As the office environment and the technology workers use are changing at a rapid pace, the office chair and desk remain much the same as the centrepiece of any office. However, while many organizations focus on the design and layout of the desk and furniture systems, the office chair can be an afterthought. It shouldn’t be, considering the amount of time that a typical employee sits in the chair doing work: more than 1,600 hours per year assuming a typical eight-hour workday including breaks.
For organizations, or even individuals working from a home-based office, there needs to be as much thought put into selecting the office chair as designing the rest of the office. The office chair provides a structural support for the body during sitting to reduce the overall risk for musculoskeletal injury. Spending long periods of time sitting can be stressful on the body, especially the low back, hip flexors, shoulder and forearm areas.
The design of the office chair must be able to support the body. To select the right office chair for an organization, consider price, user testing, and aesthetics.
There are many different types of chairs on the market, ranging from $90 at a big box retailer all the way up to $2,000 or more per unit.
The higher the price, the more adjustability and the higher the grade of fabrics to choose from. An office chair that has an adjustable back area, arms, and other features, typically ranges from $700 to $1,200.
The lower the price, the fewer the adjustable features. There is also the risk that the chair will not fit everyone in the organization.
It’s best to visit an office furniture store to look at different models and talk to the sales representatives about the ability to do user testing to see if the chair is right for the organization. Most office furniture stores will support this type of testing.
User testing involves having different people from the organization try out the chairs. This step can be formal, with surveys and evaluation, or informal, with employees simply asked how the chairs fit.
User testing is important, as selecting the wrong chair, or selecting an expensive chair with features that will never be used, can be costly. To help with this step, most office furniture stores will allow companies to try out several chairs.
During this stage, some companies hire an ergonomist who can assist with the user trial to ensure that each chair is properly adjusted to fit each person. There are three important ergonomic features that will decrease the risk of musculoskeletal injury:
1. Adjustability of the arms, seat height and low-back areas to fit different-sized people.
2. Adjustability of both the seat height and depth, which is especially important for both larger and smaller employees.
3. Adjustability of the backrest for lumbar support and tilt.
During testing, it’s important to get a representative sample of employees who will be using the chair, including people of different heights. Some chairs may fit a tall individual well but may be too big or lack enough low back support for a shorter person. Consider quickly surveying staff on the different features of the chair, and ultimately have staff rank the chair.
Instead of lining chairs up in a row for employees to try out, have different employees use the chair for several hours in their work area. That way they can see how the chair fits them when working, what fits well, and what would need to be changed. For example, even with a great-fitting chair, some shorter employees may need a foot rest to support their lower legs. The user trial is important because the employees trying the chair will be the ones using it every day, so the chair needs to fit their bodies.
When looking for office chairs, many individuals are attracted to the stuffed leather executive chair; however, many of these chairs lack the adjustability and, after a month or so, users are suffering from a sore lower back and shoulders. No matter what the design, the chair needs to be adjustable to fit the body.
Select a type of chair based on both price and user testing first, and then work with the office furniture store to look at possibilities for fabrics and design. The chair can be a beautiful piece of furniture that complements the office design or stands out as a statement piece.
Often overlooked, the office chair is one of the most important tools in the office. By taking an ergonomic approach and involving users, the process of selecting a chair can be both a safety-promoting and team-building opportunity for the organization. In addition, investing in good office chairs can help reduce operating costs by lowering time lost due to musculoskeletal injuries and contribute to a satisfying work environment.
Aaron Miller is a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE) and an ergonomic consultant based in Kelowna, B.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.