Stand Up Time! A Standing Desk in the Office

by Jonathan Baker-Bates

Much has been written about standing desks – from the gushingly positive to the crushingly negative. But following some back pain I’d had at the end of 2015, I thought I’d give it a go. After a little more than a month into the experiment, here’s the story so far.

When I joined Tes in November of 2015, I had a normal desk chair setup. The chairs here are good – not as good as the Aero numbers that cosset your nether regions at some companies I’ve worked at - but nice enough. So I settled in and started working.

A month later I had some lower back pain (diagnosed as a disk problem with L5-S1, lumbar nerds) which also jazzed my sciatic nerve impressively. I don’t think it was brought on by anything I was doing in the office. I’d been doing Tabata squat thrusts two or three times a week for about three years, which may well have begun to take its toll. Who knows. But dude, the pain… like a caffienated leprechaun driving a spear into my left buttock. The pain would then slowly migrate down my leg and back up again. It was bad when I was sitting down. It got even worse when I lay down, so I got no sleep for about two weeks. But it was better when I was standing.

Which gave me an idea. What if I had a standing desk at work? I had one at home, made several years ago from an adjustable Ikea desk. So I was used to standing for relatively long periods already. The osteopath thought it would be OK, but said I might have to expect “other problems” to develop. But if they didn’t involve amphetamine-fueled leprechauns, I was fine with that.

The Plan

One thing you notice about office environments is that they are very, very conservative places. That’s why it’s best not to get a job until you absolutely have to.

So on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is putting a plant on your desk (provokes endless colleague comment, material for jokes at office parties) and 10 is rocking up naked (HR and police instantly involved) - the idea of getting rid of your chair and standing up all day is probably around an 8.

Bolted together

Step one of my plan was therefore to start mentioning the idea to a few people. Just to see how they’d react. By chance, the colleague next to me had been thinking the same thing. So we formed a Standing Desk Pact. We two would stand up together.

Other reactions were rather varied – from the clipped “Excellent, go for it” of our Australian Technical Director, to the detailed doomsday scenarios from those in lower managerial positions. Health and Safety… but sure, it wasn’t like I was suggesting we’d be smoking dope to improve creatitivty (and that’s not the subject of another blog post).

So nobody came up with anything sufficiently show-stopping to prevent me.

Step two was therefore how to do it. Since I didn’t know if I was going to be able to stand while I worked, I wanted to make sure I spent as little money as possible, just in case I had to throw it all away. Some googling clued me to a DIY solution: put an Ikea LAK coffee table (£5.00) on top of my desk, take an Ekby shelf (£9.00), and attach the latter to the legs of the former with 90mm bolts fro the Robert Dias on High Holborn. Bingow!

looking up

Even this seemingly simple recipe was still a little tricky. I needed to make sure the height at which I attached the shelf was OK, otherwise I’d regret it. The bolts needed to be quite long. And there was a surprising amount of thinking to be done about how to drill the holes so that they didn’t make the bolts hit the screws inside the legs that held the table together (which itself is made of cardboard and bits of MDF). I also had to bring a drill in. And drill stuff without a vice. And without making a hole in the floor or freaking out colleagues with drilling noises… But I did it all the same.

Head in the clouds, feet on the floor

At first, it’s hard not to think about your new standing situation. You can see everyone. They can see you. You avoid picking your nose as a consequence.

Your arse is also at other people’s nose level. That sort of thing.

Unlike some people’s accounts of musclo-skeletal hell in the first weeks, I had few physical problem adjusting. My partner in the Pact had had similar standing desk experience at a previous job, so was also reasonably prepared. But without wishing to sound like my grandmother, standing for long periods is not without it’s negative effects. Mine were with my ankles – and specifically swollen ones. So – just like my grandmother – I’ve bought some compression stockings to wear. Nike-toting sports persons wear them too though, so it’s cool in a sort of Michael Jordan kind of way.

I also bought a “fatigue mat” to stand on because the Internets said I should. This actually reduces the fatigue from the soles of my feet more than anything else, but it’s nice. The mat also proved to be the most expensive piece: after reading a few reviews for good ones (fatigue mat porn!), I found myself lusting after a Imprint CumulusPro. But at over £200 in the UK I had to turn to eBay and a US outlet to get it at £50 including postage. Not cheap for a slab of black rubber, but my feet report to me so I’m happy to sign off their expenses.

Talking of expenses, also I booked in a workplace assessment as part of Tes’s office services to see if they had anything to say. After 30 minutes of stern inquisition by a qualified physiotherapist, I was told that standing was only a little better than sitting overall. So I should alternate sitting with standing up and moving about. That sounds sensible to me, so I’m trying to sit down for periods in the day too. And walk about a bit. Flex my calves, engage my core, keep shoulders back and relaxed while wishing I could touch-type better.

Chris at his desk

Should You Do It Too?

This, as marketing droids like to say, is the Net Promoter question. Would I recommend a standing desk to somebody else?

The easy answer is no, because you’d blame me if you ended up in a wheelchair with no ankles or something. But if, like me, your body somehow suggested it of it own accord, then for about £70 all in, there’s only one way of finding out whether it’s for you.

This article is now up on hacker news, feel free to discuss there