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We are currently investigating new chairs for everyone in our office. We are all heavy laptop users. Most of the advice I've found about chair selection seems aimed at individuals, and highlights personal preference even when referring to ergonomic matters. I don't think this approach is feasible for our office.

How can we purchase a large number of chairs (presumably all the same model), and ensure that they are a good fit for everyone, including ergonomically?

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    How is this different than this question? – enderland May 15 '13 at 13:44
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    This question is unanswerable since we don't know (and don't need to know) your budget allocated for chairs. Maybe you can afford these chairs in bulk... – Deer Hunter May 15 '13 at 13:49
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    @enderland That seems to be only 1/3-1/2 of this question as that is one of the two or possibly three questions being asked here. 1. How do we negotiate mass purchase/pricing/delivery? 2. How do we pick a chair that is good for everyone? 3. How do we pick an ergonomic chair? ... – Joshua Drake May 15 '13 at 14:17
  • @JoshuaDrake: Right. And I'm particularly interested in answers to #2. – Jim G. May 15 '13 at 14:43
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    You could ensure that you only hire people that are exactly the same height/weight/body type. – DA. May 15 '13 at 18:37
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Here's a general thought on some tips:

  • Realize that in any mass purchase, there is no "perfect for everyone" - since people have very different physical attributes and ways of working - even with a consistent activity (like labtop use) - the ergonomic side is going to have to be a compromise.

  • When you're buying for an office, consider the balance of features to include maintainability. I see your post being focused on employee comfort - which is important, but also consider maintenance. Not sure if you can get any numbers or details from vendors, but figure that anything with standard parts, and replacement part supply options on the vendor site may offer better long term maintenance costs than anything where replacement means buying a whole new item. Figure on some percentage of the chairs getting destroyed every year as part of your decision.

  • From a social perspective, I applaud the idea of getting the same chair - the amount of chair swiping that can occur can be positively ridiculous.

  • You might be able to dig up some general ergonomic advice on what adjustability points have been proven to be most useful in the long run - I've noticed office chairs can usually be - raised and lowered, adjusted in the back support, adjusted in the arms. High end chairs often have even more adjustment. But a bit of research in the aspects of adjusting chairs may give insight into whether there's a best practice in some design elements here.

  • An aspect of chairs is also overall environment impact. I've noticed, for example, that Aeron chairs have a strong branding as elite geek chairs - regardless of true ergonomic impact, these chairs are seen as sleek, attractive, and somewhat of a "when your company cares enough to buy the very best..." statement. They are priced accordingly (expensive!!). So there's another question - do you want the purchase to also reflect a subliminal company value. A startup competing with, say, Google, for employees may feel that way - a very not-Google-like company with a different employee profile may not...

  • Durability - separate from maintainability offering the factor of "regardless of it's functionality, will this thing look OK in 3 years?" - a reason why you don't see a lot of office chairs with white cushions. Coffee + engineers + white = white with brown splotches.

  • Don't discount the value of other add ons - keyboard trays, foot blocks, adjustable desks - alot of physical issues can be addressed in multiple ways. And things like a foot block when you can't lower a chair enough for the shortest person in the office - can be a simple $2 cement block. My last "tall person monitor extender" was a phone book that no one was using anyway.

  • Use cases - just like product design - get a handle on your employees and how they are likely to be using their chairs - walk around and watch. Do they roll them to meetings and quick conferences (then the rollers better be durable!). Is there a previously unrealized need for chair-as-step-stool? Are there general space issues? Do chairs need to be stackable? Look for the 80/20 rule - what happens 80% of the time? What are the weird cases, and do they have to be covered by a chair or would it make sense to also get supplemental equipment? (a bench, a step stool, etc)

General trade study work may be useful here - developing some system where you give weight to certain factors - maintainability, ergonomics, corporate statement/image, cost - and figure out how competitive products rate.

It may sound like over kill - but it'll help clarify whether you want to spend $100/chair or $500. And if you have an office of 100 employees, that's the difference between $10,000 and $50,000!! And if your maintenance costs are factored in as 50%/year on cheap chairs and $50/year on expensive chairs, then in the long run you'll pay:

  • this year - $10,000 vs. $50,000
  • subsequent years - $5,000 vs. $500

So if you think you'll keep these chairs for 10 years - you'll actually save money on the more expensive chair!

It boils down to a balance - there's no perfect chair, so figuring out how much to spend on a good compromise is going to be the goal.

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    You can save money. A $500 chair can still be junk. – Donald May 15 '13 at 14:18
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    Yes, but I would quantify "junk" as having a maintenance/replacement cost of 50% or higher - being that you find it's either so awful no one will use it, or so poorly made that when it gets even slightly damaged, it's unusable... – bethlakshmi May 15 '13 at 14:29
  • I was just pointing you should say "you can save money ..." instead of the more locked in "you will ..." – Donald May 15 '13 at 17:31
  • If the costs are as I described - you will save money. If they are otherwise, you may not - but I was laying out a pretty specific example. – bethlakshmi May 15 '13 at 18:26
  • Nice answer. Adjustability is particularly important in my experience; because people aren't all the same, they need to be able to configure the chair -- not just height but the other things you list too. – Monica Cellio May 16 '13 at 18:01
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My company recently changed offices, and we upgraded our chairs during the move too. We had a (presumably office supply) vendor bring in an assortment of candidate chairs for about a week, and there was an email sent to all (roughly 100) employees in that office requesting feedback about the chairs.

I tried out the chairs, and for me there was a clear winner - so I replied to the email explaining my preferences. I was one of a couple people who had voiced a less-popular preference, so I ended up with a "non-standard" chair that now has a sticker with my name on it.

In the end, the company was able to make an educated mass purchase of chairs; and for the handful of people who were particular about which chair they preferred, then the company probably just didn't get as much of a discount on those chairs. Even if they hadn't purchased this way, I find that the "normal" chair in our office hurts my back after about a half hour of sitting in it, so I would have had to ask for a different chair anyway.

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The chairs that you should be looking at have a crazy amount of options when it comes to adjustment. I have personal experience with Aerons and Steelcase chairs, generally considered the cream of the crop for office chairs, and both of them are outrageously adjustable and configurable. If you're looking at chairs in this price range, the personal preference for employees will probably just come down to the mesh vs non-mesh as everything else can likely be moved into appropriate positions.

However, recognize that many people won't familiarize themselves with the chair that they're using and it may be beneficial to bring in an ergonomic expert to help educate people on how to appropriately adjust their chairs for long term comfort.

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  • But note that a) Not everyone likes Aerons (they don't work for me) b) Chairs like that still come in a variety of sizes to fit various body types, so you still need to cater to individuals to some extent – DA. May 15 '13 at 18:39
  • Also note that there are some factors that matter that aren't (or at least I've never seen) adjustable even on chairs that have 10 billion adjustments. I can't sit in common chairs with a "potato chip" curved back for more than an hour or two before my back starts to hurt unless I sit forward and use the chair like a backless stool (which has its own problems). I need either an "executive" back that extends beyond my (broad) shoulders or nothing at all. – Dan Is Fiddling By Firelight May 15 '13 at 19:12
  • @DanNeely Is that because the top of the chair is curved and doesn't support your shoulders? I also have not seen a chair that has that adjustment. The Aeron has lots of adjustments for the lower back, but nothing for the upper back, though it also doesn't curve backwards as dramatically as a lot of other chairs. – Jacob G May 15 '13 at 20:39
  • @JacobG it causes lower back pain. My intuition says no; but the back doesn't behave in an obvious manner so maybe. For obvious reasons I haven't experimented extensively. I only made the connection to shape (as opposed to height of the back being too low, the quality of padding, and a tensioner designed for people significantly lighter than I am) last fall when I bought a heavy duty, high back, upper end chair with a hyperbolic back only to discover it was actually worse than the cheap standard office chairs I'd been avoiding for years. – Dan Is Fiddling By Firelight May 15 '13 at 20:44
  • fwiw, The Aeron allows you to flatten the lower back, but it might not be enough for your needs. – Jacob G May 15 '13 at 21:36
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Late response to outline an alternative approach:

Having run through this recently at my company (with 50 chairs needed), we ran a fairly effective decentralized approach.

We gave each employee a $500 budget for chairs or desk accessories (like standing desks) and had them submit their purchase via an Amazon link through a Google form.

We ordered them simultaneously, and had a Taskrabbit employee come in for a few hours each day over 3 days as the chairs arrived.

The average cost per person was just above $350, and we handled the diversity of requests fairly well (very large folks vs. 100lb folks, people who preferred adjustable/standing desks).

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First step: Figure out how many different needs for chairs you could size down to. I recently ordered T-Shirts. There it was all sizes, each size in a male fit and a female fit. Color and style were fixed. It is not a good example, but I hope you get what I mean. Maybe you need chairs with/without arm rests, chairs for petite/light people, average chairs and chairs for heavier or maybe taller people. Keep it as little options as possible while offering everything that is needed in a normal office setting. (Very special needs will always have to be addressed as such separately and you might have to order 2-3 chairs separately for that.)

Then you can send around the list and let everyone choose their most fitting option. Now you might get requests for the very special needs. Again, they are not part of this mass order probably so you can decide if you take this up now or later.

Now contact suppliers, with the list of your needs. Ask them to provide quotes for an order like this for different styles of chairs. Ask them for mass order deals. Maybe even add the "very special needs" option and ask them if and how they can handle that. Ask for their input. If they are good at what they do, they can give you input what would be good chairs for every need. They have to explain to you how models can be adapted, if there are different types of the same model which fit your needs and so on.

Choose the best offer and order.

This will hopefully deter most of the problem to people you are paying for it (the chair vendor).

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