Editor's pick: Originally published Dec. 29.
The most important thing to remember when you get your lying-down desk is that you won't be able to get much work done. Everyone in your office, even people you rarely talk to, even people you think may not like you, even people you didn't know worked there, will stop by your new bed/desk to ask you about it.
And when you tell them about it, about how comfortable it is, even though you're still experimenting with the settings, about how, no, you haven't fallen asleep yet, don't ask them if they want to try it out for themselves. They will say "no." No matter how you beg, they won't crawl into your office bed, even if you're not in it. It's probably too intimate. Imagine your boss coming over to your house and cuddling up under your blankets just after you've left them. Nobody wants that.
What people do want when it comes to lying down at work is the fantasy that it's a good idea for most people. Unfortunately, it is not.
This all may sound familiar. In October, right in the middle of my week lying down on the job, a company that does not share my current vision about the future of work went on a massive media blitz.
"This $5,900 workstation lets you work lying down" read the Mashable headline. "Forget Standing Desks: Are You Ready to Lie Down and Work?" asked Wired. The product advertised was the Altwork Station, from Sonoma, Calif.-based Altwork.
The Altwork Workstation
Altwork is "the new way to work," reads the company's Web site. "This workstation is being marketed towards programmers, designers, writers and anyone else who uses a computer as their primary working tool," Mashable said. Later in the post, "In the company's eyes, the Altwork Station is a workstation for the 21st century."
As someone who uses a computer as my "primary working tool," let me say, "no, thank you."
I first saw the ErgoQuest Zero Gravity Workstation on the Internet in September. If you go to the Web site and look at the pictures, it leads easily to fantasies of a Wall-E-like future with seas of lying-down desks replacing the cubicle villages many of us work in today. So, I decided to take it for a spin.
Lying down at a repetitive computer job is not a new concept. Michigan-based ErgoQuest was founded in 1997 with the idea of helping people who had medical problems find a way to be productive at work when no other options were available.
The ErgoQuest Zero Gravity Workstation 7 sells for $5,995
"Many of our clients have issues with pain, spine, nerves," Jeff Vandenbosch, the company's co-founder and owner, told me when he came to my office to install mine. "Many of our clients wouldn't be working if they didn't have this."
I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer. The work day at TheStreet.com starts at 7:45 a.m. and I often don't leave the office until after six -- sometimes later. At home, I sit in front of a desktop computer, too, probably for at least an hour or two every day. I often spend three unbroken hours or more at a time sitting down in front of a computer. It's probably a problem -- but is it one that needs a solution?
The other side of that story is people like New York Times best-selling author Greg Iles, who has been a long-time ErgoQuest user. In 2011, a car accident took one of his legs. He now works brutally long writing shifts in a customized $14,000 ErgoQuest setup that includes a motorized wheelchair and allows him to work comfortably without his prosthesis. But he actually had a much simpler array for years prior to his accident, one that helped him deal with the eye strain of his work.
"If you work like I do, as a novelist, and you work in bouts of 18 hours -- I sometimes work in bouts of 24 hours -- I'm talking about never even getting up to go to the bathroom, it's the best," he told me over the phone, recently.
Vandenbosch's products are not for the ergo-tourist and they will not look stylish in your modish media company office. They are heavy duty. Just the basic "zero-gravity" chair, without the many available customizations, costs $900. A more elaborate set up can run from $2,700 to $16,000, but it goes higher when it comes to how much total custom jobs can cost. Vandenbosch gave a $23,000 estimate to one wealthy Wall Street-er who wanted to outfit a home office in his $40 million Manhattan penthouse.
The ErgoQuest Zero Gravity Workstation 10 starts at $15,995 and is the most expensive off-the-shelf model the company currently sells
Despite the recent rise in non-traditional office accommodations like the standing desk and the treadmill desk, Vandenbosch has only seen a modest uptick in interest in ErgoQuest. Years ago, a furniture buyer for Google looked into his products for programmers but ultimately declined to make a large purchase. He was unconvinced that ErgoQuest could make the product in the volume required, Vandenbosch said. Making an ErgoQuest desk is expensive and time-consuming. If the company had more orders, say 1,000 a year (the company sells 75-to-100 a year right now), costs could come down and processes could be streamlined, Vandenbosch said. But there just hasn't been enough interest.
There is a considerable amount of care that goes into each ErgoQuest workstation. The entire concept for the product is based on the idea of the "zero gravity" position, the natural position the body will assume in a weightless environment, and it's the one NASA uses for astronauts at liftoff.
According to Vandenbosch, it "equalizes the pressure" over the entire body, creating a stress-free environment ("stress free" in a physical sense: it doesn't handle deadlines for you). For people with injuries who can't work any other way, it can be a life-saver. It can also be a way for employers to get more productivity out of their employees.
One ErgoQuest client, a law firm in Brooklyn, purchased a workstation for one of its senior partners who was pregnant and was told by her doctor to get bed rest.
"A lot of our corporate clients, human resources is purchasing it for the employee," Vandenbosch said. "It's an attempt to try and keep somebody valuable working. Other times, it's more of a workers' comp issue. They're either going to make this accommodation or they'll pay them and they won't work at all."
You could also argue that it's not progress to find a way to squeeze another ounce of productivity out of a pregnant woman. Is this another way for companies to get more out of us or a kindness bestowed for those who can work no other way? Probably both.
Vandenbosch recommends that clients use the workstation in the zero gravity position. That's how he set it up for me. And then he showed me how to adjust the chair. Every arrangement you can imagine is possible, from how you are sitting to how your monitors and keyboard are situated.
After giving it a try for a day and a half, I couldn't stand the zero gravity position. It was actually hurting my back and I felt like I was on my heels, metaphorically. Imagine trying to write high-energy work emails while being cuddled in the fetal position. So I adjusted it to what was closest to what I had at my old sitting desk. It took only a few hours of that to realize it wasn't what I wanted either.
Over the course of the week, I tweaked all the settings, moving the back down, the bedpan up, the legs down, then up again. I adjusted the monitor height and angle; same for the desk, where the keyboard and mouse sit. When I finally found a setting I really liked, I realized that it was pretty close to the original zero gravity setting that Vandenbosch left me with.
Ultimately, even as someone who uses a computer as the "primary working tool," it was not for me. I like popping up and down and walking around the office to talk to people. Getting in and out of the setup always took time and was awkward. Some days I think it gave me back pain.
About half-a-dozen people work at ErgoQuest for Vandenbosch, who bought out his partners in the company in 2014 and is now the sole owner. If the future isn't Wall-E and things keep on going the way they seem to be going, that number may not ultimately grow too much and Vandenbosch won't become a billionaire. And that's probably okay with him.
"I don't suppose that our station is going to take over and be a regular alternative to a conventional workstation," he told me the last time we spoke, after he had disassembled my bed-desk. "It isn't for someone that is physically happy or healthy with their workstation. But, for some people, this saves their careers. They can work comfortably for many hours with the technology to do their work. Our goal is to be that alternative."