Move Your Workforce to Perform Better — Literally

Steve Bordley accepted an offer for a job that could’ve killed him.

No, he wasn’t about to become a firefighter or a police officer. Nor did his new gig threaten to place him in any sort of serious physical harm, like a construction worker or coal miner’s job might.

Bordley, a former collegiate athlete who was recovering from a serious leg injury that put him in a wheelchair, accepted a job that required him to sit at a desk in front of a computer for between 12 and 14 hours a day.

The prospect of this, he said, was terrifying.

“I knew that I was going to cut my life in half if I didn’t do something,” Bordley said, fearing his new desk job would create a serious hurdle to his health and physical recovery from the leg injury.

Too much sitting can cause immense physical harm over time. Even as organizations have implemented employee wellness efforts aimed to enhance the health of their people, research says such small fragments of exercise — like an hour’s worth of running or yoga — is simply not enough to combat the serious long-term health risks associated with lengthy sedentary periods in a chair.

A possible solution does exist: Employers need to get their workforce moving during the day, too, or at least provide options to do so.

According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s the constant, low-impact exercises that are most effective combatants of heart disease, diabetes and the other long-term, life-threatening ailments. But most corporate workers are not putting in enough of this kind of activity, such as walking or other simple movements, throughout the workday.

The challenge for talent managers is determining how to get people moving during work without the loss of efficiency, productivity or quality.

Three years ago Bordley came up with an idea some companies are now using: an elevated desk, designed to sit over any manufactured treadmill, so employees can walk and work at the same time.

Now the CEO of TrekDesk, Bordley has sold thousands of these desks, and plans to expand the business into Europe and Canada in the next year. Roughly 80 percent of TrekDesk buyers work from home offices, while just 20 percent use their treadmill desks at corporate offices.

In addition to customers’ positive experiences with the treadmill desk — including sentiments about how it increases employee wellness and productivity — the company’s Facebook page also contains complaints that many corporations don’t allow the device. Bordley said he isn’t surprised, given that most organizations are strict on the layout of their work areas and some may even be fearful of potential legal issues.

Still, some major corporations have found ways to implement the concept without it turning into a legal problem or distraction for employees.

Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co. outfits its corporate center with integrated workstations that include eight treadmill desks in addition to the 2,600 other adjustable desks employees can use to stand, if they choose, while they work.

“[The integrated work station] is just part of our focus of providing our employees with a flexible work environment to meet their needs,” said Beth Hunter, senior communications associate of health safety and environment at the company.

Most of the integrated work areas are used by what the company refers to as its “mobile employees.” These employees don’t have permanent work areas at the headquarters, but Hunter said this hasn’t stopped many employees who have normal work areas from getting up and hopping on a treadmill for a conference call or an afternoon of work. Each workstation also is equipped with a dock for company laptops and all the fixings that allow for a phone charger and other plug-ins.

Still, both Hunter and Bordley caution skeptics that treadmill desk use is not intended to substitute for a regular, high-octane workout. The idea is to maintain light movement for a long time. User of a treadmill desk, under intended circumstances, shouldn’t sweat or create noise while they work. “You’re not going to get your heart rate up like you would in a workout,” Hunter said.

Hunter said she has heard users of the integrated work stations speak of having more energy and increased productivity when they work with some movement. “Some employees feel equally as productive, if not more productive, than if they were sitting,” she said.

But such integrated workstations are mild compared to what some companies have put into action. A May 2011 Los Angeles Times article profiled a number of different workday activities companies are using to keep employees moving. Some are simple — one company mentioned in the article held walking meetings — while others were far more elaborate.

At Patagonia, an outdoor apparel manufacturer, employees use the company’s flex-time policy to take breaks to go running, biking or even surfing in the middle of the workday. In fact, the company has its own “board room” filled with surf boards, according to the article.

Most companies, however, are sticking with the low-key options, such as putting printers further away from employees’ desks.

Aside from the integrated areas, Eli Lilly provides employees who sit for long periods of time with software that prompts them to take breaks to get up and walk around. The company also employs an ergonomics coordinator who helps train employees on posture and teach them other movements they could do at their desks to stay active.

“For us it’s about minimizing our employees’ risk to help keep them healthy, to keep them well and to prevent some sort of injury because they’ve been sitting too long,” Hunter said.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at