Workplace of the Future: The Chair

Standing desks are becoming popular. From a WSJ article:

A growing number of workers at Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and other employers are trading in their sit-down desks for standing ones, saying they feel more comfortable and energized. They also are motivated by medical reports saying that sitting for too long leads to increased health risks.

I started standing while working fifteen years ago, after I found that I slept better if I stood a lot. I got a standing desk. (Parts at Ikea $100.) I made what was apparently the first treadmill desk. But since then I learned a lot and my preferences changed. I never went back to a conventional desk, but I found that a standing desk wasn’t optimal. Here’s what I learned:

1. Standing a lot is not all good. Standing in one place for a long time is psychologically difficult. If I stood for more than 8 hours or so, my feet started to hurt. Yet I needed at least 8 hours of standing to get the sleep benefits. I also found epidemiology that suggested that if you stand a lot, your blood puddles in your legs, with bad effects. Above all, standing in one place is distracting, probably because it is inherently unpleasant. I find it much easier to write in the lounge-like position I describe below.

2. Walking a lot is bad. I work perhaps 8 hours per day. No way would I walk that much. The main use of my treadmill desk was standing, not walking. There was also a noise problem. Occupants of adjacent office complained.

3. Walking a little is good. If I walk about 20 minutes per hour, I found I can work really long periods of time–without stimulants. I have also found that walking makes my brain work better. The measure I used to detect this improvement was arithmetic speed but I’m sure it applies to all sorts of thinking.

4. One-legged standing can produce the sleep benefits of normal standing. The benefits of better sleep are huge. After I started sleeping better, mainly because of standing a lot, I stopped getting obvious colds. I also felt more energetic during the day.

When you put these together it is easy to grasp that the best workplace will not involve, as its main component, a standing desk.

Nowadays I mix lounge-like sitting (there is no one word for it) and walking. By “lounge-like sitting” I mean I sit in such a way that I lean back somewhat (so that some of my weight is on my back) and my knees are both bent and supported. The chair pictured above is the closest piece of furniture I could find designed for this. The goal of such a piece of furniture is to make the surface area (i.e., skin) supporting you as wide as possible so that the maximum pressure is minimized. A normal chair does a terrible job of this, but even the chair in the picture is not ideal: (a) It should have armrests. (b) It should have adjustable weights so that the angle at which it reclines can be set to the best position. How much walking I do depends on the time of day. During the day, when I feel restless, I might walk on a treadmill 20 minutes per hour. In the early morning and evening I don’t walk at all.

It’s fascinating there’s no word for an action I spend many hours every day performing and that perhaps a billion people would do many hours per day if they could. (At least a billion people have jobs where they must sit in ordinary chairs.) What I do is roughly a billion times more comfortable. Given the size of the market and the size of the benefit, it is equally fascinating that you cannot buy anywhere the proper furniture for doing this. The company that made the chair in the picture seems to have stopped making it. This should give pause to anyone who thinks that any or all of (a) free markets, (b) governments, or (c) academic/pure research can produce all the products we need to live a healthy happy life.


16 Replies to “Workplace of the Future: The Chair”

  1. For the same reason I got a ” Zero-gravity Chair.” (You can Google it.) They are expensive, but have all the features you discuss. Highly recommend it! I’ve had mine for five years and love it. I have it in my office and use it as you suggest.

  2. When I lounge-like sit I simply lean back in my chair and put my legs on the desk. I can obtain the same position you describe. I’ve been doing this naturally for quite some time; it just feels right, most likely because it helps even-out blood flow throughout the body. (Usually the part of the knee down to the feet goes on the desk.) It’s easy for me to reposition myself because sometimes I like to sit normally as well.

  3. Several months ago I switched over to standing at my computer. My sleep has been much better since. (There is one other change that I made at that time, so I’m not positive it’s the standing, but I think it is.) This change to standing at the computer replaced about 3 hours of sitting with 3 hours of standing.

    As for a chair that leans back with legs supported, I have one of those, the Lazboy Forte Reclina-Rocker. Not standard cubicle equipment. (I work from home so I can get away with it.) I have two problems with extended sessions in the recliner: (1) I get sleepy and (2) it hurts my lower back when I read. Mostly I use it for short naps, light reading, or when I have to sleep while keeping the head elevated, such as when suffering nasal congestion.

    I think the better approach involves sitting straight. If I remember correctly, Esther Gokhale in ‘8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back’ recommends this approach to sitting. Another expert on posture whom I respect, Professor Cheng Man-ching, said, “The back of the chair is for hanging your coat.” Wolfe Lowenthal explained that meant you should not lean back in your chair.

  4. I’ve been using a standing desk for about a year and have discovered something my physician friend says is well known among people who have to stand all day — that being able to have one foot higher than the other makes a big difference. This is implemented in a few different ways — the desk I made uses a Geekdesk, which has a horizontal bar conveniently place for leaning a foot against, I’ve also used a small rubbermaid stool, and most recently I’ve been standing on a partly inflated Bosu ball (which helps me work on my balance).

    I also have a table I sit at when I’m meeting with students and a comfortable chair with footrest that I can sit in if I’m just reading a long paper, and I do move back and forth among these locations.

    The big advantage I find in standing is that it makes it easier for me to pace around or to take short walks; the minor gravity well of sitting in a chair seems to inhibit some of that activity.

    But I note that if I end up sitting all day I’m a bit stiff at the end, and I don’t have that experience with my standing desk.

  5. I used the chair you are looking for, for two decades:

    It even got a prize for being the best office chair, so they discontinued it.
    Nagging them to make new ones got me nowhere, and the one I had was
    completely worn out and repaired many times, so I bought one of designer Opsvik’s newer chairs, which is not nearly as good.

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    I write my wordpress blog about my thinking life in chinese here:
    it seems that you have difficulty in is a pity that you will not read my blogs.

  7. That chair pictured above looks to be inspired by the Le Corbusier chaise lounge, although the one above looks like it rocks and the LC doesn’t, although you can slide it to different angles.

    You can certainly still buy the Le Corbusier chair.

  8. Nowadays I mix lounge-like sitting (there is no one word for it) and walking.

    It’s fascinating there’s no word for an action I spend many hours every day performing […]

    You mean reclining?

  9. I spent a long time in the La-Z-boy store shopping for a “computer recliner” that would have a mouse pad holder instead of a right armrest. I did find some half-recliners but eventually came up empty. Don’t people want to surf from a recliner? I suppose you use a laptop.

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