12 Jun 2012
Banker Martin Whelan is a man without a desk.
Instead of starting each day at a workstation armed with a computer, swivel chair and some fond family photos, the 44-year-old executive places his bag and overcoat in a locker, turns on his laptop and heads off to a 'workspace'.
Some days he stands at a high desk and clears his emails, on others he lounges on a comfy couch near the in-house cafe, and sometimes he heads for a communal table.
Whelan, who is general manager of consumer marketing at the Commonwealth Bank, said moving around throughout the workday improved his efficiency and provided "a lot more flexibility".
But it may also help him to live longer, based on the findings of a recent study from the University of Sydney that found people who sat for eight to 11 hours a day increased their risk of dying by 15 per cent.
A Dutch company, Veldhoen & Co, is building a worldwide business around a concept known as activity based working. The company's Sydney-based managing partner Luc Kamperman said between 80 and 100 companies in Europe and Australia had changed their workspaces to stop staff being chained to a desk with a personal computer.
Macquarie Bank was the first (in 2008) and the Commonwealth Bank introduced activity based working at its headquarters in Sydney's Darling Harbour almost a year ago.
Staff such as Martin Whelan are encouraged to work in different sections of the office, depending on their tasks, and about 10 per cent of desks in each office 'home zone' are standing work stations in which the desks are set at chest height.
“Some people like going and sitting at a desk that is their own space. I'm lucky I'm not one of those… you need to be more organised and have a more flexible attitude,” he said.
Jennifer Saiz, head of property at the Commonwealth Bank, said the more active work environment had already delivered tangible benefits.
“We surveyed our staff and found, on average people were sitting down just 50 per cent of the time they were at work,” she says. “We thought, 'How can we get people to work better with each other and do to their work more effectively, in a healthier way?'.
“In surveys over the past year since we started it, staff report they are more productive and more engaged thanks to the activity based working.”
Interest from Australian companies means Veldhoen & Co's Kamperman has settled in Australia to meet the demand. He is now working with Bankwest in Perth and Price Waterhouse Coopers in Canberra and Perth.
“The biggest hurdle is the shift in mindset,” Kamperman said. “I get thrilled in my job when . . . you feel like people finally get it, that they have seen the light. They start to acknowledge that they have to change themselves and how they think about work.”
Academic Catriona Bonfiglioli doesn't have the luxury of working in a modern bank building, but is keenly aware of our over reliance on chairs.
A senior lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Technology, Bonfiglioli has set up her computer on the top of a filing cabinet and does her best to stand up for close to half the hours she spends at work.
“I wanted to break the nexus between the computer and chair,” she said. “People can be sitting 15 hours a day when you add up time at work, time commuting, eating and watching TV or reading.
“I have reduced my sedentary time… I do my emails, admin and editing standing up but for creative work I tend to sit down. People need to rethink their whole relationship with their computer and stop assuming if they are using a computer they have to sit down.”
Bonfiglioli's interest was spurred by studies that showed that inactivity was damaging to health and even a cause of premature death.
An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare study published in 2007 found physical inactivity was the fifth leading health risk for men after tobacco, high blood pressure, high body mass and high blood cholesterol. And for women, physical inactivity was an even bigger burden than high cholesterol and tobacco.
Adults spend, on average, 90 per cent of their leisure time sitting down, according to the University of Sydney researcher Hidde van der Ploeg, and fewer than half meet World Health Organisation recommendations for 150 minutes of at least moderate-intensity physical activity each week.
As for the health benefits of activity based working, the Commonwealth Bank's Martin Whelan is in no doubt there are many.
“I'm a surfer and I had compressed vertebrae,” he said. “My chiropractor and physiotherapist said the impact of sitting in the same place in the same way all day every day was a bad thing. So, the set up has been good for me.
“It will be interesting to see the long term effects. At the moment it feels like a healthier building and the variety of environments, from a mental and physical perspective, are brilliant.”
Paul McClure, managing director of Back Centre and Specialty Seating, said demand for standing work stations had increased dramatically in the past three years. Desks that can be adjusted for standing and sitting sell from $950.
“Government departments and big business are really onto this issue now,” he said.