Aubergine

South Korean businesses adopt ‘standing desks’

August 19, 2014

To improve efficiency, health

By Park Jin-hai, Yoon Sung-won

Employees at local IT firm Kakao work on their height-adjustable desks at its headquarters in Pangyo Techno Valley, Bundang, Gyeonggi Province. More people are opting to work on their feet, as the benefits of standing-desks at workplaces gain recognition. (Courtesy of Kakao)

Employees at local IT firm Kakao work on their height-adjustable desks at its headquarters in Pangyo Techno Valley, Bundang, Gyeonggi Province. More people are opting to work on their feet, as the benefits of standing-desks at workplaces gain recognition. (Courtesy of Kakao)

Kakao, which provides South Korea’s most popular mobile instant messenger application service, is encouraging its employees to work in a standing position. Evidence suggests this might help people concentrate at work and improve their health.

“The presence of more standing desks in the office encouraged employees to stand up during team meetings,” said Linsey Hwang, a Kakao employee. “We found that meetings didn’t take as long, and this improved efficiency.”

Since a small number of the company’s software developers began stacking boxes on their desks to raise their monitors to eye level while they were standing, the “standing desk” has taken off. Now many employees work at specially designed desks so that they can stand at work.

“I visited a doctor for back pain one day,” Hwang said. “He warned that I was in danger of [harming my spine] if I continued to work in a sedentary position. So I ordered a standing desk like my colleagues. As a result, my back pain was gone within a week. As a bonus, it is much easier to concentrate on my work.”

Although the health hazards of working long hours seated in front of monitors are widely known, until recently the idea of working in a standing position did not make sense to most Koreans. Standing at tables in cafes and bars, a popular practice in the United States and other countries to save space, is still regarded as foreign here.

This is slowly changing as more local companies adopt standing desks and encourage employees to work standing up, a practice that first caught on in Silicon Valley IT companies such as Google and Facebook as early as 2011.

Kakao informed its employees last year that it would provide a standing desk to anyone who wanted one. Now more than 150 employees, one-fifth of Kakao’s total work force, use these standing desks, and more than 40 others are on the waiting list, according to the company.

Amore Pacific, the nation’s top cosmetics company, also lets employees do part of their work standing. The company’s design research division cleared out a meeting room, removing all the chairs, so employees could stand during meetings.

LG Electronics’ software development team took the health warnings a step further beginning in 2012, and now installs treadmills under its tall desks.

Improved work efficiency, health benefits

An Amore Pacific manager says standing at a desk improves work efficiency.

“During team meetings, some participants used to get distracted easily after a while,” the manager said. “When we meet at standing desks, we find that people concentrate better on the subject at hand.”

An LG Electronics researcher agrees.

“It is easy for many researchers to be indolent and distracted after sitting for a long time looking at figures and graphs on a screen,” he said. “That [indolence] disappears when we stand up from time to time.

“On top of that, it facilitates free discussion between employees. Without partitions separating them and blocking their view, colleagues feel at ease about coming over and exchanging ideas.”

He added that it was also very useful to have two researchers share a monitor when they worked together on projects.

A recent U.S. study, conducted by Andrew Knight and Markus Baer, organizational behavior professors at Washington University’s Olin Business School in Missouri, supports the view that standing desks increase concentration.

In their paper “Get Up, Stand Up: The Effects of a Non-Sedentary Workspace on Information Elaboration and Group Performance,” published online in June, they said standing meetings increased enthusiasm for creative group processes and reduced people’s tendencies to defend their turf.

Some offices that have adopted standing work environments in Korea also report good results.

A Lotte Premium Outlet regional office in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, has created makeshift standing desks by using pieces of wood to elevate regular desks. The change took place in March at the suggestion of an employee.

Lee Deok-hyeong, an employee at Lotte’s Gimhae outlet, says he is happy about the switch.

“I lost 5 kilograms in just five months,” he said. “People say that my complexion also has gotten better.”

According to a 2010 American Cancer Society study, women who sat more than six hours a day were 37 percent more likely to die prematurely than women who sat for less than three hours, while the early death rate for men was 18 percent higher.

“Sitting in front of a monitor all day, moving one’s body as little as possible, increases pressure on the spine,” said Yeom Seung-chul, a doctor who works in the spine clinic at the Jaseng Hospital of Korean Medicine. “In contrast, working while standing upright lowers the pressure, corrects posture and reduces the risk of developing spinal injuries such as slipped disks.”

As a result of the trend, companies manufacturing taller desks have recently enjoyed increased sales.

Local manufacturer Eggstar Furniture started producing height-adjustable desks five years ago.

“There was no significant market response until recently,” said an employee. “Now we receive calls asking for our products. The downside is that since the market is in its infancy and height-adjustable desks are not mass-produced, they are a bit pricy. They range between 1 million won and 3 million won.”

Aware of the demand for taller desks in Korea, the U.S. ergonomic furniture manufacturer Humanscale, which supplied some 800 standing desks to Google, opened an office in Korea last year.

The right way to do it

Despite the benefits of standing desks, experts do not recommend standing all day long at work. Instead, they suggest alternating between standing and sitting ― for instance, 40 to 50 minutes of standing and 10 minutes of sitting.

“Holding one posture for a long time is a problem,” said Park Si-young, an orthopedist at Korea University Anam Hospital. He warns that varicose veins can result either from standing for too long or from sitting too long.

Yeom also advises caution about standing desks, saying it is important to move around from time to time and avoid staying in any one position for too long.

He recommends alternately standing on one leg and then the other.

“As the center of gravity moves from one leg to another, it helps your spine remain balanced,” he said.

3 Comments

  1. Emma Harris

    August 19, 2014 at 2:24 PM

    Way to go Korea! It’s great that more and more places are starting to see the benefits of working standing up. It’s not easy at the start, really, but it takes some practice to really feel comfortable with working in this manner. And just think of all the benefits you will get from it! Work much healthier now and get one of these http://tinyurl.com/p5jovp9.

  2. James Moore

    August 19, 2014 at 9:24 PM

    If you don’t want to spend a fortune, you can buy something that turns any desk or table into a standing desk http://zestdesk.com/

  3. Eunice Kim

    September 13, 2014 at 7:16 PM

    This is a great idea. I love the concept!

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