive a copy of the audio and transcription after the meeting. The meeting dictation app could have buttons for specific voice note types, for example tapping the ACTION button would allow a recording to be made and associated with a particular attendee, other buttons might allow a deadline to be quickly set.
- Wireless headsets (along with unified communications software on smartphones) could be provided that allowed conference calls to be attended while walking around the office
- Offices could be arranged with a circuit around the perimeter to allow for all weather walking meetings and walking conference calls, 7/8” tablets could be provided for attendees to see the slides while walking. Benches could be provided every 20 meters or so just in case people needed to stop and think.
- Conference call areas could be designed that included exercise bikes with laptop friendly tables and power supplies built in
- Mini exercise areas could be placed next to toilet blocks and refreshment areas for a quick 5 minutes of high intensity exercise
If we really took seriously the need to set the expectation that people should exercise, provide a supportive culture and the tools and innovation I think we could make a big difference to productivity and health.