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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

March 15, 2014 at 10:22 PM

Sitless in Seattle: Standing desks give workers a leg up

Tableau employees Christina House and Natalie Graham stand at their desks rather than sit. (GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Tableau employees Christina House and Natalie Graham stand at their desks rather than sit. (GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

The office of the future might look a little funny.

Peek over the rows of workstations in the marketing department of Tableau Software in Fremont, and you’ll see dozens of employees leaning into their screens. It’s a crisp, modern office setting that looks like any other.

Except that a good fourth of the workers are standing up.

As part of a series of workplace upgrades, Tableau is replacing every one of its 1,200 employees’ traditional desks with sit-stand adjustable desks that rise to standing height at the push of a button.

It’s not quite true yet, but I’m tempted to predict that standing desks are about to become all the rage. They’ve gone from a home-office hack to a viable workplace option over the past 10 years, thanks to a drumbeat of studies about the dangers of sitting; a do-it-yourself, telecommuting culture that’s grown more flexible and individual; and some good old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

When someone sticks out like a prairie dog in a field of chairs, others are bound to notice.

A handful of friends tell me as many as half the colleagues at their small companies work at standing desks — especially at tech companies. They’re getting easier to spot at Microsoft and Amazon.com, where employees can request one with some paperwork. Lots of Starbucks staffers are working on their feet. And at RealNetworks, more and more employees are taking advantage of the office’s adjustable sit-stand surfaces.

Tableau’s upgrade was a big investment — the result, in part, of an employee survey where 68 percent of respondents said they’d work more effectively if they could work standing up.

Not every Tableau employee who’s received the desk has stood at them, but that wasn’t the point.

“What everyone wants is a choice,” said Vice President Brett Thompson.

When Jerry Seinfeld came to the Paramount Theatre last month, he had a great bit about how life is about moving from one chair to the next. He joked that our bodies have evolved to love the chair — look at that built-in cushion! — which couldn’t be further from the truth. Just ask my neck.

You might want to stand for this next part.

When you stand, your body burns calories staying balanced. When you sit, your body does jack squat. People who sit the most are more than twice as likely to develop heart disease than those who sit the least. Prolonged sitting increases your risk of certain cancers. And in one 2012 study, people who sat more than 11 hours a day had a 40 percent greater chance of dying within the next three years, with a higher mortality risk regardless of gender, age or body mass. (See a handy graphic here.)

But who needs studies when we have pain? Sitting for a long time hurts. It’s all too easy to tense up, slump forward, lose our posture and then our focus, as physical energy drains to zero at the end of a loooong day. We’ve been there. I’ve been there. I’m there a lot.

Each of Tableau’s standing desks attaches a new ConSet height-adjustable electric base to the Allsteel desk surfaces employees already used and adds a foot pad for working feet.

Most standing desks are way more DIY.

Larry Swanson’s first model, in 2006, was his old desk in his Fremont apartment topped with a bongo-drum case and the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. Updates since then have involved refrigerator boxes and the Office Depot file box where his laptop sat while we talked in his downtown office.

A licensed massage practitioner and certified personal trainer, Swanson has been evangelizing about standing desks from the stages of various Seattle tech events. Now he’s working on a book — “Scared Sitless” (ha!) — on the whole subject of office fitness.

Swanson has stood at his desks, exclusively, for three years and is starting to pick coffee shops based on their selection of standing-height counters.

“It started right here” — he patted his massage table — “with all these people coming in like this.” He hunched his shoulders so they looked way too much like mine. Sitting in the chair across from him, I straightened up.

One of Swanson’s converts, a massage client, wasn’t satisfied with the piecemeal standing desk he hacked together at his house. He went Dumpster diving at Swedish Hospital, found a discarded hospital-tray table and made it his new workstation.

Standing-desk madness aside, even Swanson is quick to say that more standing is not the answer itself. What’s most important isn’t not sitting, but periodically moving. It’s much more natural to flex and stretch when you’re on your feet, but standing in place all day won’t beat an occasional stroll around the office.

Your brain will thank you. Moving releases all kinds of mood-enhancing chemicals. Sit for hours, and you’re all but guaranteed to be mad about it.

When I read my husband a half-written version of this column from our downstairs armchair, he grabbed my MacBook Air and set it on our table on top of an old CD storage box and two layers of our son’s baby board books, including “Good Night, Moon” and “A Very Busy Puppy.”

I hate to count the hours I spend sitting down almost as much as I hate to count the hours I spend staring at screens. Too many, clearly.

“Fine,” I groaned, tossing the blanket from my lap and feeling my legs for the first time all night. I walked to the table, picked at the keys and finished this column — for the first time ever — on my feet.

It’s easy to get locked into bad behaviors. Sometimes it’s nice to remember it’s not that hard to step out.

Thanks to all who sounded off on standing desks on Facebook this week!

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Column, Disruption, Habits, People, Seattle

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