Stand in the Place Where You Work

July 31st, 2011  |  Published in etc  |  2 Comments

Some notes on adopting a standing desk for my home office. Maybe an odd entry because I started writing it several weeks ago, just after installing it and now I’m circling back because I didn’t want to do the whole “I got this standing desk and it’s been awesome for, like, 30 minutes now!” thing.

Vital related information for anyone who doesn’t know me:

I’m a Web developer/technical lead. I stand about 5’11”, weigh much more than I’m comfortable carrying, and I spend most of my work day in front of a computer. I’ve got a 24″ iMac with a second 22″ monitor. I work out of a home office.

I didn’t think I had a lot of physical desk job complaints. About every six months I did something that really aggravated my lower back for a day or two, and I used to have a problem with upper back stuff until I learned to get rid of chair arms and adjust my mousing posture. As I’ll get to toward the end, I think I was just adjusting to low expectations of where I should be at the age of 43.

A while back I noticed articles about how bad sitting can be for you, but just filed them away. But on a recent shopping trip to Ikea for a new office chair, it occurred to me that maybe it was time to look for a standing desk, instead. Ikea has one of its own (the Fredrik), but I passed on it initially until I could do more research. I don’t know about you, but any time I know something is occurring to me because I vaguely remember the notion whipping through all the productivity blogs several months ago, my next thought is to go back and see how that ended up for everybody.

So I spent a few days reading around, and came to these conclusions:

  • adjustable standing desks are expensive. The ones with cranks or pneumatic elevators are a little less expensive than the electrical ones, but they’re all pretty expensive either way.
  • non-adjustable standing desks tend to be a little small (36″ work surface or smaller)
  • “furniture-like” standing desks (as opposed to workstation style) are even more expensive, and they tend to be for people who aren’t putting computers on top of them

The brands that stuck out included Anthro (pricey) and Safco (lower cost, but smaller). Among tech types the big brand is GeekDesk. Its offerings are very simple (a flat work surface in a few widths), but for the field (adjustable desks with a motor) it’s relatively reasonably priced at around $800 (minus shipping, which is considerably expensive).

The other brand that stands out is Ikea, less for its actual standing desk offering than for people who want a standing desk but don’t want to pay over $500 for one and are content to hack Ikea products to make one.

I considered all those options, and considered making my own out of a drafting table or repurposed wall shelving rails, but ended up ruling out a DIY approach because it ended up getting expensive the more I thought about how to do it well, or the assorted hacks I saw weren’t quite right for some other reason (not enough work surface, designed for laptops, not designed for a heavy iMac, etc.)

Having something I could use as a standing/sitting solution wasn’t as important to me. I’ve got a perfectly good laptop, so taking sitting breaks doesn’t require changing my desk elevation, and I was planning to get something wide enough to spread papers on, same as I would at my existing sitting desk.

In the end, I wasn’t even sure how much I’d like having a standing desk, so I decided against anything from GeekDesk or Anthro (though I have to say that the people at Anthro were incredibly helpful as I considered my options), and I wanted a lot more desk space than the “standing workstation” offerings provided. So, the Ikea Fredrik it was.

Some things I didn’t like about the Fredrik up front:

  • shape: It’s less a standing desk than a standing computer hutch. Since my 24″ iMac won’t fit in the traditional “hutch nook,” I knew I wasn’t going to be able to use the top shelf
  • inflexibility after assembly: The height had to be right when I assembled it, because there’s no way to adjust it short of disassembling most of it. The only Ikea furniture I’ve ever had that suffered gladly at all was my Galant desk. I could tell by looking at the Fredrik on the showroom floor that it wouldn’t take much of that.
  • Its very Ikea-ness: We’ve got a lot of Ikea stuff in the house. The Billy bookshelves? Dandy. The Expedit shelves? Pretty good in the smaller sizes, intolerant of much moving around for my large 4×4 cube. My Galant desk? Sturdy. Other smaller things over the years? Gotta be more careful.

What I liked, though, was the relatively low price of experimentation. I’ll get a good year or two out of this, more if I take the time to reinforce it a little by anchoring it to the wall.

Day 0: Assembling Fredrik

As I said, Fredrik is more of a standing computer hutch than anything. It assumes a flat working surface, a riser shelf for your monitor, and a top shelf that runs over the top of the monitor. My 24″ iMac wasn’t going to fit in that kind of configuration, so I decided I’d prefer to put the two shelves underneath the main work surface. I have seen Fredrik depicted in similar arrangements, but Fredrik does not want to be assembled in that manner. Fredrik fell on my head once, nearly smashed a printer once, and drew blood once in the process of being forced to accommodate me in that manner. In the end, I mostly got my way, but it took some doing and one visit from Alison, who stopped by the office long enough to say “it doesn’t sound like it’s going well in here at all.” The blood was a giveaway.

I placed the work surface a notch above where it’s supposed to go in Ikea’s suggested configuration, and that brought it to right where I usually position my arms when I’m sitting at a desk. Those taller than 6′: There are slots that allow the work surface to be placed higher than the ~41″ I have it at right now.

I placed one of the shelves under the work surface and used the other as a riser for my computers, one notch above the work surface, which places me eye level with my iMac’s camera.

The lower shelf is holding my Airport Extreme, cable “modem,” UPS and our three backup drives. All that stuff was hidden away behind some books in my prior office arrangement, so being able to see our entire backup system for what it is — three Western Digital MyBooks hanging off the back of an Airport Extreme by a laptop USB hub — reminds me that I need to do something about that.

I also bought a 29″ folding bar seat to go with the Fredrik, which is what I planned to use when I wanted to keep on working on something on the big machine but would like a sit break. It sits perfectly for me to keep my elbows bent at 90 degrees.

So here are my first day impressions:

Day 1: First Day on the Job

The other issue I had with a lot of DIY standing desk arrangements was the way much of the “documentation,” such as it was, stopped at “and here’s a picture of how it looks.” I recall seeing one site where the virtues of a standing desk —better focus, less back pain, a change in perspective on work — all manifested within 30 minutes of assembly. A few were written a week after starting use, and fewer still (one?) made it to six months out.

So I don’t have much to say about how it works except these few things:

On carpet, the Fredrik isn’t heavy or wide enough to be perfectly still in use unless it’s very snug against the wall. Since the work surface extends a bit past the cross bars on the legs, I can push it right against the wall without hitting the baseboard, and there’s no motion. The wall I’ve got it against has studs exactly where I need them for even placement, so I may mount a couple of L braces on the underside of the main work surface to anchor the unit against the wall. For now, pushed tight against the wall, it feels as still as a regular desk.

I’ve been using it for half a day as I type this, and I can’t say it’s the most comfortable experience in the world. I don’t mind working standing. My positional relationship to keyboard, mouse and monitor is the same as when I was seated. But my legs and back know I’ve been standing for about seven hours so far.

Since work on the Web is comprised of many little breaks due to latency, or waiting for a response to an IM, or waiting for some computing task to finish, I find myself turning away from my desk a lot in little micro-breaks. As I write this, I step back and turn around about once a paragraph. It’s not a big break … I don’t go bounding down the hall or anything … just a tiny microbreak. A way to demark the end of an idea or action then turn back for the next. At a seated desk, that used to take the form of turning my head away for a moment or, worse, just going off and getting distracted by something and completely losing my flow.

End of the Work Day:

So, I’ve had a full day of work in front of the new desk. I started around 7:30, took a few minutes around 9:30 to play a game with Ben, worked again until 1:00, took lunch, came back and was at it again until 5.

Having the bar stool to back me up was nice. It’s not something you want to sit on for a long time, so I fell back to using it on and off for a total of about an hour for the day. I wasn’t going to get into these sorts of observations, but I think I was using it more on phone calls or IMs where I needed to be attentive but not totally participatory.

Physically, I feel pretty good. I’ve got an old pair of Crocs that still have some spring in them that make for excellent standing shoes. I’ve got a little discomfort in my lower back. People recommend anti-fatigue mats, and I can see how that makes sense.

So that’s it for Day 1.

Four Weeks Later

So here we are about four weeks later.

I can recount the experience of adapting to my standing desk about like this:

Week One: After that first day, it was pretty hard to get used to it. I was glad I bought the stool to go with the desk, because any time there was a chance I’d be able to stop and think about how uncomfortable I was getting, like, for instance, on a long phone call where my input wasn’t really required, it was best to just sit down for a while. My lower back wasn’t very happy with the whole experience, and it teamed up with my hips to complain a lot. That old pair of Crocs helped.

By the end of the week, I was working through most of the morning without sitting down, then I probably spent about an hour total seated on the stool during the afternoons. By the end of the day Friday, I was looking forward to a couple of days of not standing.

The week ended with out of town company and a Saturday morning of walking around downtown Portland. By the time that was over, I was pretty sore and uncomfortable. Sunday was spent assembling a sleeper sofa to go in my office, and that meant even more discomfort because Al was out of town and that meant a lot of “balance this crossbar on knee while holding this leg with left hand and fumbling for ratchet driver with right.” A trip to Oaks Park with Ben didn’t help, either.

Week Two: Not a regular work week for me. My new boss was due in town, so I spent Monday and Tuesday at my new desk, then spent Wednesday and Thursday working at either Lents Commons or a hotel. When Friday rolled around and it was time to go back to my new desk, I felt pretty good: Having a couple of days off with nothing in the way of lots of walking around or heavy lifting was the rest I needed.

Week Three: At some point, I stopped thinking about the desk. My boss was on vacation, so I was flying solo at my new job for a chunk of the week and had some technical heavy lifting to do, which made it easy to not think about whether I was uncomfortable or not: I was too busy and engrossed with my work to bother.

Week Four: I stopped thinking about the desk much at all and almost never used the stool. Right now it’s folded up and leaned against a wall. I think I unfolded it three or four times over the course of the week, but never used it for more than 30 minutes.

Having the new sleeper sofa in my office/”the guest room” makes it easy to give myself microbreaks from standing. Ijust grab my iPhone or iPad, sit down, and play a quick game of Tiny Wings or a few tiles of Carcassonne, then get back to work. For my particular set of attentional issues, that’s a huge improvement over working from a seated desk. I’m a lot more likely to take a true microbreak instead of just shifting my attention to something else on the same computer I work on, so there are less digressions during the day.

During non-working hours, my desktop computer is much less likely to pull me in. If I need to do something like pay a few bills, update Quicken, etc., I’m more likely to slip into the office, do that one task, then leave. I don’t end up sitting down and succumbing to inertia, stacking up a bunch of little tasks I could do or not, but do anyhow because I’m already sitting.

To loop back to something I said at the top — “I didn’t think I had a lot of physical desk job complaints.” — I’ve got something concrete to say about that after four weeks: I did have physical complaints from my desk job and didn’t know it because I’d just accepted that a certain amount of discomfort was part of getting up there in years. After four weeks, I feel a lot better. My lower back doesn’t bother me, a certain stiffness I was developing in my hips is gone, and my knees are feeling better.

I’ll have to set a reminder for some time at the beginning of the new year to see where I’m at.


  1. Dianne says:

    August 25th, 2011 at 2:47 pm (#)

    I have the Ikea Fredrick too and use it at home when I telecommute. I try to stand as much as possible. I work in a cube in an office 3 days a week and sit and wish I could stand there too. Do you know of any thing to put on a a cube type desk corner to elevate my monitors and keybords so as to stand at work too?

  2. Stand in the Place Where You Work, Revisited :: dot unplanned says:

    May 27th, 2012 at 2:58 pm (#)

    […] follow up to the previous post Stand in the Place Where You Work, some reporting on my experience with a standing desk after a month of […]

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