Office Furniture Selection: The Pros and Cons of Traditional and Standing Desks

Look around. Someone in your office -- maybe even you -- is probably taking care of business at some type of standing desk. Is it just a fad, or is the...

Office Desks

Look around. Someone in your office — maybe even you — is probably taking care of business at some type of standing desk. Is it just a fad, or is the traditional desk going the way of the telex machine? Let's get beyond the hype and take a quick look at the pros and cons of each kind of desk, plus factors to consider when buying.

Traditional Desks

"A seated position is convenient to our business life, but the hours working hunched over at a desk distort how our bodies were designed to carry our weight," says Chapel Hill, NC real estate broker Mark Zimmerman of RE/MAX Winning Edge. And studies show that sitting for long periods is a problem, contributing to muscle stiffness or back pain, and more serious disorders like heart disease and diabetes. Wow!

But there are benefits. "Sitting allows us to rest after, and recover from, strenuous bouts of physical activity," explains Carrie Schmitz, research ergonomist with Ergotron in St. Paul,MN. "Especially when we're sitting in an ergonomically correct position, we expend less energy and minimize stress to the body." Sitting is also very important for women who are pregnant, people with varicose veins, and those with certain injuries.

Zimmerman takes some of the sting out of sitting by choosing a top-notch ergonomic desk chair that provides support and comfort. "A foundation of proper posture corrects or prevents a host of health issues, starting with back and neck pain," he says. A properly designed chair provides enough room to allow for shifting back and forth or side to side and stretching your legs.

Pro tip: Select a chair that has lots of adjustability in terms of seat and arm height, and back and seat tilt. Most of us are surprised at how far forward we need to tilt the seat to bring our posture into alignment. Make sure the chair arms move to a height that places your arms at a 90-degree angle to the keyboard. Don't have the budget for a standing computer desk or new chair? Buy an angled seat pad and/or lumbar support to retrofit your current chair.

Standing Desks

Mike Maxwell, senior creative manager at New Generation Fundraising in Larkspur, CA, shifted to a standing computer desk after having trouble with his back and noticing stiffness in his legs after prolonged sitting.

"Even though I'm standing for long periods of time, I feel more energized now," he says. "Immediately after I made the switch, I noticed an increase in focus, tackling writing challenges more quickly. If I hit a wall on a project, I walk around my office a little, do mini push-ups off the desk or stretch one leg on my desk, and that gets my blood moving. It's not even intentional; I just find myself doing it. I'm far less likely to move around if I'm sitting in a chair. That requires a conscious decision to get up, take a walk or do a few exercises." Added bonus: Standing burns more calories than sitting — 147/hour versus 110.

But there are cons. If your posture's off, you might as well be sitting, because you'll cause all kinds of soreness, stiffness and pressure since your spine's out of alignment. And if you wear uncomfortable shoes, you're also likely to spur foot and back pain. That's why many proponents suggest standing shoeless on a gel-filled floor mat, but that might not work in a formal business setting.

Pro tip: Choose an adjustable standing desk that allows you to stand in a neutral posture with your computermonitor between 20 and 28 inches from your eyes and tilted to avoid glare. You should be able to read your screen by looking straight ahead or slightly down. Elbows should be at a 90-degree angle. If you use a laptop, pick up an external keyboard and mouse to keep your posture and arms appropriately positioned.

The Best of Both

Rather than choosing one or the other, experts say there are benefits from both sitting and standing. "We can find balance for ourselves by changing positions frequently from sitting to standing," Schmitz notes. "The ideal situation is to sit for 20 minutes, then stand for 20 minutes, and after 2 hours take a 15-minute break. This is closer to the natural rhythm of human physical activity."

Or, if you have a lot of space, you can have both a traditional desk and a standing one (or, heck, even a treadmill desk!). But most of us don't have workspaces palatial enough to accommodate two work surfaces. That's where adjustable computer workstation and wall-mount systems make sense.

These options enable you to work on the same surface from both a sitting and standing position, so you can easily switch every 20 minutes. Though sometimes pricier than a standard desk, adjustables can increase productivity and lower absences stemming from injury and pain. Those gains outweigh the additional dollars spent on furniture.

Pro tip: Choose a solution that adjusts to exactly the right height for you in both standing and sitting positions. Look for at least two "tiers" (one for monitor, one for keyboard) to ensure proper ergonomics and injury prevention. Check that the width and depth allow for the appropriate distance between your face and your screen, and provide enough room for papers, desktop organizers and accessories.

Use these tips to select the right desk options for you and your team.