Chairs are some of the oldest human artifacts, but the office chair was invented in 1849 by Thomas E. Warren. To help clerical workers move around the office without having to stand up, he added the swivel mechanism and swiveling wheels that define the office chair as we know it. Since then. The office chair has become much more ergonomic, but the basic concept hasn’t changed much. But now, the chairs that we do office work in have taken on new meaning in the post-pandemic workplace as workers return to the office after a few years of doing their jobs in the most comfortable spots in their homes. Maybe it was a well-worn spot on a sofa; perhaps it was a recliner or even a spot at the kitchen counter; employees have grown accustomed to doing their best work in all different types of seating.
The way office designers think about office chairs is changing because workers are using the office differently than before. Since employees and managers learned that they can effectively do their work from home, many of them want their offices to provide an environment conducive to collaboration. “The new role of chairs in the workplace is more about lounge space, less about desks,” said Darrell Gardner, Director of Product Development, CORT Furniture Rental. The impact of these more casual settings can be profound. It can improve productivity and comfort but also can have an impact on company culture and hierarchy. “If two people are having a conversation and one person is sitting behind a desk and the other is not, it has a different connotation, even subconsciously, than if both are sitting on a couch,” Gardner explained.
Since everyone has their own opinion about where they prefer to work, one that might change throughout the day, offices are being equipped with much more variety of seating. Now offices are trying to give a wide range of choices to workers so they can find what works best for them at that particular moment.
In the workplace, informal conversations are key to creativity and innovation, and something as simple as the calculated arrangement of seating can produce the right environment for those types of exchanges. “Seating can break down barriers,” Gardner explained. “If you see someone working, you are much more likely to sit next to them if they are on a couch than at a desk.”
The communal areas of an office can provide the kind of connectivity that makes offices so valuable, but they pose an interesting challenge for creating the privacy needed for video calls. High-backed chairs have been adopted as a way to get the best of both worlds; workers can sit in a communal setting without the background noises and visual distractions that make video conferencing in open offices so uncomfortable.
The needs of workers in the office have changed and will inevitably change again. Office designers and managers are looking for ways to track what is working and what is not when it comes to office layout. The new generation of office chairs is helping in this regard. Chairs and desks of all types are being equipped with sensors that can show exactly where people are choosing to sit. With the right analytics, this can help offices have a granular understanding of which teams, or even individuals, prefer which kinds of chairs. “You should think of the office like a landscape architect would design a garden,” Gardner said. “There is the original plan of where plants should be, but after a few years of growth, you take another look at what plants have grown the best and then adjust to that.”
The office has changed forever, and office chairs will have to evolve with it. Now, office chairs take on a lot of new forms and serve a number of new functions. They can be a place to work, a place to take a meeting, or just a place to socialize. They can also now be a vital part of the data collection and analysis that helps offices change with the times and stay relevant. The new iteration of the office chair is something that designers like Thomas E. Warren likely never envisioned, but so too is the way that people are using the office when they are working or just having an impromptu chat.