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How You Sit Could Affect Your Career

Why your workspace can do more than help your health

By Amy Knapp

If you've been at your job for awhile or have been meaning to move up the ladder, now might be the time to change your desk set-up. The right workspace just could boost your career.

Many offices these days offer standing desks and open floor plans — accommodations which offer a variety of benefits.

Although standing desks are often linked to better health, a recent article from The Science of Us noted that standing desks can also be beneficial to spreading your ideas to the right people. And open floor plans — work stations in an open room as opposed to enclosed, private offices — can help build a fun, friendly environment which helps cultivate relationships and productivity.

If this is true, why do most organizations seem to be stuck with a sea of cubicles with desks to sit at?

The Open Floor Plan Workspace

Open floor plans are nothing new. In fact, the “sea of cubicles" that most see as the opposite of an open floor plan is an older, outdated version of an open floor plan. Early workspaces placed staffers in rows of desks or at factory-style long tables, but in the 1950s a German company, Quickborner, developed the “office landscape” idea. This new landscape consisted of traditional desks mixed with curved screens and plants to help create work groups. Eventually, office furniture companies picked up on this idea and created what we know as cubicles, which are small secluded desks and chairs surrounded by a screen for privacy (and which Dilbert mercilessly, jokingly attacks.)

In the past several years, companies have experimented with a variety of floor plans, noting that employees could benefit and become more productive with a different style of space. For example, cutting-edge companies like Google and Pixar chose open office plans to help with idea sharing, creativity and productivity.

Citing a Harvard Business School research study,  Bloomberg reported that the denser an area is with people that are more productive, the better it was for those who worked nearby (within a radius of two feet). The converse also held true for people identified as "toxic" or unproductive employees and their nearby counterparts — the closer people were to these people, the less productive they were. Office landscape can play a huge role in workers' productivity.

Conflicting Data on Open Floor Plans

Not everyone is keen on redesigning their offices in this way, though. Employees sometimes see open layouts as just a means for companies to save money because fewer traditional workspaces are a savings. And that might be true in some cases.

One review in the International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology found that open floor plans actually can hurt attention spans, productivity and creativity — the very thing the plan is supposed to promote.

However, it might all be how the open office plan is executed.

While some offices create “work stations” where everyone sits together at one long table, others (like at Next Avenue's main newsroom at Twin Cities PBS) provide breakout or "huddle" rooms and even a study room pumped with pink noise to help employees focus if it gets too loud in their designated workspace. (And maybe I'm biased, but this design seems to work for us. We are able to continuously collaborate without the barriers of traditional cubicles.)

What About Standing Desks?

My workspace also has large, spacious cubicles with glass on the top third of the walls to help employees see out, as well as see their co-workers. We also are offered the option of a standing desk — the new wave of office design. The health benefits of standing desks are well-known. Next Avenue has previously reported that the cumulative impact of sitting over years can lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even certain kinds of cancer.

But new research also shows that standing desks create a work communication benefit. It’s called the “bar height factor.”

The Bar Height Factor


In the Science of Us article, the writer quoted Daniel Krivens, lead designer at Krivens Partners, who pointed out how bars and pubs have a counter with stools at the same height as a standing person. Everyone is at eye level with one another, which helps people strike up conversations.

Krivens noted that in an office, the difference between someone who is standing versus someone who is sitting is 12 inches, making it harder for a standing person to ignore a coworker passing by. Essentially, it’s almost impossible for someone to not say Hello to a passerby when eye to eye.

Since so many of us have a tendency to put our heads down and close up communication to get our work done, it would seem that a standing desk might pull us out of our cocoons.

Why Your Career Could Benefit

A recent paper published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior notes that “when employees are afforded opportunities to socialize with one another, higher-quality relationships are more likely to develop, which can open the door for the exchange of ideas.”

In other words, the incidental conversations that can happen as a result of a standing desk are important not only because they contribute to a friendly work culture, but because they also offer the opportunity to spread ideas around more easily.

In another study, the researchers said when employees are better connected at work, the organization becomes more innovative. Why? Because community at work creates a space for those to share their ideas and in turn, get feedback from their coworkers. This is a way for your ideas to get to the top, instead of stalling out on your desk.

Many well-known companies have adopted the standing desk model, including Mary Kay, The Container Store and American Airlines.

Researchers at Texas A&M University conducted a study finding that employees provided with stand-capable workstations were 46 percent more productive than those who had a traditional desk.

There's no guarantee that a standing desk in an open floor plan will make you more successful. But if you are given the opportunity to make the switch, consider how it could change the future of your career.

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Amy Knapp was formerly the associate digital editor for Next Avenue. She previously was an editor for InnoVision Health Media's consumer publicationNatural Solutions Magazine.   Read More
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