Of all the new systems companies consider to help boost the productivity of employees, the most effective might be one that is designed to use the most time and energy, to the least obvious effect (and hint, it’s not the Internet).
In fact, especially for knowledge workers whose jobs involve significant intellectual challenges, there may be a tremendous physical and productivity boost in being able to take a walk without having to leave the cubicle to do it.
Replacing desk chairs with treadmills on which employees can walk during the day not only burns more calories and helps otherwise-sedentary workers become more active, it improves the quality of their work by about 10 percent, according to a study published Feb. 20 in PLOS One from a mixed team of medical, sociological and business researchers.
During a 12-month study, researchers replaced the desk chairs of volunteers with treadmills they could walk on while also working at their desks. Volunteers could stand, walk on the treadmills at up to two miles per hour, or switch to a desk chair whenever they preferred.
Both the volunteers and their supervisors filled out surveys every week, noting when a worker was out sick, took a personal day, came in late, left early, worked late as well as the volume and quality of work they put out.
At the end of a year, volunteers turned out to have been sedentary one hour less per day than before the treadmills. They burned 74 more calories per day and spent more time in non-strenuous activity than their non-treadmilled counterparts, without any drop in the amount of after-work physical activity they reported.
And their work improved. Self-evaluations turned in by the volunteers showed that they thought their performance had improved seven-tenths of a point on a scale of one to 10 (about 6.9 percent). Supervisors estimated the performance of the volunteers improved an average of 1.1 points on a scale of one to 10 (11 percent).
The improvements didn’t happen right away. Volunteers’ performance tended to drop right after they got the treadmills, as they learned to walk on them while still doing their normal work.
“While we cannot determine the precise behavioral source of the performance improvements, our data are consistent with the favorable effect of physical activity on performance found by other researchers,” the study concluded.
The positive results could have come from the increase in activity, or might have been partly due to the makeup of the volunteer group. Employees who volunteered were more likely to perceive themselves as overweight than those who didn’t volunteer. They also were more likely to be younger, better educated and more likely to work largely on their own rather than as part of a coordinated team.
In their statistical analysis, the research team corrected for age, demographics and other differences between the 10 percent or so who volunteered to participate and those who did not.
The increase in productivity could have come from things researchers couldn’t see, however.
Being evaluated by their bosses on paper ever week, whether they saw the results or not, was likely to have a significant impact on the performance of volunteers, researchers warned.
Those who volunteered might also have been more motivated to lose weight, work for awards or promotions or demonstrate other motivational behaviors than their less active counterparts.
Still, even at a cost of approximately $4,000 per treadmill workstation, “it seems that companies ought to consider making treadmill workstations available to their sedentary employees,” the paper concluded.
Treadmills similar to those used in the study are available for about $1,000 on Amazon, they wrote, making the cost/benefit even more obvious.
The inability to point to a specific mechanism that would have consistently improved productivity makes it hard to say for certain, wrote Avner Ben Ner, lead researcher on the study. It is possible that more obese, more sedentary employees would benefit more than active employees. It is also possible that “employees whose tasks are more cognitively complex will gain relatively more from the use of treadmill workstations,” they concluded.
“Of course, you don’t have to walk all the time,” according to CNET’s Danny Sullivan, who tested a workstation treadmill for a review in November, 2013.
“Just because a treadmill desk has a treadmill, you can turn it off and just use it as a standing desk, if need be,” he wrote. “Personally, I found myself craving the walk. A few times I’d be at the desk with it off, say if I needed to do something briefly on the weekend. If I wasn’t moving, I just felt weird. ”
Kimberly Castro, a U.S. News & World Report editor who had a treadmill desk in her office for a similar review posted Feb. 7, said walking helped her focus more clearly on the task at hand.
“I found myself extremely zoned in while checking email or editing a story,” she was quoted as saying the story.“There’s a meditative quality to walking that helped me stay relaxed and centered.”
Getting used to the treadmill takes a couple of weeks, according to James Levine, director of Obesity Solutions at Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, co-author of the treadmill study and do-it-yourself treadmill desk enthusiast, who was also quoted in the U.S. News story.
“It takes a couple weeks [to adjust], but after their first two weeks, stress levels progressively start to decline,” he says. “Once people have the hang of it they’re good to go.”
Image: Ben-New, Levin et al, PLoS ONE