Standing meetings may improve group productivity

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Walking while working, usually on a treadmill, has been gaining popularity in recent years, but the next office innovation should be standing while meeting, according to a new study.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, report that groups working together on a project while standing are measurably more engaged and less territorial than while seated.

“A workspace that encourages people to stand up is going to lead to more collaborative and more creative outputs,” Andrew Knight told Reuters Health in an email.

The research was initially motivated by new building construction that resulted in meetings and conversations about new furniture design and layout at the university said Knight, who along with his coauthor Markus Baer, studies organizational behavior at the Olin Business School.

“I had read some of the research on non-sedentary work and standing desks that was focused on individual physiological benefits, but we were really intrigued and excited to see how the physical space might alter literally how people are interacting with and relating to one another over the course of the meeting,” Knight said.

The findings were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

For the study, the researchers recruited 214 students, who were asked to work together in small groups for 30 minutes to produce a university recruitment video that was recorded by a research assistant.

A total of 54 groups of three to five students worked in a room that had a white board, two easels and a rectangular table and either had chairs arranged around the table or no chairs at all.

In a solitary session before the “meeting” and then during the group activity, the participants wore small sensors around their wrists designed to measure physiological arousal by detecting electrical activity in the skin.

“A primary function of arousal is to signal the importance or significance of environmental stimuli and prepare the body for action,” Knight and Baer write. “In social situations, joint experiences of arousal promote affiliation and collective sensemaking, both of which are essential for motivating collective action.”

Research assistants rated how the team members worked together and the quality of the resulting videos, while the participants themselves rated how territorial their team members had been during the session.

The researchers found that working in the room without the chairs increased group arousal, decreased territorial behavior and increased sharing of information and ideas to statistically significant degrees.

“Typically when people are seated at a conference room, they own their own space in the room, they probably have their own paper, their own notebooks that they’re working on and these things create a very individually-oriented mindset,” Knight said.

In contrast, he noted, when study participants were standing they tended to congregate more around a shared workspace and they would co-create whatever the group was working on in that shared space.

Knight’s advice for people who need to set up workspaces for meetings: “The first and foremost is to get up and get out of their chairs.”

He added that having a collaborative focal point – such as a whiteboard - in the room would also get people to work together.

Dr. Sally Augustin told Reuters Health that many components of room design could influence how people work together.

“Design decisions, such as colors used on walls and other surface, patterns seen, ceiling heights, whether there are windows to the outdoors, or whether or not passersby can see people working from the hallway, have repercussions for the mood and energy level of the people in a space and may have influenced the results found,” she said.

Augustin, who was not involved in the new study, is an environmental psychologist who specializes in person-centered design at her company Design with Science in Lagrange Park, Illinois.

“People are definitely energized by being around others, and they perform best when their overall energy level is appropriate for the task at hand,” she said. “The energy people get from the physical world around themselves, from the colors and patterns they see combines with the charge they get from standing near other people - if the resulting energy level is moderate, the total that is just right for creative thinking, people will tend to think more creatively.”

Augustin noted that women who are pregnant and people with back problems, among others, may not be able to stand for prolonged periods of time, and some people with disabilities might not be able to stand at all.

Augustin also pointed out a downside to standing. Height, which affects whether people need to look up or down to make eye contact, has predictable effects on social interaction, she said.

“When our heads are at different heights above the floor, conversations with others aren’t as smooth and productive as they are when all of us are speaking from roughly the same height, as we are when we’re seated in matching chairs,” she said.

SOURCE: Social Psychological and Personality Science, online June 12, 2014.