Social awkwardness scuppers standing meetings

Standing during meetings could help keep office workers healthy, but new research from King's College London and Brunel University London suggests it's hard to resist keeping our seats when standing up breaks social rules.

Office workers make up half the UK working population and spend approximately two-thirds of their working days seated. Research suggests that people who sit for long periods have an increased risk of disease, while some studies have linked regular standing to a lower risk of premature death. Standing up in meetings could be one way to reduce workplace sitting.

'Sedentary office work is an urgent public health issue,' says lead researcher Dr Benjamin Gardner from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London. 'For some employers, such as software developers, standing meetings are commonplace. We need to get to the point where standing is the new normal for workers who would rather not be sat down.'

The researchers explored the experience of office workers who stood in meetings while their colleagues were seated in order to identify barriers to getting people on their feet. Twenty-five participants were asked to stand in three separate meetings and interviewed afterwards. They were instructed to stand for however long they deemed appropriate.

'We found that standing in meetings is a social minefield. Our participants often felt awkward about standing – they felt more visible to others, and worried that other attendees would think they were 'attention seekers',' says Dr Gardner.

Participants reported feeling 'disconcerted', 'awkward' or 'stupid', and felt like they were breaking unwritten rules. Many felt it particularly inappropriate not to sit in formal meetings or those addressing sensitive topics. In the face of this social pressure many participants stood at the side or back of the room, which some felt limited their engagement in the meeting, or simply chose to sit.

Not all the experiences were bad, however. Many participants said that standing made them more engaged in the meeting and motivated them to minimise meeting length. Indeed, previous research suggests that standing meetings tend to be shorter in duration than seated meetings.

When participants were chairing the meeting they felt that standing gave them more confidence, power, and authority over the meeting. However, this effect could backfire and cause psychological discomfort when participants feared their standing would be interpreted as an inappropriate assertion of power, particularly with senior colleagues.

'Ours is the first study to find out how people actually experience standing up in meetings,' says Professor Louise Mansfield from the Institute of Environment, Health and Societies at Brunel University London. 'Initial experiences of new behaviours can determine whether people will keep going. While standing is not a one-size-fits-all solution, it's about creating activity permissive cultures at work where people have the opportunity to move around more.'

The researchers suggest a number of ways employers could encourage people to stand in meetings by minimising the unease people feel from 'breaking the rules'. For instance, hosts might suggest that attendees must stand when speaking in contribution to a group discussion, and organisations can provide appropriate meeting spaces with high tables and stools.

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The research is published in PLOS ONE and funded by the Medical Research Council.

NOTES TO EDITORS

About King's College London and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience

King's College London is one of the top 25 universities in the world (2017/18 QS World University Rankings) and among the oldest in England. King's has more than 26,500 students (of whom nearly 10,400 are graduate students) from some 150 countries worldwide, and nearly 6,900 staff. The university is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate. http://www.kcl.ac.uk

The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King's College London is the premier centre for mental health and related neurosciences research in Europe. It produces more highly cited publications in psychiatry and mental health than any other university in the world (Scopus, 2016), with 12 of the most highly cited scientists in this field. World-leading research from the IoPPN has made, and continues to make, an impact on how we understand, prevent and treat mental illness and other conditions that affect the brain. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/ioppn

About Brunel University London

Brunel University London is an international university committed to bringing benefit to society through excellence in education, research and knowledge transfer. Founded in 1966, Brunel has a reputation for high-impact academic research and entrepreneurial flair. The university works extensively with industry partners, contributing to global innovation and policy change. Situated in Uxbridge, Brunel has a broad portfolio of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes that attract 12,000 full-time students and 2,600 staff from more than 100 countries across the world.

About the Medical Research Council

The Medical Research Council is at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty-two MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. http://www.mrc.ac.uk

Media Contact

Robin Bisson
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       http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0198483 
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