The Chairing Economy: how work changes the way we sit

Here at the Spacebase Campus, deckchairs are turning out to be a popular option for users of our fabulous event space.

Deckchairs offer a different point of view of our event space

Not surprising, considering how much of our time is spent in office chairs. Most of us sit down for a living. A study by Fellowes suggests that 81% of UK office workers spend 4-9 hours per day sitting at their desk. This equates to a total of 67 days per year spent in an office chair, which has been associated with a host of negative effects for health and productivity. 

Switching to deckchairs for the afternoon, then, isn’t about dreaming of the beach. Sitting back, low and comfortable, shifts your body posture and with it, your perspective on problems and solutions. On the other hand, the metallic bar-style stools in our Workshop Garage encourage groups to sit close together and collaborate actively. A chair can transform the way you engage with daily tasks and those around you. So what are you sitting on and what’s the story under the upholstery? 

The Origins of the Office Chair

The modern office chair (chances are you’re sitting in one as you read this) is the result of a centuries-long process of design, and many great minds have grappled with the problem of how to sit better. Thomas Jefferson invented the first swivel chair and, legend has it, drafted the 1776 Declaration of Indepence sitting (possibly swivelling) in one. In the 1840s, Charles Darwin pioneered the wheeled chair while working from home. He wanted to scoot more easily between his biological specimens, so fixed furniture castors to his desk chair: an innovation that surely sped up the writing of On the Origin of Species.

Wheels and swivel came together in the Centripetal Spring Armchair, unveiled at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. Victorian attitudes, however, tended to equate comfort with laziness and so rigid chairs with minimal back support remained the norm well into the 20th century. Only with changes to the workplace, as more people began to spend more of their time in offices, did ergonomic furniture design go mainstream. 

Adjustable height, via hydraulic cylinder, entered the design in the 1970s, and the Ergon Chair of 1976 became a new icon for the notion of body-conscious seating. These trends continued into the 80s and 90s, encouraged perhaps by a new culture in which workers held their employers responsible for workplace injuries. Offices began to invest in furniture that offered back support and mobility, while government campaigns have made us ever more conscious of keeping healthy at work.

The future of (not) sitting down

Today, the number of high-tech seating options can be overwhelming. There is no perfect solution: experts recommend different chairs for different tasks, or a chair that adapts to your movements over the course of the day. Ultimately, workplaces don’t remain still and so neither can we. So is it time to think beyond swivel, wheels and lumbar support?

Standing desks created a buzz a few years ago. ‘Sitting is the new smoking’ became a slogan as workers reconfigured their working environments to work standing upright instead. The supposed benefits have since been called into question, however. New advice is focused on physical movement: we should aim neither to sit, nor to stand, but to move continuously. 

This might sound impractical – but in the future workplace, maybe less so. 

Predictions about the office of the future suggest a shift towards even more dynamic layouts than the open office. As a Medium article suggests, in so-called ‘agile’ offices (such as those of Glassdoor or Essence) “the sense of permanence and fixture is abandoned in favor of flexibility, ease of movement, and transience”. 

The office chair was designed for a workforce organised around fixed, 9-5 working hours at desktop computers. As technology allows us to become more mobile, with data shared via the Cloud and wearable tech opening up alternatives to keyboards and screens, perhaps we’re not a long way off from leaving behind desk and chair entirely. 

Would you miss it if it was gone?

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