Reinventing the Office: How to Lose Fat and Increase Productivity at Work

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(Photo: watz)

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.

Desk Setup

Every person in our office has a choice of three desk setups:

1. Standing desk ($200-$750) with anti-fatigue comfort mat ($20-$40).

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.

3. Conventional seated office chair ($150-$800), with the optional balance cushion ($15).

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 encourage having multiple large computer screens ($180 each) at each desk, space and budget permitting. Multiple computer screens increases productivity and efficiency.

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)

For a mouse, we really like the Designer Appliances E Quill AirO2bic mouse ($90), used with a TrainerBall Mousepad ($10), which includes suggested ergonomic exercises.

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.

Pedometers ($20) or pedometer apps, for tracking miles walked per day. People wearing a pedometer walk about 27% more per day than people not wearing a pedometer.

Shoes

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 have four conference rooms: one room has exercise balls ($40-$150 each) in place of chairs, and three conference rooms have conventional office chairs ($175 each).

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.

Office Layout

There is significant evidence that people need exposure to natural light, so we’ve designed the office to maximize windows and natural light. [Check out this article for ways to do this.]

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.

Finally, we have a list of local healthy restaurants and recommended meals (which we keep in our office Dropbox folder), and are considering signing up for Foodzie to find new exotic foods.

Einstein, the main conference room, includes a wine rack. We hold regular idea dinners, intern lunches, board meetings, and other events in this room.

Culture

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.

Other Ideas

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.

Group morning exercises. Many Japanese workplaces start with a fixed set of morning calisthenics. Our portfolio company Kohort does a group daily pushup routine.

Rejected Ideas

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).

Closing Thoughts

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 12, 2012.

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228 comments on “Reinventing the Office: How to Lose Fat and Increase Productivity at Work

      • If you look at the energy expenditure of sitting vs. walking vs. walking you’ll see that sitting and walking show almost no difference. Walking burns almost 5 times more energy than sitting or standing.

        There are no studies that show that standing kills, because no one stands at work. If everyone stood at work then we would probably see studies showing that standing kills. Standing doesn’t provide much of a benefit toward preventing heart disease.

        Movement is the key here.

        Like

      • True, yet not true. While you are probably correct that there exists an observational bias with respect to the effects of sitting in the office, there is reason to believe standing is better not because of direct effects but indirect.

        Do your own experiment. Buy a pedometer and track yourself sitting at the office. Then, try it standing. I found that when standing I was more active in the office. As an example, when I was thirsty I just walked over to the fountain instead of waiting until I needed to get up for something else. When I was mulling over some idea, I would pace around a bit. When someone down the hall called me, I just walked over instead of talking on the phone, etc. The downside is a cost in concentration. It’s harder to seriously focus when you are standing. I think you get used to it though, but I’m still conditioning my mind and adapting to standing while working.

        Like

    • Sell what? I work 9-5 and am desperate to find a solution to all this sitting! I am great with eBay and am into skiing, climbing, biking, hiking anything outdoors! Where can I source outdoor goods for resale/offshore?! Thanks!

      Like

  1. Great article, thanks for sharing! I suggest spineworx ( about 30-40 bucks). The standing while working one is something one of my friends started and liked. I’m going to replace my chair with the yoga ball right now thank you!

    Like

  2. I’m a full time MBA student and spend many hours at a time hunched over a computer. I make myself do an 8 minute workout every 2 hours to keep my blood flowing (8 mins abs, free on youtube) and I move around while I work. Sometimes I sit on floor pillows and use my coffee table, sometimes I work from my kitchen table, and other times I stand at my breakfast bar. The key is to not stay in one position too long.

    Like

  3. I have just recently left my job to work from home, I am really looking forward to having the opportunity to design my own, totally ergonomic office set up. I think it will make working much more enjoyable and make me better at what I do too.

    Great article, with loads of good ideas, thanks.

    Like

    • Hi!
      My name is Mariana. I would love to know what kind of jobs you can do from home. Whoever I asked, it seemed more like they try to sell something to me. If I do not ask for much, can you please tell me how can I find the REAL jobs that can be done from home?
      Congratulation on your decision!

      Like

  4. Interesting stuff. I’m currently giving my fluffy purple socks the evil eye. As much as I’d love to be involved in a meeting at your place of work I just know I’d be the one who fell off the green ball mid sentence ending up on the floor legs akimbo.
    Re- Fitness. I’ve walked the dogs and I’ll walk them again later. Pasta for lunch… Yipee!

    In awe.

    Bernadette

    Like

  5. One of the best workplace benefits I ever received (before launching my own wellness business) was lunchtime yoga. We’d move the chairs and tables to the edge of a large conference room, dim the lights, and practice for 45 minutes – – it was the highlight of the day for many.

    It’s so good to see revolutionary strides in workplace wellness. With leadership like ff Venture Capital and excellent articles like this, I hope many more will follow.

    Like

  6. I suddenly hate my office chair so much…
    My saving graces: walking to work (40 minutes a day, up and down stairs and hills) and walking in bursts (sit at your desk for a while – then take a break and walk around doing other stuff, timers really help here).
    For those of us who tried standing desks: how soon did you get used to it? I remember giving it a go and abandoning the idea due to shoulder pain.

    Like

      • I have to disagree with John on this. I am reminded of a “personal trainer” years ago that kept saying “push it, push it, no pain no gain”. I tore up my lower back that way and was in agonizing pain for months. The “personal trainer” just shrugged and laughed because it wasn’t him and didn’t care.
        Wiktor is either find a way to make it work, or he will move on to other ideas. It’s up to him and of course, he knows what is best for his own body.

        Like

  7. I use a standing desk 90% of the time. I work out 3 times a week, and exercise almost every day. I take regular breaks and walks around the property. All this is made pretty easy because I live on the beach on an island in the Philippines. It’s probably a lot harder in the typical western lifestyle.

    The standing desk has produced HUGE benefits. No afternoon slump. Also, if I sit down to do some work (which I occasionally do), I feel my energy drop. I sit down for meals and when I read books. Otherwise, I’m almost always standing.

    You don’t need to spend money on expensive desks either. For my first standing desk, I mounted the monitor, keyboard and mouse on differing piles of boxes. I used the boxes they use for A4 sheets of paper. A true “hobos” standing desk. Don’t ask your boss for permission. Just go ahead and do it. It’s awesome. Enjoy the strange looks you get from everyone and bask in your growing energy :D

    Like

  8. As a former ergonomist (got out of the profession for a simple lack of passion), this post brings a smile to my face. Workplaces all too often are put together with no thought on whether they work with the human body and spirit; neglecting this inevitably results in repetitive strain injuries, avoidable psychological distress, obesity, and so forth. These can become chronic health issues over time, costing companies scads of $$$$$ over the long term.

    Building a successful muse isn’t so satisfying if you have to live with chronic pain for years after, so think of these ergonomic issues BEFORE the damage is done!

    Great post, David and Tim!

    Like

  9. Cool ideas for a home office.

    Last summer, I worked as a cook assistant in a pasta-pizza restaurant and get ripped within two months even if my diet was mostly junk food (pizzas paid by the restaurant, lunch and dinner).

    Back to school, sitting for hours, even with a good diet, I took back 3% of body fat in one month.

    Since then, I think about how would I organize my home office (ok, my studio) to be more active physically when I’m working on my computer…

    Thanks !

    Like

    • I set my e-reader to white text on a black background. This is so much easier on my eyes because there is no glare. I like reading this way when I’m having trouble falling asleep too because it doesn’t add much additional light to the room, and it turns itself off when I’ve drifted off. I’ve read more in the last 2 years doing this than the prior 20.

      Like

  10. This is a really great post!! It’s inspiring to see what you can do to improve working climate and I love the ideas. Thanks, Tim!

    Like

  11. I live in my office chair. I get serious tunnel vision. I find that I am working in my office chair all the time. I also work when I get home and end up falling asleep in my office chair most days. (thought about getting a recliner instead) Not surprisingly this continuous sitting awake and asleep has resulted in some problems. So this article does get my brain on how to better my working(sleeping) environment.
    I love the excerise ball idea, but I usually work with my laptop on my lap. So I’m going to need alternatives.
    The Standing Desk does intrigue me. A couple of cinderblocks and I’ll be set. It’s going feel weird standing in one place without going some place though.
    I’d go further than multiple multiple monitors. Might go with a led projector instead.
    I hate the idea about the treadmill desk. The idea that I have to chase my keyboard to type anything is really aggravating.
    No shoes idea is a really bad idea if you combine the treadmill desk and standing desk idea. The smell is will be…. unpleasant.
    The Squatting Toilet is the worst idea ever. For $450, it is lunacy which only can be found in a rich investment company. Another “it’s in asia, so it’s gotta be good for you” idea. I have to tell you that no on in asia really wants to use squatting toilets.(Note, Japanese hi-tech toilets) They use it because it’s cheap and it’s there when you need it. Plus, Squatting Toilets get grimmy really quick. Add the squatting toilets with the no-shoes idea and I think you’ll realize that it’s a horrible idea. If you’re going to use something asian related, ask an asian before using it.
    In the flip side. FREE BEER AND WINE is the BEST IDEA EVER. Plenty of potential for abuse and not as health conscious as one might think. But an awesome idea. Why make your employees pay 16 dollars a drink at some bar when you can give them the same with less than 2 dollars. Definitely a team building idea. :)
    Overall, I don’t think many of these changes can be realized if the company in question is not a wealthy venture capital firm in NYC.
    That being said, I’m sure there are more affordable option if we look hard enough. Like cinderblocks. :P

    Like

      • I agree. I am an Indian. And we have 2 toilets, 1 squatting toilet (costs Rs.5000 i.e., 100$ ) and 1 western closet ( costs Rs. 6000 i.e, 120 $).

        The elder folks use the WC as its easier for them to sit, rather than the squatting one, the younger folks use squatting toilet.

        In India, in fact the squatting toilet was the only one used until a last few years.

        Try it out, great for constipation, you will get better experience and feel more fresh!

        Like

    • I dislike sitting toilets with a passion, I dislike sitting on them, I dislike cold porcelain meeting my skin, I dislike the plastic seat covers, and last but not least I have never, ever felt like I have completely been able to empty my bowels on a sitting toilet.

      And I’m Singaporean. Just as many high-tech, fancy toilets there as Japan… just depends on where you go.

      Squatting toilets don’t necessarily get more grimy than sitting ones. On the contrary, I find them easier to clean, as most of them are built to slope, so that liquids and waste would be directed into the toilet. Though I concede that they can be harder to dry, what more when it’s so humid. Also, we may go barefoot, or have the option of going barefoot, but we have slippers used specifically for the toilet. There are plenty of ways and means around issues of hygiene and cleanliness… a little foresight and creativity solves many things.

      Like

  12. I use bands for quick workouts between staring at a screen. Press, pull and squats, are intensified with bands. The powerlifting kind come in any tension level you want and then some. Cool thing is they fit in your bag easily.

    Like

  13. Great post, this is something we are constantly telling our patients (we have a full service wellness centre), as sitting is killing us! Another key point is to take frequent microbreaks to stretch. You are better to move and stretch for 60 seconds every 20-30 minutes than to sit for 3 hours followed by a long break. Ligaments and discs deform after only 30 minutes, leading to issues. Move frequently but briefly!

    Like