Just an idea

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There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, writes Mark Eltringham. And for the UK office design sector that time is right now when it comes to sit-stand workstations.

Humans are creatures addicted to patterns. So much so in fact that where none exist, we actively impose them. We like the idea of patterned certainty and like to think things happen for a reason and in predictable ways. When they don’t, that’s when we often would rather rationalise than accept that sometimes there are no patterns and we can’t predict what comes next.

This explains an awful lot about the world, including the way that we expect new ideas to work. We believe in the graceful sweep of the diffusion of the innovation curve. We think when we invent our better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to our door and are even confident how it will do so; first the innovators and then the early adopters before the whole idea goes mainstream.

“What appears to be happening is a fundamental change in local market conditions that allows the idea to take root.”

Often, however, this kind of thinking is deeply flawed and the triumphal arrival of what we are confident are great ideas are met with indifference or even ignored altogether. The better mouse trap won’t succeed until enough people have a problem with mice.

We’re witnessing exactly this process in action in the UK office furniture market right now. After decades in which the sit-stand desk was seen, if anything, as a bit of a novelty or possibly a one-off option to deal with an orthopaedic need or some other specific issue, the past couple of years have seen a great deal of talk about the benefits of sit-stand workstations and the more widespread adoption of them as a standard workstation option.

We certainly could never claim that they are a new idea. The first time I became aware of the idea in a mainstream context was with Geoff Hollington’s height adjustable desk as part of the Relay system for Herman Miller. My first personal involvement with an actuator based desk was with the launch of a product range for a British manufacturer called President in 1994. Other products have been introduced to the market regularly without making much of a mark. Until now, that is.

This begs the rather obvious question of why this should be. It seems unlikely that it is about the design of the products and their marketing. Elsewhere in the world the idea has proved incredibly successful across Northern Europe for many years, yet we in the UK have always proved resistant to its charms.

What appears to be happening is a fundamental change in local market conditions that allows the idea to take root. For a few years now, the debate about ergonomics in the UK has been shifting away from talk of correct posture and towards an acknowledgement that it should be about movement. This idea has already transformed seating design and the way we talk about ergonomics. We are also far more focussed on issues like wellbeing and individualisation. Buying decisions are also subject to far more influence from general managers and HR managers.

The result is what we now see: after decades in which the innovation curve flatlined for this product, we now suddenly find ourselves upwardly mobile on its lower slopes.

Mark Eltringham is the publisher of workplace design and management website Office Insight. mark@officeinsight.org