A NEW STUDY USING WEARABLE SENSORS SUGGESTS THAT TEAMWORK IS DONE BEST WHEN EMPLOYEES ARE STANDING UP.
As much as you might love slumping back in your chair and taking an open-eyed nap during long meetings, a new study suggests that teamwork is done best when employees are standing up.
It's the latest in a long line of research that examines the troubling effects of sitting. Evidence has piled up that “sitting is the new smoking”--that a sedentary lifestyle is linked to an increased risk for depression, heart disease, and diabetes. This is the first research we've seen that applies the anti-sitting argument directly to the boardroom.
The paper, “Get Up, Stand Up: The Effects of a Non-Sedentary Workspace on Information Elaboration and Group Performance,” published recently in Social Psychological and Personality Science, analyzes teams of participants working for 30 minutes on developing and recording a university recruitment video. The teams either worked in rooms with chairs around a table, or with no chairs at all. While working, the participants wore sensors on their wrists that measured their physiological arousal based on the moisture produced by their sweat glands. Once the videos were finished, research assistants rated the teams’ collaboration and the quality of the videos, and the participants rated their team members’ attitudes--namely, how territorial they’d been.
Lo and behold, the people who worked standing up had higher levels of physiological arousal, indicating excitement about the work, and were less defensive about their ideas than those who lounged in chairs. This lack of territoriality led to a better exchange of ideas and more engaging videos. Lead researcher Andrew Knight of the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis told Eurekalert.
"Seeing that the physical space in which a group works can alter how people think about their work and how they relate with one another was very exciting,"
Knight himself had experienced the benefits of standing meetings while working for a software company, where groups would regularly crowd around whiteboards and work excitedly rather than lethargically. He found they always felt “more efficient and purposeful," which led him to want to back up this gut feeling with research.
Luckily, standing is free--so testing out these findings firsthand is as simple as getting employees off their butts.
Strengths, Limitations, and Future Directions
Washington University of St. Louis integrated several types and sources of data – including physiological data, self-report data, and observational data – to draw inferences about how physical space influences interpersonal dynamics in groups. Our use of multiple data streams mitigates concerns of inflated relationships due to common method variance. Further, our use of a sensor to unobtrusively measure arousal highlights the potential for researchers to use new technologies to assess interpersonal dynamics in groups.
Despite these strengths, their conclusions must be interpreted with the limitations of their
study in mind. Their measure of territoriality was administered after the group task. In deciding to measure territoriality after the task, they weighed the costs of interrupting groups and sensitizing participants to the concepts under investigation with the benefits of measuring this pathway before groups completed their task. Their ultimate choice to measure territoriality after the task may have influenced participants’ responses. These concerns are mitigated by the fact that participants received no feedback prior to completing the post-task survey; nonetheless, they acknowledge that contamination may have occurred. Future studies should replicate their findings using a measure of this mediator administered during the task rather than after it.
The University studied groups engaged in a 30-minute task, which may be a boundary condition of their findings. Estimates of typical meeting duration in organizations vary. Panko and Kinney
(1995) reported that nearly 75% of meetings are 30 minutes or less; Cohen and colleagues (2011)
found an average meeting length of 73 minutes (SD = 41). The 30-minute meeting length that they studied thus likely generalizes directly to many situations commonly found in organizations.
Still, future research is needed to explore the temporal boundary conditions around their finding
that a non-sedentary workspace enriches interpersonal processes in groups engaged in
knowledge work. It is possible that the benefits of a non-sedentary space would dissipate or even
reverse over longer periods of time if people become fatigued or irritable. However, one
promising approach for longer meetings might be for group members to oscillate between
standing and sitting over the course of the meeting. Recent research (Oppezzo & Schwartz, In
Press) suggests that the beneficial effects of movement on creativity persist even after
individuals sit down. Thus, it might be possible to use a standing format for the first 30 to 45
minutes of a meeting and then switch to a sitting format without sacrificing performance.
Research is needed to examine such questions.
Because the University examined one performance episode, their findings cannot speak to the
durability and permanence of the effects of a non-sedentary workspace across multiple group interactions. Although they do not have data on groups engaging in multiple tasks, they believe it is unlikely that members would become habituated to the effects that they proposed and found in this study. The physiological and behavioral changes that they observed stem ultimately from physical effects (e.g., motion, physical location in space), rather than from perceptions of the novelty of the environment (Oppezzo & Schwartz, In Press). In post-hoc analyses they explored the possibility that the novelty of the environment might account for their results using a three-item measure that group members completed after the group task (e.g., “The room we worked in helped us feel creative.”). They found a non-significant effect of condition on members’ ratings of the novelty of the room (B = -0.05, p = 0.70), suggesting that people in the non-sedentary condition did not view their environment as more novel and conducive to creativity than those in the sedentary condition. Nonetheless, research would be useful to unpack how people respond to a non-sedentary environment across multiple group interactions.
Implications and Conclusions
The most important implication of this study is that the physical context in which a group
works can shape interpersonal dynamics and, ultimately, group performance. Adopting a non-sedentary workspace may have benefits not just for individual physical health, but also for group performance on knowledge work tasks. By increasing arousal and reducing territoriality, a non-sedentary workspace enhances the extent to which people engage in collaborative information elaboration – a key ingredient to high performance on knowledge work. These findings are important both theoretically and practically. Theoretically, the physical space in which a group works is an important contextual input that scholars have, to date, largely ignored (Hackman & Katz, 2010). The manipulation that we investigated in this research – in which we simply removed chairs from the room – was relatively small, yet produced meaningful differences in group arousal and group idea territoriality. Practically, office configurations and furniture are aspects of the workplace over which leaders often have direct control. Our results suggest that, if leaders aspire to enhance collaborative knowledge work, they might consider eschewing the traditional conference room setup of tables and chairs and, instead, clear an open space for people to collaborate with one another.
Courtesy of an article dated June 16, 2014 appearing in Fast Company Design