Buying a new office chair is something that often does not get the amount of attention it deserves. In fact, the majority of people probably spend more time (and money) on choosing a desk. What they don’t take into account is that, if you work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, you will spend 10 000 hours on that chair over the next five years.
Why is it important to know something about your work habits and your office before buying an office chair?
Knowing what you will be using the office chair for and how you will be using it are probably the two most important factors that should influence your buying decision.
If you are an executive who spends part of the day in front of your computer, but also long hours in meetings with colleagues and visitors, you definitely need a fully adjustable chair so you can sit back and look relaxed and friendly when you have someone on the opposite side of the desk, yet get all the necessary neck, shoulder and back support when working on your computer.
Someone who uses his or her office chair exclusively for computer work should place a heavier emphasis on ergonomics (see below).
What is ergonomics and how does it affect me when choosing an office chair?
Ergonomics is the science (or art, if you wish) of designing your workplace in such a way that it optimizes efficiency and comfort while minimizing any chance of injuries. The whole thing can become extremely academic. As a matter of fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if there are people out there with a PhD in ergonomics.
Since this isn’t a science class, we will try to keep things more practical. Below are the main ergonomic factors to take into account when choosing an office chair:
The 90-degree rule
The University of Pittsburgh’s Dr Matt Tanneberg says a red flag that an office chair might not be the right fit for you is if your knees, hips and ankles are not comfortably resting at a 90-degree angle. In other words. If your hips aren’t at a 90-degree angle the chair is probably too short or too long for you. The same is true for the ankles and the knees. All joints should preferably remain at a 90-degree angle.
What is important here is that the backrest should be adjustable. You might find it comfortable if you sit on the chair for two minutes, but after five hours you could start feeling differently. The backrest should also provide proper support to the curve in your lower back. As a general rule, the backrest should follow the shape of your spine. The back of the chair should reach at least as high as the middle of your shoulder blades in order to adequately support that section of your back. Even better is if it reaches above the shoulders.
Feet should comfortably rest flat on the floor. If that is not the case, make sure the chair has a footrest. Otherwise you might end up with your feet kicking in the air like a toddler on his dad’s office chair - both uncomfortable and odd.
Armrests should be fairly close to your body. Of course you don’t want the experience to feel like being squeezed by a gorilla, but your arms should be able to rest comfortably on both armrests. Otherwise you’re going to put a lot of strain on your shoulders and neck. Read that again. You have no idea how many millions of people out there are suffering from constant neck and shoulder pain because their office chairs force them into unnatural positions.
They must also be at a comfortable height. Armrests with adjustable height settings are a good idea in this regard. If you do a lot of computer work, and depending on your desk set-up, you might want to consider armrests that enable you to pull up as close as possible to your desk.
Is an office chair without armrests a good idea? The short answer is no. If your budget is extremely limited, the thought might enter your mind to completely skip the armrests. You will certainly save money, but without that crucial support for arms and shoulders, you are going to pay later - both in terms of dollars and pain and suffering.
The chair’s seat is, of course, the area where the biggest part of your weight will be resting for what might be 10 000 hours over the next five years. There are two important principles here:
Size. The seat should not be too short or too long. This of course depends on the length of your upper leg, so you will simply have to sit down and make sure it goes up to a few inches behind the knee. Two to four inches behind the back of the knee is generally regarded as a good average.
Seat material/cover. If you skimp in this area, your behind, as well as your lower back, will pay the price in future. Memory foam remains one of the best choices because it will simply not wear out as quickly as ordinary foam. An office chair’s cover should be easy to the touch. Avoid abrasive materials or materials that will cause your body to overheat, or that could cause itchiness. A medium texture, breathable cover should eliminate most of the above.
Shape. You can stimulate the blood flow to your legs by choosing a seat edge that is slightly rounded and slopes downward. The University of Pittsburgh calls this a ‘waterfall front.’. Avoid anything with a sharp edge like the plague.
Thickness. This is where you can easily make a mistake. It doesn’t matter if the seat is made of memory foam or not, if it’s too thin it will eventually cause a lot of discomfort. In this regard take into account your body weight and the size and shape of your bottom. If you have a thin, pert behind you should be able to sit comfortably on a medium-thick seat, but bigger bottoms come with more weight, and need more cushion support.
How important is it for an office chair to be adjustable?
Obviously, if you are buying an office chair for a specific person who will use it for a specific type of job at a specific desk, being able to adjust it is not as important as when you are buying one that will be used by more than one person for a variety of tasks over a period of time.
Modern office chairs often offer a variety of adjustment mechanisms, including movable lumbar support, tilt tension adjustment, and tilt angle control.
Furthermore, a swivel chair that is fitted with casters enables you to move effortlessly from one part of your desk to another. The same is true if you have a printer or other piece of modern electronic apparatus that’s not on the desk, and you often want to easily access it without having to get up all the time.
What role should aesthetics play when it comes to buying an office chair?
For some people what the chair looks like will be of prime importance, for others that will be less important. There are, however, a few points here that all office chair buyers could benefit from taking into account:
Your office decor
If you have a fairly large office with a tasteful, timeless ambiance, a chair with a more traditional design covered in leather or perhaps good quality imitation leather could be a good choice. The situation is different if you are e.g. the female head of design at a modern advertising studio, and the rest of your office says “I am a millennial. I am chic, I am with-it”. In that case an ultra-modern chair covered in trendy colors should do the trick.
It’s not hard to imagine how your job could affect your choice of office chair. We’ve already touched on this in the previous paragraph. Your office chair says something about you, so make sure it says what you want it to say.
If you are the MD of Microsoft your office chair should shout: “I’m the boss. I’m a nice guy, up to a point. But I don’t play around.” Think fully adjustable, thickly padded, neutral colors, projecting an overall feel of quality, reliability and authority.
On the other hand, if you are a junior manager choosing an office chair for your first ever real office after spending years in a cubicle, you would probably want your chair to say: “Watch me. I’m on the way up, although I’m not quite there yet.” Modern styling, brighter colors than the boss’s office chair, and contemporary materials should do it.
How often should I replace my office chair?
Experts recommend that you replace your office chair every five years, but that could depend on a lot of factors, including the number of hours the chair is used during an average week, the weight of the incumbent, how often he or she jumps up and down, or swivels the chair, or uses it as a trampoline.
The golden rule is the moment you start to develop all sorts of aches and pains in your back, shoulders or neck it might be time to replace your office chair.
If you keep the broad guidelines and tips above into account when choosing an office chair, you are bound to enjoy years of satisfying service from it. It’s not rocket science, in fact office chair hunting could be a lot of fun. Enjoy!