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“At the heart of it, I’m on a mission to reduce back pain, and the disability that back pain causes”, says Bart de Vries, physiotherapist and founder of Limber, a small company in Aotearoa New Zealand building a movement for movement. What started with a desire to stop the cycle of back pain has grown to include a product range of dynamic desks, stools, posture courses and back health resources aiming to normalise the movement that comes with working and living from the floor.
Bart speaks emphatically on the enormous societal burden of back pain, explaining that “back pain is the number one cause of disability in the world, eight out of ten people experience back pain in their life, it’s the number one reason people retire early, [and] it’s the number one cause for lost workplace productivity,” claims backed by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (Low Back Pain Clinical Care Standard | Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, n.d.). In response, Limber is working to create environments that allow us to get the movement our backs need to stay healthy without conscious effort, as part of a goal to halve back pain by 2050.
By confronting a significant determinant of work-related back pain and disability, and doing so with sustainable sourcing and circular economy-inspired business practices, Limber creates healthy outcomes for people and the planet, contributing to several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: good health and well-being (3), decent work (8), and responsible consumption (12).
“World’s healthiest desks.”
It took a moment, Bart recalls, to process what he’d just heard. Professor Galen Cranz from the Graduate School of Architecture at UC Berkley had just spent the day evaluating and working at a Limber desk. “That was a real high point,” Bart explains, “the mix of validation and having someone who’s a world leader in this kind of category turn up and [say] you’ve done something that is world leading.”
This recognition of Limber’s achievements was just one highlight in an ongoing journey that began with a group of friends designing cardboard prototypes over lunch on Thursdays. In 2015, Bart gathered an engineer, an industrial designer, and an experience designer, to see what they could accomplish in an hour each week. The goal was to create a desk that removed the cognitive barrier to movement and workflow interruption posed by changing postures, thereby overcoming the low utility of conventional standing desks. Momentum gathered over the next two years: weekends building models, then full-size prototypes, then, suddenly, registering the business and fulfilling Limber’s first commercial order. Since then, Bart says, it’s become a matter of “understanding how that product has to be really commercially viable and scalable and attractive to different customer segments to make it really mainstream.”
The ability to work at any height, from floor to standing, and transition quickly between postures, is integral to Limber’s desk designs. It’s a direct challenge to the sedentary status quo in workplace behaviour. “Currently, the design of our physical built environment limits our movement and restricts our range of motion within a day,” Bart laments. “A key part of that is the chair, in that mid-height seating basically acts as a physical block of movement… And so with Limber, it's a response to that and to design a new environment, which has no restraints on movement, and allows us to go through a full range of motion each day.” Bart observes that, to promote the regular movement required to establish and maintain back health, a revolution in workplace design is required: “changing behaviors is really, really hard, but the easiest way we can do that is by changing our physical built environment.” Limber’s full-sized Petal and Linear dynamic desks represent such a disruption of the office environment. In contrast to conventional office desks and electric sit-stand desks, they offer a complete range of movement, from standing to the floor, and rapid transitions between heights. As crucial as rapid height changes are to utility, it’s the ability to work from the floor that truly sets Limber desks apart, unlocking a range of previously inaccessible active resting floor postures.
While Limber desks have only been revolutionizing work environments for the last six years, the inspiration begins a several years prior. “I’ve had a history of back pain since I was about twelve years old… and that’s what inspired me to become a physio,” Bart tells me. Bart’s desire to have an impact led him to pivot from physiotherapy to business study. Working at a fixed-height desk, the back pain quickly resurfaced. “The irony was slapping me in the face,” he exclaims, prompting the search for a desk that would help him keep moving. In response to the limitations of existing sit-stand desks and the tyranny of the office chair, Bart found a clear direction. He explains, “We wanted to build an environment that allowed us to move really quickly, and go through a full range of motion – to the floor and back up again – fast enough that the decision to move was not a cognitive decision, but a reflex.”
Beyond the specific inspiration for Limber’s desks, the guiding influence of two core values is evident in the story of Limber. Firstly, Bart cites a desire to have an impact, in his words, “to do something that improves people’s lives, and fundamentally changes something, from that caregiving, healthcare perspective.” Secondly, he highlights the importance of approaching business with a lens of environmental sustainability as a driving force. Combined, these values of social impact and environmental sustainability provide the perspective from which Bart evaluates Limber: “When things are hard, I lean on those two things, and look back and can say I’ve built something I’m fundamentally proud of.”
Essentially, Limber exists to improve health outcomes by encouraging healthy behaviors and reducing risk factors of back pain and related disability. Limber’s dynamic desks achieve these goals, specifically, by creating a work environment that allows seamless transition between active resting postures, removing barriers to the motion that protects and rehabilitates our backs. While research at UC Berkley to quantify Limber’s health impact is ongoing, Bart is unequivocal with respect to the underlying theory. “Through the ability to rest or sit on the floor, we can increase our muscle activity through our legs, which increases our metabolism. And there’s research that shows that’s important to maintaining a healthy metabolism and potentially reducing some of the long-term metabolic diseases that are so prevalent in our society.” In the short term, drawing from research on standing desks, the movement afforded by Limber desks, Bart continues, “Helps up-regulate our nervous system, so we get more blood to the brain, which is where all the productivity and creativity benefits come from.” These benefits are in addition, of course, to the user-reported reduction in experiences of back pain resulting from engagement with Limber desks, and the ability to find or adjust positions that allow recovery from back pain.
As for many businesses, the last few years have brought variable business conditions for Limber. The emergence of COVID-19 and the resulting shift to work-from-home during pandemic-related protections saw demand for Limber desks skyrocket. Bart observes “Through the back of 2021 [business] was just growing like crazy.” Rising inflation and cost of living pressures, combined with the return to office-based work, have resulted in reduced demand over the past twelve months. Driven by sustainable impact, Bart sees the potential for skills development offered by such challenges, stating “I would’ve learned more about business in the last twelve months, and what makes a business tick sustainably than probably the last decade combined.” Moreover, when reflecting on the business benefit proposition of Limber, rather than focusing on the revenue generated by sales of over 1300 desks, or the perfect 5-star review record across all three of Limber’s desk designs, Bart chooses to emphasize the learning opportunities: “it’s been the ultimate learning vehicle to help me understand more about business, but also build my knowledge around healthcare and physiotherapy… pulling me out of the one-on-one (physiotherapy) environment, and connecting me with the wider ecosystem.”
Of particular significance is the impact Limber has had on other businesses. Operating predominantly through contracting rather than in-house labor not only allows Limber to remain agile and resilient, but also has helped contractors and suppliers stay afloat and focus on their own capabilities. Having initially manufactured all Limber desks himself, Bart now contracts production to a manufacturer normally engaged in creating props and miniatures for the film industry in Aotearoa New Zealand. That partnership made all the difference when the film industry collapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic. “For me to be able to turn up and say, hey, I've got 80 desks that need to get made, and they're all pre-paid for, and you know, can you make them?... And for 18 months, it was almost their only income stream. Being able to partner in a way that keeps our film industry alive in this case was really rewarding and now we've got a fantastic relationship,” Bart states.
Sustainability is fundamental to Bart’s outlook on business: “Build something that’s really useful, build something that’s not going to ruin the planet.” After all, he adds, “If we have a wrecked planet, then our health goes out the window, so whatever you are building doesn't really matter.” This has led to several initiatives ensuring that Limber is not just good for people, but for our planet too. All timber used in Limber products is sourced from sustainably grown forests; products are designed to stay in service longer, supported by a 10-year warranty on the Petal and Linear desks, and a lifetime warranty on the stool and Mini desk; replacement parts are shipped in reusable packaging allowing collection of returns, which are then reconditioned and repurposed in new desks; and waste is reduced by transforming offcuts into new products like (the adorable) Takehē headphone holders and whiteboards, contributing to a waste reduction of 5.04kg per desk.
Partnerships offer another avenue through which Limber provides environmental benefits. By providing contract work, Limber maintains a relationship with the engineer who helped design the original desk. While Limber itself isn’t innovating for direct environmental impact, the income provided by Limber allows the engineer to do just that. As Bart puts it, “It has given him the space and the financial freedom to put his energy into work that will have a climate impact and deep technical engineering work that will have a big impact.”
Concerning social impact, Limber is focused on reducing back pain and creating accessible workplace environments. As exciting as the prospect of empirical data to back up the “world’s healthiest desks” moniker may be, Bart remains motivated by customer experience. In terms of impact, Bart says, “There’s nothing better to me than when someone writes a review and talks about how they don’t have back pain anymore.” He shares stories of customers with histories of chronic back pain that limited their ability to work, who, after using and engaging with a Limber desk and exploring floor postures, are able to work without pain. “That to me is the most rewarding thing I can hear.”
Beyond the direct health impact of Limber’s desks, there is evidence that the movement encouraging people to embrace the floor and live and work from floor postures is growing. Limber’s 2800 email subscribers, and similarly sized community of followers on social media, provide an indication of the scale of the global community: small, but growing, and growing quickly according to Bart. His hope for this movement is that it builds to the point of inspiring a culture shift and that by 2050, the use of active resting postures, and working and living from the floor, within a westernized design context, becomes normalized to the point that “Everyone is aware of it, and everyone has to engage with it at some point within their day. That’d be pretty awesome.”
As we conclude, Bart asks for my thoughts on our conversation, reflecting that, sometimes, “[you] meet people like me that you kind of have a vision of, and then you hear these stories, and you're like, ah, it's just a normal guy with a business.” His statement conveys a message of hope rather than self-deprecation: that it doesn’t take a hero to make change for good, that regular people like you and I can make a meaningful contribution towards a sustainable future, particularly if we support each other along the way.
Low Back Pain Clinical Care Standard | Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2023, from https://www.safetyandquality.gov.au/standards/clinical-care-standards/low-back-pain-clinical-care-standard#low-back-pain-clinical-care-standard%20
Bart de Vries, Physiotherapist & Founder
Limber is a company in transition. What started, at least in practice, as a furniture company that talks about back pain, is on the path to becoming a healthcare company that happens to make desks. Since launching in 2017, and hitting its stride during the transition to work-from-home during the COVID pandemic, Limber promotes active resting postures and regular movement through its range of dynamic desks, posture training courses, and back pain resources with the motto “the best posture is the next posture.”