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The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), which is the accrediting body of the profession in the US, recently ran a piece on the benefits of “standing desks and other innovative workstations solutions”.  A definite read for anyone who is wondering what goes on in the minds of our corporate overlords.

Before getting into the article itself, it’s worth providing a small primer into what Human Resources is, or more adequately, what it tries to be.

Human Resources, like most non-revenue driving functions in organizations, arose from the need for greater administration around employment. The function as whole was largely known, and still is in places, as the personnel department. Think: people behind desks checking clock-in times, writing memos, making sure everyone is getting paid, and dealing with employee issues such as sick leaves, policies, etc.

As organizations became more complex, so did the function. Its evolution into Human Resource Management came on the wings of several managerial theorists, namely David Ulrich. Now, instead of only doing the above administrative tasks, which have been moved to what is known as “shared service centres” (glorified call centres pushing out standardized information). HR departments also play a larger role in employee selection, performance management, and employee relations and wellbeing.

The caring folk

Although HR has come a long way in terms of the functions they fulfil, they still struggle with being seen as anything other than the administrators they were.  At the centre of this, whether or not HR professionals are aware or want to admit, is an ideological paradox.

Human Resources, by definition is meant to bring in a human or more accurately a social element involved in the management of workplace relations. However, this is met by managerial pressure to ensure that HR is as close as possible to a cost cutter and revenue driver as possible. This has resulted in a tenacious attempt at reducing any human factor to dollars and cents.

“In fact, the return on investment is typically between $3 and $7 for every $1 invested in workplace interventions that help people be more active on the job, according to Levine.”

This struggle is not one that is foreign to political philosophers. At the centre of the capitalist/Marxist argument is that very clash. Marx argued that one of the biggest ideological downfalls of capitalism is that it masks the employment relationship as an economic one, one where employees wilfully trade their leisure time for salaried labour, as opposed to the arrangements true social nature, that of subjugation. What that “economic trade”, Marx argues, leaves out, is that it also creates, and is inherently dependent on, power structures.

You don’t need to go far to see how this dynamic applies to you in the workplace, just look up your contract or your job description, how far do you get before it’s made clear who you report to?

The argument from employees here is that, well this is still a place where I get to exert my skills, I’m being provided with an opportunity to be productive. This is where Marxists would bring in the historic evolution of the power structure, and how that relationship is not too dissimilar from the feudal landscape which it emerged from. But I digress.

With this ideological weight, it’s difficult for HR to be seen as the caring folk. And irrespective of how many “positive” “well-being” or “work-life balance” initiatives they take, it will be hard for them to impact any underlying change in the way work is done. Essentially, HR in the corporate world, is viewed with the same relationship radical Marxists see the police and the state, an extension of implementing subjugation by perpetuating fear and a sense of a ‘natural order’.

Essentially, HR in the corporate world, is viewed with the same relationship radical Marxists see the police and the state, an extension of implementing subjugation by perpetuating fear and a sense of a ‘natural order’.

Go-go gadget

This brings us to the topic at hand, standing desks. The SHRM article makes great points as to why standing desks, and other contraptions that get employees moving “including workstations with treadmills or bicycles attached, inflatable balls used as desk chairs, and under-desk elliptical machines.” are important to the workforce and employers alike.

“We were not designed to sit all day. We were designed to move…This is causing people to live shorter lives. It’s a risk factor, just like smoking.”

“Being seated even for an hour raises the chance of blood clots, Hedge says. Sedentariness causes individuals to pack on pounds because it signals the body to store calories as fat instead of burning them off. It also reduces the impact of gravity—in other words, the body doesn’t have to expend energy to carry its own weight—so people lose bone and muscle density and get weaker (much like astronauts do). And it causes compression of the lower spine, which can lead to back problems, especially when workers lean forward toward a computer.”

“If you’re not considering it, you’re going to put yourself at a competitive disadvantage,” Spaulding says. “Employees don’t want to just sit all day.”

“employee engagement scores are up and retention has been boosted by the company’s commitment to workers’ well-being”

Capitalists here will be quick to point out the brilliance of the free market in solving its own problems. But again, what problem is really being discussed?

The writer of this article seems convinced that the issue is not unpaid overtime, stressful work environments with unrealistic goals, relentless after hour communication, underemployment, undertrained managers, or the alienation of labour from output. None of those are issues, being sedentary though, is. So now, in addition to dealing with present issues, we’re going to add the requirement for employees to be active.

This is all without mentioning that it’s quite apparent the best interest in this initiative is skewed more towards the organisation than employees’ wellbeing.

It’s at this stage where someone reading this has begun to think: but this is not the point of the article, the article is not investigating bad workplace habits, they are investigating standing desks. This is exactly what is, at the core, wrong with this piece and all similar to it. It is simply impossible to tackle an open and complex system such as the workplace through these narrow issues and initiatives. This rationale is paralleled in the way economists tackle the market, by limiting any and all variables except for the one at hand, Ceteris paribus, all else held constant. A rational that simply doesn’t translate to the fluid working world.

It is simply impossible to tackle an open and complex system such as the workplace through these narrow issues and initiatives. This rationale is paralleled in the way economists tackle the market.

The straight jacket

The addition of these initiatives, and their implementation, are nothing more than an extension of Taylorism.

Under the guise of helping employees, management is delving into further personal realms to manage how employees should work and coerce them into a common practice determined as beneficial [“The optimal mix of activities is to sit for 20 minutes, stand for eight and move (walk or stretch) for two”], all the while completely ignoring the underlying problem.

I can’t help but wonder, how long before HR begins integrating this into performance management?

The counter-argument here is that this is not an additional requirement from employers, it’s simply a suggestion, and it’s creating a safer, better, workplace. That argument would stand, unfortunately, anyone working in HR understands that changes in employee behaviour can only be achieved through comprehensive cultural changes pushed from the top.

“It takes leadership, commitment, a reflection in values and embedding in the culture”

“if you opt for active workstations, it’s important to emphasise that you want people to use them”

“A big factor that influences what will happen at a given company is whether managers use the workstations and encourage activity in the workplace.”

It’s obvious from the above statements that employers don’t view this as an “optional” practice in self-care. Organisations are seeking to re-educate its workforce and embed “cultural change”. Worse yet, to re-educate employees on something that is a basic human function, a function that has been robbed by the very same organisations who decided that a desk job is more prestigious than manual labour.

It’s worth asking here, where does this end? Where do we draw the line between the personal, the individual, and the socialised employee? The good labourer? When do we start seeing this as the totalitarian encroachment that it is? It’s no longer enough for employers to give us money for our time and skills, it’s now imperative that they control all our behaviour in the workplace.

Ping pong tables and counselling

This is but one example of how the power relationship in the workplace is masked and contorted. The relationship between employer and employed is presented, with the help of HR, as that of a benevolent dictatorship.

HR has become “Inspector Gadget” when it comes to these “human” issues. Whenever a new problem arises, they’ll be there with a “tool” or “trick” to make things better. Unfortunately, all they present are band-aid solutions with nothing human about them.

HR has become “Inspector Gadget” when it comes to these “human” issues. Whenever a new problem arises, they’ll be there with a “tool” or “trick” to make things better.

Until HR starts dealing with the real causes of problems faced by employees, which will by all means put them at odds with the organisation, they will need to continue working within the constraints as opposed to removing them. Maybe why it’s a good idea to keep unions around, but hey, at least these active workstations look cool, right?

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