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Tech Neck Is Back

In an attempt to lure staff back to the office, some companies are investing in ways to move while at work. Real estate developer Edge, known for its nudging features like centralized staircases and indoor climbing walls, has installed the world’s largest “walking meeting room”—a treadmill big enough for 15 people to meet, walk and talk on—in one of its office buildings opening in Amsterdam’s Zuidas CBD later this year. BentallGreenOak’s development 105 Victoria Street in London will have a 200-meter outdoor walk-and-talk track to encourage active meetings, as well as an indoor arena for sports and games. 

A small study conducted in the Netherlands found that 70 percent of employees in sedentary jobs wanted more physical activity in their routine, so these sophisticated onsite facilities do count as progress. But hours of vigorous hiking or bouldering isn’t enough to undo the effects of sedentary working.

“No amount of exercise can entirely cancel the effect of sitting and looking at a screen for eight hours a day,” says Trivedi. Independent of physical activity, sedentary behavior is associated with increased cardiovascular and all-cause mortality. As Trivedi explains: “The only way to minimize the physical effects of prolonged sitting is if we take breaks from that position regularly.” 

Experts say that companies must ensure staff aren’t endangered by their WFH setups. “If companies don’t need their physical spaces, there’s a trade-off and they can put some of the money they’d have spent on rent into making the environment safer for workers,” says Higham. Many remote tech companies give generous stipends in this area. Reddit reimburses employees for some home workspace purchases, such as a desk and monitor, while staff at Malta-headquartered Hotjar get a home office budget of €2,500 ($2,700), which they can choose how to spend, plus €500 a year. For any spaces fully dedicated to working, Flatfile sets aside a $10,000 budget per employee to cover “an interior designer to collaborate with to make over your workspace, combining our company culture with your unique personality and tastes,” it writes in its jobs ads. 

Insurtech companies are latching onto the desire to incentivize movement and are tying it to company premiums and employee benefits. For example, UK-based life insurance tech company YuLife offers a gamified app through which employees can unlock new movement challenges each day and earn “YuCoin” to be spent in the “Yuniverse.” 

However, Anna Rudnicka, ​​a research fellow of human-computer interaction at UCL and coauthor of the break-taking paper with Cook, is wary of tools like this. “It goes back to: Is this being used to improve the population’s health or for companies to have another way of controlling workers? It’s especially questionable in North America, where employment is tied so closely to accessibility of health care—it could get out of hand quickly if your employer has access to data about whether you moved enough.” 

There’s a fine line between paternalism and friendly encouragement here, but Rudnicka believes going back to the basics is a good start. “Constant availability has become a requirement, and I’d advocate for more acceptance around different types of communication so people can take walks during calls, rather than always opting for video,” she says.

After all, few initiatives will have an impact unless employers make a conscious effort to reduce stress and encourage pauses in the working day. “Be clear about the fact that people don’t need to be available all the time,” says Rudnicka. “Ultimately, if workers feel they’re constantly controlled, they won’t feel able to take a break—active or sedentary.”