Distractions from the Standing Desk

The idea of standing desks is certainly in vogue in the workplace, but is it the best choice?

Proponents point out that sitting for too long can have serious health problems, and many people even argue that standing at one’s desk can help boost productivity. While there may be some truth in this trendy approach, psychologist Mary Lamia emphasizes the possible downsides of being more in touch with your coworkers.

Anybody who has worked in a cubicle is familiar with how isolating that can feel, putting us out of sight from the rest of the office. According to Dr. Lamia, however, this might be a very good thing, based on our inevitable exposure to other people’s microexpressions.

Essentially, when we are constantly able to look at other people while standing at our desks, we subconsciously read into the expressions of everyone else in the room. Sitting at a cubicle limits our field of vision, but standing not only expands our field of view, it also raises our perspective. Both of these factors increase the amount of people’s emotions we are forced to process.

As Dr. Lamia says: “You’re like a lightning rod… You don’t just notice your colleagues’ presence—you start to literally imitate their presence.”

With all of these people in our peripheral gaze, we subconsciously process their emotions. Even when people are staring blank faced at a computer screen, for instance, they display microexpressions involuntarily. As these flit across their faces, our brains seize on these changes, processing the emotions, and distracting us from our work.

It is important to remember that reading expressions is not something that is done through careful analysis. Instead, we see a face, and immediately come to recognize what emotion is being displayed. Because this is not a rational or conscious process, it can happen at the subconscious level as well.

As psychologist Dr. Derek Chapman points out, standing desks can also contribute to what is called the “spotlight effect.” This phenomena distracts us by making us believe that people are paying undue attention to us. This can occur if we are one of only a few people at a standing desk and exacerbates Dr. Lamia’s concerns.

That said, despite the risks of empathetic overload, standing desks can have the potential to boost productivity and combat obesity.

Instead of completing rejecting or embracing this new phenomenon, Dr. Chapman urges a level of moderation. He points out that “People perform optimally at a moderate level of arousal… too much and we can’t focus, too little and we’re bored.”

With this all in mind, must work to strike a balance, staying conscious of the role that microexpressions play in all of our lives, whether we are aware of them or not.

For more information on how emotional recognition impacts the workplace, see our past blogs here and here.

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