Reinventing the Office: How to Lose Fat and Increase Productivity at Work 226 Comments
If you’re a white-collar worker, hacking your body isn’t limited to the gym. In fact, what you do outside of the gym might be more important that what you do inside the gym.
Recent research suggests that those who sit from 9-5 (more than 6 hours daily) and exercise regularly are more likely to have heart disease than those who sit less than 3 hours per day and don’t “exercise” at all. ff Venture Capital, a New York early-stage technology venture capital fund, recently moved into a new NYC location, and they’ve documented their experiments and findings in rethinking the office for physical optimization.
David Teten of ff VC contributed this detailed post, which provides a laundry list of ideas for transforming your office–home-based or otherwise–from a liability into a performance enhancer…
If you have any fantastic tricks you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.
Enter David Teten
When Arnold Schwarzenegger first came to America, he and fellow bodybuilder Franco Columbu worked during the day as bricklayers. Their work was their workout. When they weren’t laying bricks, they were hitting the gym hard and heavy.
Unfortunately, most people aren’t so lucky, and ass-in-chair time has costs:
- As the New York Times recently wrote, sitting kills.
- In a study that tracked over 17,000 Canadians for 12 years, researchers found that people who sat more had a higher risk of death, independent of whether or not they exercised.
- According to a 2003-2004 U.S. survey, Americans spend over half of their time awake sitting.
- In an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researcher Elin Ekblom-Bak found that “after four hours of sitting, the body starts to send harmful signals” that cause the genes regulating glucose and lipose levels in the body to shut down.
A small number of offices across the country have slowly begun to endorse the idea of exercising during work (e.g. walking on a treadmill while doing your job at Mutual of Omaha). Besides the obvious fitness benefits, exercise also increases productivity (according to research done by the Vermont Board of Education — PDF download).
Most surprising of all, remaking the workplace into a healthy, exercise-supportive environment has a cost benefit. Many of the design changes we have implemented cost little or nothing.
Below is a list of the key features of our office. We hope that more companies will embrace this alternative way of working, and ultimately improve the well-being of all their employees.
Every person in our office has a choice of three desk setups:
We use electronically adjustable desks, built from an IKEA top and Workrite frame and legs (ordered through WB Mason). These were the most attractive standing desks we could find at a reasonable price. They move up and down at the push of a button, making it easy to change to a sitting position when needed. For another look at a typical standing desk configuration, click here.
2. Exercise ball ($40) to sit on in lieu of a conventional chair. Exercise balls help build core stability muscles, thereby reducing lower back pain and injury. We particularly like the Trainerball ($35), which has ball exercises printed directly on the ball. We also have yoga ball bases ($11) to prevent the balls from rolling around the office. The cost for this combination is much less than a conventional office chair.
We’re happy to report that, after working in this environment for more than three months, a majority of the people in our office have chosen to use standing desks or exercise ball chairs. Many folks, including myself, periodically switch between the two.
We strongly suggest using a monitor stand ($25). The GTMax stand ($60) supports up to 30 lbs, is fully adjustable up to 22 inches, and allows for desk space usage underneath the monitor. Unfortunately, it’s only strong enough for laptops, not stand-alone monitors. There are countless stands that provide a few inches clearance from the desk, but for anything higher, the only options we’ve found thus far are either not adjustable or not strong enough.
Everyone in the office is offered an ergonomic keyboard. We recommend one of these, in ascending order of distance from a conventional keyboard:
- Kinesis Advantage Keyboard ($269)
- Goldtouch Adjustable Keyboard ($95)
- Datahand ($995)
We also suggest people consider using:
- Hand grippers ($20) for relieving stress and improving grip strength. A tennis ball is a cheaper alternative.
- Wobble boards ($12-$55) for use when at a standing desk. These work out your lower body continuously.
Many of us wear minimalist (a.k.a. ‘ barefoot’) shoes, which have very thin, slipper-like soles. I particularly like Sockwas ($40-$50). The black Sockwas Amphibian is my all-time favorite shoe for both work and weekend wear: it has a minimal sole, is inexpensive, and doesn’t draw unnecessary attention to itself. I also wear Vibram Fivefingers ($83-$92), which look like gecko feet, for training/outdoor activities.
Sergey Brin has appeared at several conferences wearing his Vibram Fivefingers. As the old joke goes, “What’s the difference between ‘crazy’ and ‘eccentric? A few million dollars.”
Of course, we understand that not all offices will be as tolerant of idiosyncratic footwear. When I’m in a fundraising meeting or a more conservative environment, I use my Bally Pakos Lace-up ($500) which have the most comfortable minimal sole of any men’s business shoe we’ve encountered. For women, we suggest VivoBarefoot shoes.
Conference Rooms and Meetings
We considered having a conference room with a standing conference table ($950 on up) and anti-fatigue mats. We’ve seen research that indicates standing meetings run much faster than sitting meetings, and we often have more informal standing meetings at our standing desks, discussing screen-dependent documents and individual projects. In our experience, the standing-only work set up has increased active participation and sharing of ideas.
The Galileo room features many spheres. It has been a favorite among visitors.
When the New York weather allows and when a meeting topic doesn’t require taking extensive notes, we have walking meetings. This is an easy way to integrate more exercise into the day.
Our office has almost no walls; it’s primarily set up in an open-floor layout. The walls that we do have are made of glass, which allow us to write notes on them. This way, we don’t need any whiteboards. We believe the transparent layout helps to create a more transparent culture. If we didn’t have so many writeable glass walls, we’d use IdeaPaint ($50), a new kind of paint that allows any wall to be used as a dry erase board.
Given that social capital correlates with physical health (see Bowling Alone), we want to encourage people in the office to get to know one another. At the front of the office, we’re creating an office map showing the names of our portfolio companies, and the photos of the employees that work at each.
Some other ideas we like, but can’t yet execute in our current office for logistical reasons:
- Sprung floors, ($15/square foot). This flooring absorbs shocks, and give it a softer feel. Such floors are considered the best available for dance and other indoor sports. They enhance performance and greatly reduce injuries. Although we don’t do too many jetés in our office, these floors are a pleasure to use, particularly when wearing minimal shoes. A wobble board ($12-$55) or balance cushion ($15) is a much cheaper substitute.
- Pull-up bars ($30), for periodic pull-ups/muscle-ups when you have an occasion. In our office most of the doorjambs are glass, but if we expand to another floor we may have the option of installing pull-up bars on doorjambs made of wood. New York startup Workmarket has a pull-up machine at the front of their office, next to a list of the records set by people who have visited the office.
- Treadmill desks ($400-$2,000). The user walks slowly while talking to clients, writing proposals, checking email, or any other activity one would normally do at a desk. You could integrate ReRev into these treadmills; the company retrofits exercise equipment with a device that recycles excess energy created. At least for now, we’ve rejected this idea because of our concern about noise pollution.
- Showers, for people to clean up after jogging or biking to work.
- Nap room, for when our team needs a little rest.
Food and Snacks
In the holistic spirit of our initiative, we wanted to introduce healthy food options into our office environment. But like most offices, we have a range of dietary preferences: slow-carb, paleo, vegan, kosher, vegetarian, and ‘don’t care.’ Finding a solution that keeps everyone happy is non-trivial.
We turned to our favorite health authors (such as Michael Pollan) for guidance, each of which suggested all-natural unprocessed alternatives to the more common industrialized foods. In Pollan’s words, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Here is a list of snacks that we think are consistent with our food philosophy and appropriate as hors d’oeuvres, for instance, when we host periodic idea dinners, intern lunches, etc.:
- Organic vegetables: Edamame, avocados, carrots, celery
- Organic fruit (fresh and dried)
- Organic dips: Guacamole, bean dips, hummus, sugar-free applesauce
- Whole cottage cheese, or whole yogurt
- Mixed nuts (unsalted)
- Mini-brown rice/sesame cakes (unsalted)
We also serve free beer and red wine on Fridays. Studies suggest that light to moderate alcohol consumption can be quite healthy, particularly for the heart.
Einstein, the main conference room, includes a wine rack. We hold regular idea dinners, intern lunches, board meetings, and other events in this room.
Every office has a culture; the question is whether you create and influence that culture, or if it just happens haphazardly.
We’re trying to create a health-focused culture, without making people feel pressured and uncomfortable. In a traditional office, a single person using a fitness setup (e.g. ball chair) might draw unwanted attention, but we’ve designed the culture of our office to encourage experimentation. If someone turns down an opportunity to work with us because they’re uncomfortable with our culture, that’s okay. We consider this the price of having a clearly defined culture.
We have a lot of ideas that are probably too radical for our office; implementing them would likely make some people uncomfortable. However, you might be able to use some of these ideas in your own office or home:
- ”Shoes-discouraged” policy, with a shoe shelf ($30-$300) at the office entrance. In most Japanese homes, no one wears shoes. Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, famously used to wear just his socks around the office. Victor Niederhoffer, a prominent trader, had a sign at the entrance to his Park Avenue office, saying, “Please remove your shoes.”
- Squat toilets ($450). These are extremely common in Asia, but highly unusual in the States. Squatting while going to the bathroom is significantly healthier than sitting on a conventional western toilet.
We explored many other ideas, but ultimately abandoned them for not being based on research or sound reasoning. For instance, we looked into full-spectrum lighting after hearing that this new technology (which mimics natural sunlight) was supposed to enhance productivity. We rejected it after reading multiple studies which found no conclusive evidence on its benefits.
We also rejected having air purifiers and ionizers, which remove pollen, dirt, dust particles, and allergens. A prominent study showed that such air purifiers often emit ozone, which damages the body and thereby negates the benefits.
We considered buying health-oriented vending machines (h.u.m.a.n. Healthy Vending, 2bU), as often the choice to eat unhealthily is one of convenience, not conviction. Most of the products available in these machines were too processed for our preferences, but if you can’t provide some of the healthier food options listed above, these vending machines are certainly better than the conventional ones.
Finally, we thought about using e-readers to reduce eye strain, but the data is lacking on whether e-readers or reading on paper significantly reduces eye-strain (versus reading on a traditional monitor).
Winston Churchill said, “The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” We’ve now reached the point where 63.1% of adults in the U.S. were either overweight or obese in 2009.
In other words: We’ve exhausted all the alternatives.
As my wife says, the US doesn’t have a debt problem; we have a healthcare problem. The rebounding movement towards a healthier lifestyle in the office will create significant investment opportunities, and we’re actively looking for companies that fit our portfolio. For instance, our investment in BetterWorks was in part driven by our belief in the importance of employee benefits for highly qualified people.
If you know of a product, service, or company that’s working towards improving the office environment, please tell us about it in the comments section below!
Special thanks to Duncan MacDonald-Korth and Matt Fairbank for their help researching this post.
Posted on March 12th, 2012