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Let’s Talk About Chairs

Plenty of companies spend extra money to try to squeeze more productivity out of their employees; FastCompany, for example, keeps their employees stocked with coffee, soda, snacks and comfortable seating areas as amenities. The idea: if you help employees wind down a little, it will encourage them to wind back up and work harder. Comfort, paradoxically, can be an impetus for motivation.

Plenty of companies spend extra money to try to squeeze more productivity out of their employees; FastCompany, for example, keeps their employees stocked with coffee, soda, snacks and comfortable seating areas as amenities. The idea: if you help employees wind down a little, it will encourage them to wind back up and work harder. Comfort, paradoxically, can be an impetus for motivation.

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An industrial designer friend of mine told me recently that every ID professional’s dream is to design a chair, perfect in form and function. That’s because human beings spend a remarkable percentage of our lives sitting — usually, at work. Which is why I jumped at the opportunity to ditch my regular office chair and try out Allsteel’s new Acuity chair for a month, just to see what kind of effect its comfort had on my productivity.

In the name of full disclosure, I am no scientist, and had no objective means to measure with any precision the effects of using the Acuity chair. What I am, however, is someone who spends toilsome stretches of hours in front of a computer, often restless and fidgeting in the fight against that formidable office malady, Numbness of the Ass and Legs (or NAL, as I will call it.)  It’s hard to work with NAL. It’s hard to think with NAL. It makes me want to get up and walk around, which I cannot do while typing. The result: more coffee and bathroom breaks, more peeks out the window, and the almost-irrepressible urge to lay down on the floor. This is often construed as unprofessional in American office culture, so if offered a panacea that could keep me in my chair without frustration, I’d be thrilled.

And thrilled I was, with the Acuity: not a trace of NAL after hours and hours of work, a seemingly infinite number of adjustability options (especially in the arm-rests — this is obviously a chair designed for the keyboard-centric computer age), and a divine recline feature that was about as close to laying down on the floor as a working person can reasonably get. For a chair that starts at $1250 and goes up to a whopping $2525, it should be damn good. And, not surprisingly, it was.

While the Acuity folks would probably prattle on about the chair’s details — the leather accents, the pliant mesh back with removable “jacket” cushion, nearly half-made of recycled materials — what really makes the Acuity worth your cheeks is something they call Acufit. What’s that mean? Two things, essentially: 1) that the chair’s mechanism uses the body-weight of the person in the seat to determine recline tension, meaning that you’ll never have to push backwards to recline, or flop back like a wet noodle, and 2) that when you do recline, the seat bottom moves subtly in concert with the chair-back, the way real reclining chairs do. The first feature is one of those things that works so well you hardly notice it, but the second feature might be the most salient advantage the chair has. When you lean back, the seat-bottom (which is made of memory foam and a leather enclosure) moves up and forward, taking stress off your lower back. If I’m not mistaken, that is the exact purpose of reclining in the first place, so it’s a welcome boon.

The other thing that’s ostensibly different about the Acuity chair is the staggering number of controls and adjustments it is capable of (the actual number is 8). At first I was overwhelmed, until I realized that the chair essentially works with the same logic that the driver’s seat in a Lexus or Mercedes does, plus a couple of neat tricks. Sure, you can raise and lower the seat bottom, adjust the arm-rest height, blah blah blah — but you can also move the seat bottom forward or back, independent of the rest of the chair, to help support the backs of your legs. Then there are the ancillary adjustments on the arm-rests: slide them forward and back, or angle them inwards or outwards, or even move the entire things inboard or outboard. The reason this is terrific isn’t because most chairs don’t offer comfortable typing positions; they do. But it’s when you want to change up your posture mid-work (perhaps put feet up on the desk, bring the keyboard in your lap, or type while reclined) that normal arm-rests would fail you. The Acuity’s could contort themselves into every conceivable position my elbows could assume, and were unfazed by the freakishly long arms on my 6’1″ frame. That is a good feeling.

Granted, all that adjustability doesn’t come without the occasional downside: those uber-adjustable arm-rests feel flimsy when you wiggle them, inconsistent with the ball-bearing smooth-and-solid movement of the rest of the chair. Speaking of smooth-and-solid, the Acuity is incredibly heavy, a setback that betrays its terrific construction and use of metal constituent parts. Granted, I don’t spend a lot of time lugging my chair around when it has wheels, but if you put this chair in your home office, you may retire and die in that house just so you don’t have to move it.

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Since this chair is aimed at enterprise customers, though, you’ll find a remarkble and tasteful array of colors and finishes available, plus the option to customize for your office’s decor. For more information, you can look up an Allsteel dealer on the company’s website. If you’re reading this and tapping your foot, waiting for the end of the paragraph so you can spring up and jog around the office (or you’re watching your employees do that very same NAL dance), the Acuity might be worth a look.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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