How fancy of an office chair do I really need?
February 17, 2021 2:15 PM   Subscribe

I've managed to go until now with cheap non-adjustable furniture, but aching shoulders and occasional upper/mid back twinges make me think it's finally time to invest in a proper office chair. Research into this has quickly gotten me overwhelmed.

Wirecutter suggests I need to invest in at least a $300 chair - is this true? I need someone to explain this to me like I'm a child. I'm very new to ergonomic living - I get why you want to be able to adjust the hight of a chair, but am not clear why other features matter. I work a lot from home (and this is not COVID dependent), so I'm happy to invest in a good chair if it's worth it.

Potentially relevant: I likely have not great posture (I hunch/lean forward) - can a chair really fix that? If so, which feature would do this?

posted by coffeecat to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm assuming you're in a situation where you can't just go out to an office furniture store and try out a bunch of chairs?

US$300 sounds like a lot for a chair, and in fact everything that Wirecutter recommends tends towards the less affordable scale of things.

Ultimately it comes down to: how comfortable is it for you? How adjustable is it for you? And what is going on at the place (presumably a desk) where you work? Is it adjustable/reconfigurable?

The general rules of ergonomics are here.

It would suck to buy a three-hundred dollar chair online only to find that it is absolutely unsuitable for your workspace and body. Others will have different opinions, but I really think it's important for you to try out a bunch of options, same as you would with a pillow, mattress, couch, shoes, etc., because these days, unfortunately, we spend a lot of time sitting down.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:30 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]

I found the thing that made a difference was having a non fixed back to the chair. It means that I use my own core muscles to sit and I now almost never have upper back pain. I've used this chair from Ikea for the last year and I'm happy with it.
posted by plonkee at 2:33 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

I paid more than twice that for an office chair for home use 7 years ago, and I'm glad I did. I spend more time in this chair than in any other piece of furniture, including my bed. Think about how much of your life you're going to spend sitting in this chair. How much is your long-term comfort and health worth?
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:33 PM on February 17 [4 favorites]

I bought the chair I bought -- a Steelcase Leap -- after using one at my old office, and realizing that it was the first office chair in which I'd never felt any discomfort at all. They are expensive, but very durable, and with a little searching you can find discounts, and used chairs in good condition.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:36 PM on February 17 [3 favorites]

The ergo geeks like to talk about the Aeron chairs, which are actually almost everything most people claim them to be, but at $1000+, quite pricey.

There's a lot to be said for chairs for gamers, who have a tendency to sit for endless hours, often on the edge of their seats. I know a number of people who have Aeron chairs at work and have found similarly comfortable gaming chairs for COVID work-at-home uses, but at about half the price of the Aerons.

Unfortunately it is difficult to find places to try out the gaming chairs. Fry's no longer carries much stock, and Micro Center doesn't have a lot of locations. And you do not want to buy a chair butt-unseen. However, if you find one that you really like, even if it's a thousand dollars, it is really worth it.

I'm lucky enough to be still making do with a $180 chair I bought 20 years ago that's about 70% as comfortable as an Aeron, though I've had to replace parts over the year. I just went to all the office supply and furniture stores in the city and sat in each chair until I found one that I really found to be comfortable.
posted by jgreco at 2:36 PM on February 17

I know it has been said, but if at all possible, try the chairs first. Also, if you find a chair you love but it is too expensive, maybe you can find a used version of that chair?

On the maybe-not-helpful side, I wonder if there are corrective seat pads and the like you can buy. I need to start looking for this sort of thing myself, so I am hoping that might be a viable option.
posted by miss so and so at 2:45 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Also, consider seeing if there's a place that sells used office furniture in your area. With so many businesses no longer open, there may be more used inventory these days. We recently picked up a chair that goes new for $600 for $200.

Regardless, the best thing to do is try out a chair in advance if you can. For example, I find Aeron chairs quite uncomfortable.
posted by ShooBoo at 3:00 PM on February 17 [4 favorites]

When COVID hit and I began working from home, I had a truly terrible office chair that was about to fall apart and was actually painful to sit on. There may have been a sale going on, but I found something much better for about $100 at Staples. I had to go sit in them in person, since I am short and did not want to end up with an "executive" size chair that would be too big for me. I think making a marginal upgrade was definitely worth it, and allows me time to evaluate the fancier options out there.
posted by JennyJupiter at 3:01 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far - I really had no idea it would be worth giving chairs a test-sit. That's how clueless I am when it comes to this!
posted by coffeecat at 4:21 PM on February 17

I bought an Aeron about twenty years ago, have sat in it every day since as a home-based worker all those years, and still love it and find it very comfortable. There has been one $100 repair in all that time, and it still looks brand new. It was waaay out of my price range, but I have never regretted spending the extra money to get what I really wanted.
posted by DrGail at 4:25 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]

I realized pretty quickly when I started working from home that the 20 year old cast-off task chair we’d had was going to make me miserable. I decided I couldn’t shell out for a chair without trying it, and that was when nothing was open. I decided to go with a wobble stool, and I’m really happy with it. In fact, I’m back in the office a couple of days a week and I miss my stool.
posted by Kriesa at 4:47 PM on February 17

Yes, you definitely have to try them! I have a £100 one that looks a bit like a gamer’s chair, that I’d never have thought to buy, but when I tried a bunch out it was waaaay more comfortable for me than the rest. Someone else in my office has one that looks super-fancy but I find unbelievably uncomfortable. Our bodies are all different shapes and sizes and are tight and loose in different joints and muscles, and you need to find out what will work for you.
posted by penguin pie at 4:53 PM on February 17

You don't necessarily have to spend that much, but you do get what you pay for. Like Artifice_Eternity I have a Steelcase Leap. I had to custom order mine to get the extra tall gas cylinder, but I've had it for almost fifteen years and only had to replace the gas cylinder a couple months ago. It has required no other maintenance. I think I spent about $850 in 2006, so at this point the amortized cost is something like $5/mo.

What a really good office chair gets you is a combination of support and responsiveness. In a cheap chair you can sit all the way up, and you can lean all the way back, but you may not be able to balance the tension and feel comfortable leaning only partway back. The lumbar support may be in the wrong place, the back height might be wrong, or the adjustments might not actually work together in a way that makes the chair fit your needs. The last office chairs I had to sit in at an actual office had the worst armrests I've ever encountered. If someone raised them too high you couldn't just lower them a click; you had to raise them all the way to the top, lower them all the way to the bottom, and then try to raise them a click at a time. The mechanism did not move smoothly, so you'd often miss the height you wanted and have to start over.

The Leap chair (and Steelcase's newer models like the Gesture) are basically the most responsive chairs I've ever sat in. The spring tension that supports the back is weirdly good. The chair supports you comfortably at any lean, and the back flexes just the right amount to support you more when you need it. I still don't know how it works, but it's better than any other brand's chairs I've ever sat in. Other than that the rest of the adjustments work really well. The armrests move smoothly and adjust in three axes; you can adjust the seat depth (the distance from the front edge of the seat to the back rest); the lumbar support can be placed exactly where you need it, and even the center column has a good spring to it so you don't just fall if you raise the lever.

IKEA and Office Depot/Staples/Whatever you have chairs just don't come close. I would pay the money again.
posted by fedward at 6:01 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]

There aren't many options for testing chairs where I am, but I found an Aeron to sit on and it was indeed glorious. I was able to test out some other very expensive chairs that didn't fit me at all. Unfortunately, I could not afford the Aeron. I did a lot of research and came away with the opinion that office chairs are either crap or ungodly expensive. The $300 chairs had similar reviews to the $100 chairs and I didn't see a real difference until you got into the $800+ chairs. I ended up buying a cheap chair that was rated well on Amazon and getting up to move around for 5 minutes every 30 minutes. That actually worked for the sitting pains I'd developed. I would buy an Aeron if I could.
posted by Mavri at 7:26 PM on February 17

Like DrGail, I have a 20yo Aeron that is still going strong. And I have a seriously fucked up back with a lumbar discectomy and a bunch of crappy neck issues. If they’re still made as well as they used to be, highly recommend.
posted by HotToddy at 8:59 PM on February 17

While good quality chairs are expensive new - businesses close and open all the time, so it is possible to find these models second hand for an attractive discount. I would recommend searching for a store that offers "new and used office furniture". The "used" part means you are filtering out the high end show rooms and that you are going to be able to compare different categories of chairs. Second hand premium chairs can be a bargain - but they vary individually so you really have to go and sit on them to avoid the duds.

There are 3 sets of chairs that might concern you:
1. Cheap chairs: this is the kind which many businesses provide for their workers - and also ones which most casual retail consumers buy. All Ikea chairs fit in this category, for example.
2. Brand name premium chairs: anything from Steelcase, Aeron and other brands which do well in Wirecutter reviews and have premium new-sales outfits. Bear in mind that you will probably have a preference for a particular model of these which you can only establish by sitting on it - for example not everybody loves mesh chairs.
3. Premium quality chairs by brands you've never heard of. These often look like the chairs in the second category, if you want a further bargain then look out for these. This is the sort I went for in the end - and am currently sitting on a Dorsum 24 hour Mesh Chair - no me neither - but it was the most comfortable chair in the shop for me.

(A few details in this video for anybody comparison shopping for mesh chairs).
posted by rongorongo at 11:28 PM on February 17

I likely have not great posture (I hunch/lean forward) - can a chair really fix that? If so, which feature would do this?

I also have not great posture, but it's significantly worse in that specific way if the chair is too high for me to put my feet flat on the floor. I end up resting them on the chair base instead, and that tips me forward in a way that encourages the hunching. And fifteen years of doing that has had consequences, so if you're doing the same thing, I'd definitely recommend trying to address it.

If that's relevant to you, then fixing the chair height alone isn't enough. You need the chair at the right height relative to the desk, so if you're shorter than the imaginary human the desk height is ideal for, you need to adjust the desk height down, get a keyboard tray, or get a foot rest.

(For me, a foot rest is an improvement but still pretty uncomfortable: the front-facing spoke of the chair base intentionally protrudes further than the seat does, and the seat depth means my knees are pretty much level with the front of the seat, so my feet want to be either side of the spoke. Possible if the chair is low enough to rest them on the floor. Absolutely not possible with a foot rest.)

Irrespective of your height, you may also find that arm rests are in the wrong place for you: their minimum height may be too high (so that you have to hunch your shoulders up) or their maximum height too low, and they may get in the way if you try to tuck yourself in closer to the desk. My desk chair has very height-adjustable arm rests that can be swivelled back 180 degrees, which really helps.

Something else worth knowing is that chair castors come in (at least?) two kinds: one for carpet and one for hard floors. If you have the wrong kind for your flooring, it will be a nuisance: hard-floor castors make it difficult to move your chair on carpet; carpet castors make your chair roll around like a marble on hard floors.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:50 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

I was out hunting for an office chair over a year ago, and I found a local consignment shop that had some old Haworth chairs on clearance because people own't buy them for some reason. I think I ended up buying one for $45 (including tax) and it used to retail for $800 and is quite adjustable (but nowhere close to an Aeron) I do wish it has a headrest, and the seat less "slippery", but it was a great bargain for what I can afford at the time.

So check your local second-hand office stores, liquidators, consignment shops, and so on.
posted by kschang at 4:25 AM on February 18

"Don't buy a gaming chair" - reviewers explain why this rapidly growing market segment should probably be avoided. They also run some blind tests with other low and high end (Herman Miller Aeron ) office chairs to compare reactions. People hated the gaming chairs instantly; some of the cheap chairs were more instantly appealing - but this wore off after a few weeks as the padding became compressed. They mention that the second hand market for inexpensive Aeron chairs has dried up after everybody went looking for one in the Covid lockdown.
posted by rongorongo at 4:57 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]

A test-sit can be helpful for determining if the size of the chair is appropriate for your body, but most people test for 30 seconds rather than an 8-hour workday. The benefits of an ergonomically designed chair will not all be evident with such a short sit. That said, if you are going to buy a cheap chair I do recommend a test-sit, as they are not very adjustable. It is less important to test-sit ergonomically-designed chairs, as they use a lot of universal design principles and you adjust them to the shape of your body

I think that the most important ergonomic features of office chairs are: (1) adjustable height, (2) good back support, and (3) high-quality seat padding. You do not need to pay $300+ for those three features, although you may want to pay more for some extra bells and whistles or for style.

The cheapest office chairs are under $100. They will usually have adjustable heights, but the mechanism is likely to be failure-prone. You have probably sat in a chair with a failed mechanism, which slowly sinks after you sit down. The cheapest chairs tend to have a backrest, but it is not likely to have good lumbar support. That lack of support may thus cause back pain in the longer-term. The cheapest chairs are generally padded with low-quality polyurethane foam, which is not chemically stable. The padding will thus break down over time, and it may become permanently compressed, hard, or crumbly. It will likely take several years for this foam degradation to be noticeable to a consumer.

So what chair should you buy? Here are my recommendations:

If I were to buy a new office chair for my home, I would likely buy the Tempur-Pedic TP9000 Mesh Task Chair. It has a good-quality mechanism for adjusting height, good lumbar support with a mesh-back, and a high-quality memory foam seat. A regular asking price is about $274 but it is on sale today for about $220.

At work my colleagues are unable to test-sit chairs, but we do have choice about the low-to-mid-priced office chair we buy from a catalog. The chair that I use and love at work, and which I recommended to several of my colleagues who also now use and love it, is the Tempur-Pedic TP8000 Mesh Task Chair. It is very similar to the one mentioned above, but it is a little bit smaller and has a few more adjustments that I doubt any of us use. It has held up well for 10 years. A regular asking price is about $365.

Several people have mentioned the Aeron chair without explaining why. It is a Herman Miller chair designed in 1992 by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf. It was loosely inspired by the work of Charles and Ray Eames, and it became a symbol of corporate luxury. It is in the collection of MoMA. It's a great chair that I have used at a friend's house, but most of what you are paying for is the styling and reputation of the designers rather than the functionality. And, frankly, the design ideas are pushing 30 years old, so it is hardly cutting edge. To me the Aeron doesn't feel or function better than the Tempur-Pedic ones above. An Aeron's asking price is about $1,070 but it can vary because of customizations.

The best-designed office chair that I am aware of on the market today is the Freedom Chair with Headrest, designed in 1999 by Niels Diffrient. It is from Humanscale, and the goal was to make the most ergonomic and easiest-to-use chair of all time. You can watch his TED talk if you want to know why it is the best of the best, but a lot of it has to do with it being self-adjusting and having a gel seatpad. The TED talk will change how you think about chairs forever, so I recommend that everyone watch it. I actually splurged about eight years ago and bought one, so the Freedom Chair is what I use at home. I wish I could say that it is holding up well, but the mechanism is starting to get creaky and jams up. Reclining in it feels great though. Would I buy it again? No, I would probably save some money and go with the Tempur-Pedic one at the top of my list. The current asking price is about $1,170 for a Freedom Chair, but it also varies depending on customizations.
posted by mortaddams at 7:28 AM on February 18 [3 favorites]

I also got a chair from Office Depot/Max last spring. It was on sale from like $180 down to $120 and has an adjustable height and a mesh back. I don't need a $300 chair but I did need an upgrade from my dining room chairs.
posted by soelo at 7:59 AM on February 18

I have low back issues, have worked from home for 6 years, tried several chairs, and the $300 used aeron i got was a fantastic purchase in my opinion. Looks like the covid inflated rate is $400 in my area, and i still think that's fair. Depends on your budget/how many hours you sit in your chair/your ergonomics/etc. Go to a second hand office furniture store and sit on one vs a steelcase leap vs a $100 chair and that may help.
posted by escher at 8:09 AM on February 18

You don't always get what you pay for.

I have a Humanscale Freedom. There are few purchases in my life that I regret more; the only reason I've hung on to it so long is a stupid sunk cost fallacy, combined with the inconvenience of it not fitting in the trash can where it definitely belongs.

I bought it after sit tests of dozens of chairs; it stood out from the crowd by feeling very different to sit in than the others, but after a year or two of use it became clear that that different doesn't mean better. The "intuitive controls" consist of "you have very little control": the seat back can't be locked into position; it automatically adjusts to a far-too-reclined slumped posture which leaves your butt sliding forward in the seat; meanwhile the headrest pushes your head way too far forwards. The gel in the seat formed a crater and tore away from the surface material after a year or so (which seems to be a common enough problem that when I wrote to the seller to complain they sent me two replacement seat bottoms -- each of which also lasted less than a year before tearing away the same way.) Placing any weight on the armrests causes them to collapse to their lowest position. Etc. It's very expensive crap.

Currently sitting in a Tempurpedic borrowed from the office -- based on the photos it's the same one mentioned by mortaddams above. It's a good chair, my only complaint is that the armrests are a little wobbly.
posted by ook at 8:28 AM on February 18

The most important thing to take away here is that you really should try sitting in any chair you're looking at, and make sure you try all the adjustments while you're testing it. I wouldn't know that I hated Aeron chairs if they hadn't been the standard at a job I had 20 years ago. My particular dislike is down to how my weight is distributed and how long my legs are. I couldn't get my Aeron to fit me, but I wouldn't tell somebody else they were wrong to like it. If I'd liked it at that job I would just have bought a used Aeron like everybody else seems to do. Since I knew I didn't like the Aeron, that informed how I sat in every other chair I tried.

And I'll second the nearly universal recommendation that if budget is an issue you may be better served buying a good chair used than buying a cheap chair new. The market for used office chairs seems to follow the dot com boom and bust cycle and the pandemic is certainly going to factor in that trend. After the past year of being forced to adapt to remote work, even surviving companies may still be divesting their office space and furniture as leases expire. More used chairs might be showing up in the market soon, if companies don't just let their own employees take them home as they close offices for good.
posted by fedward at 8:31 AM on February 18

Andy Ihnatko, the tech writer, suggested looking for a local business that liquidates office furniture, in order to get a fancy chair for cheap.

I didn't want to buy five years of someone else's farts and a chair whose cushion & gas cylinder had already seen their best years, so the week after Black Friday, I paid like $150 at Staples for a Tempur-Pedic TP9000 chair. I had already gone to several stores and sat in every chair they had, mostly to see how they handled my long legs (as I am 6'1").

I still like it.

I am *cough* thrifty and didn't want to spend a thousand damn dollars on one chair, but my back and legs were really starting to bother me after so many months of WFH. This taller chair has made that pain just....disappear!
posted by wenestvedt at 8:57 AM on February 18

I agree with the trying a bunch of chairs in a store plan if it is feasible. Preferably a used office supply store, but even doing the test at Staples would help you narrow down what sorts of features you need. My in person sit test I ended up with a used steelcase leap for ~$330. (I was replacing a ~$200 staples one that did not work for me...)

The higher end chairs will have higher quality components, and will have more adjustment options. (The first Staples chair I received (via mail) came with a broken part, so Staples had to send me a second chair. It's amazing how much heavier the Steelcase chair is compared to the Staples chair.

I'm sure many folks can get a "good enough" fit with an office chair that costs under $300 new. However, the build quality of a typical chair in this price range isn't really designed for 40 hour per week sitting.
posted by oceano at 1:30 PM on February 18

We have Aeron chairs at the office, and I love them. When I finally decided dining room chairs weren't good enough, I went to Office Depot to go chair shopping. I found an Aeron look-alike for about $250 that's about 80-90% as comfortable as the Aeron (but comes in a single width, unlike the Aerons, and maybe won't last as long). I wish I could tell you the brand, but it's too dark right now in my office-cum-bedroom. If you know and like Aerons, go check out the store and sit in one for a while.
posted by lhauser at 7:19 PM on February 18

ikea Markus. Sitting on it right now and really comfortable chair

New at 229 but can be had used for 100
posted by radsqd at 10:42 AM on February 19

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