Standing Desks and Math Problems: It pays to take care of your workforce!

A few years ago I took over as the new leader of a largely civilian organization. One of the first things I did was rearrange my office, including getting a standing desk. I often prefer to work standing up, especially if I am just doing email. I also became a big fan of Dr. Kelly Starrett’s Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World that points out that sitting is an occupational risk we can do something about.

Once my new desk was installed (and adjusted by our talented industrial hygienist) I got a few comments about it. A couple of our senior leaders questioned the purchase. “Those are too expensive!” “Now that you have one, everyone will want one, and it’s not in the budget.” “Don’t we need to go through reasonable accommodation to authorize those? Don’t you need a doctor’s note?” “We can’t afford to get these for people.” “This is just a fad!”

I was surprised at the negative response to the standing desk. I know that not everyone had read Deskbound, but certainly the smart folks here could see the wisdom of getting standup desks? But I guess the fear that everyone would want one and the impact on the budget was a legitimate concern after all.

Or was it?

I sat down with one of these leaders and did some quick, back of the envelope math.

Let’s assume 50% of our 700-person workforce will want a standing desk. That’s 350 desks. At about $300 per unit that comes out to $105k. That is a lot of money, especially if you didn’t budget for it!

But how much is it costing us not to do it? And what would $105k actually be buying us?

Is sitting the new smoking?

Well, if meeting an employee’s request leads to fewer medical appointments, we will see a savings. If they have fewer long-term health problems, they may take fewer sick days, thereby increasing productivity. If they are feeling well, they may actually work a little longer for us. If they feel like we care enough about them to try meet their needs, they may stay a whole lot longer. If we can delay the cost of replacing an employee by just one year we have more than paid for the standing desk. By the way the average cost of replacing even the least skilled employee is 10x the cost of a standing desk. Most replacements cost a whole lot more!

What about requiring a doctor’s note before we buy them a standing desk? Well, I think the cost to the organization for getting said note actually exceeds the cost of the equipment just in lost productivity and paperwork. Processing “reasonable accommodation” requests also takes time and money. Not having to pay for that paperwork drill alone will pay for the standing desk.

I recognize that there is some debate over the benefits of standing desks, especially when people don’t use them correctly. And I know there are varying degrees of cost and quality in the standing desk market. But the simple math is this: this particular purchase pays for itself rather quickly and several times over.

So how many other little things does the math work out like this? I’m not sure, but it is worth asking the question when an issue like this arises.

The problem, as I see it, is not whether this is a budgetable item or whether or not employees should be standing at work. The problem is that too many of us look at taking care of the workforce as an expense rather than an investment. Too often, we default to seeing the bill instead of seeing the payoff.

I’m not suggesting that companies need to go off the deep end and hire private chefs to provide free meals to employees around the clock or anything like that. I am suggesting that there are small investments you can make for your workforce that will pay for themselves, and that leaders that won’t even consider them will find themselves spending more time and money hiring their employees’ replacements.

Leaders have a responsibility to manage company resources wisely. Many of us publicly state that our people are our most important resource, yet we consistently fail to invest in them in ways that may increase their productivity and reduce turnover.

Too often this is because we value the budget more than we value our employees, and we haven’t really done the math.

So break out the stubby pencils and the backs of envelopes, and stand up for your workforce.