Part of what most people like (or dislike) about their jobs is the environment and circumstance in which they work. Many a scientist, police officer, and teacher have been known to say, “I just couldn’t stand sitting at a desk all day!” (All puns intended.) Now a new study finds that standing or sitting may have calculable impact on the performance of those whose business is ‘knowledge work’ — generally, jobs that involve non-routine tasks and creative thinking. Compared to sedentary employees, standing employees who worked together for 30 minutes were slightly more excited and less territorial about their ideas, a team of researchers from Washington University discovered, and in turn this benefitted team performance. One warning: Whether or not you believe these findings to be true will probably depend on whether you believe the experiment itself to be representative of how offices and the employees in them actually work.

Up Close and Personal

Those who have been wage slaves for some time have seen how office space has evolved since the advent of Silicon Valley management practices. Hand in hand with the tech revolution came new ideas about how office space should be arranged with CEOs speaking in guru-like terms about ‘information flows’ throughout an organization and ‘less hierarchical’ office formations. In a nutshell, they advocated arrangements more likely to mimic motherboards rather than bureau drawers. Although academic studies showed how employees working in open-office plan spaces were at increased risk of sickness, the mythology surrounding these popular arrangements was apparently stronger than hard evidence and so architects continue to spin out designs for offices with no walls and, horror of horrors, shared workstations.

The evolution continues and now the newest wave in conceptualizing knowledge work has shifted to a more intimate focus on the very bodies of employees. Are knowledge workers more productive when they are allowed to sit or stand? This has become the question of the hour.

For the current study, the researchers wanted to test a theory about how non-sedentary arrangements influence “interpersonal processes” among employees who commonly develop ideas and solve problems in teams. “We propose that a non-sedentary workspace increases group arousal, while at the same time decreasing group idea territoriality, both of which result in better information elaboration and, indirectly, better group performance,” wrote the authors in their study. To test this hypothesis, the researchers enlisted the help of 214 undergraduate students (average age: 19 and a half) and then assigned them to groups of three to five participants. With sensors to measure electrodermal activity fastened around their wrists, participants in these 54 separate groups worked for 30 minutes to develop and record a university recruitment video.

The experimental manipulation, as designed by the researchers, was the configuration of the room in which groups worked—in the sedentary condition, five office chairs were arranged around a table, while in the non-sedentary condition, the chairs had been removed from the room. Using measures from the sensors, survey responses following the task, and third-party ratings of group interactions, the researchers assessed the effects of sitting versus standing during the task.

What did they discover? Working in a non-sedentary space “marginally increased group arousal, decreased group territorial behavior, and increased information elaboration,” the researchers wrote. Critics, of course, would immediately scoff to think anyone could believe a 30 minute experiment involving students approximates a real-world work experience. Many more comical ideas have become workplace memes — Everyone ready for Karaoke night? — only time will tell what becomes of this one.

Source: Knight AP, Baer M. Get Up, Stand Up The Effects of a Non-Sedentary Workspace on Information Elaboration and Group Performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2014.