What Your Office Chairs Say About Your Company

Standing desks, which give employees the option of standing while working, were touted as the next big thing, but the next big thing may be more attuned to comfort and a residential feeling in the office. That’s what I took away from a piece by Cliff Kuang published last week on Co. Design.

Apple has ordered chairs for all the workstations in its 12,000-person campus that are designed to help relax employees: “The pitch around the design wasn’t that it was technical or flashy. Rather, the idea was that it was ‘quiet,’ with soothing curves that could blend in anywhere, even in a home,” Kuang writes of the “Pacific Chair” by furniture-maker Vitra. The chair even comes in pink!

The piece notes that chair design going in a more homey direction suggests that companies realize the workday is built more around collaboration today than time sitting upright at a desk. I say “upright” because the article notes that many younger workers no longer want to be seen as conventional, 9-to-5 employees, who keep to a rigid schedule that always takes place in the same location. Even employees who are not in traditionally creative fields such as design or writing want to feel creative and relaxed about their work environment.

An office chair probably will never be mobile, but choosing a chair that could be part of a home or other environment sends a subtle cultural message to employees that the company is interested in their comfort, and wants to create a cozy, rather than sterile, environment. That change in message-sending goes along with other décor improvements from recent years, such as the use of softer lighting in offices, rather than the harsh florescent lights many of us grew up with. Some offices are even acknowledging the importance of natural light, and creating spaces that maximize the light coming in through windows, so a “landlocked” employee wedged in the middle of a continent of cubicles won’t feel like she’s trapped in a prison cell for nine hours a day.

The question becomes whether you, indeed, want to send the message that your company is accommodating and flexible, and that it wants employees to be comfortable and relaxed. When I was in high school, I had a math teacher who told us in a rambling aside that research showed that people concentrated, and did their best work, when they were slightly uncomfortable—when they were slightly chilled and slightly hungry. That was in the early 1990s, so it’s possible we’ve had a mentality shift since then. After all, we live in an age when people strategize ways to wear sweatpants everywhere—have you seen those sweatpants that masquerade as blue jeans? Or the infomercials about fleece blankets you can snap around your neck and walk around in, the Snuggie? I wonder what more recent research would say about the conditions in which people do their best work.

I’m biased in this debate because I lean heavily in the direction of requiring comfort at all times. When I was a child riding in the car with my mother, I kept messing with the air conditioning and heating vents, frustrated that I couldn’t get the air directed exactly the way I wanted. My mother, who came of age in the late 1950s, finally snapped: “You may just have to be uncomfortable.” I’ve always remembered that because in our current age, people would push back against the idea that you may just have to be uncomfortable. Whether maximum comfort and relaxation produce the best work from employees, your younger employees may expect it.

As I say, I’m biased in the direction of comfort, even though I realize, like my mother taught me, that this is spoiled and unreasonable of me, and that none of us should expect to be comfortable at all times. So, I would say that people like me, and many of your Millennials, would not only like relaxed, homey office seating, but a “living room” area in the office with easy chairs and couches that allow employees to put their feet up while doing work. The chairs and couches should come with a tray, or some other structure, that can be pulled out to provide a surface to put a laptop on. And, of course, this “living room” would need WiFi and power outlets.

I’ve always felt that where, and how, employees work, isn’t important as long as they do nothing unethical, and they deliver high-quality work on time. What do you think? Would your corporate culture be amenable to office chairs with a design, and feel, that could fit in a home?

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