Buyer's Guide - How To Choose Office Furniture With
Functionality and Beauty that's Built for the Long Haul
Office furniture is one of the most expensive investments that you will end up making if you open a new office for your business. At first, you might not think that you need much, but when you start pricing up things like furniture you’ll realise exactly what goes into a fully-functional office, and it’s a lot! Desks, chairs, filing cabinets, coffee tables, those things all mount up. Choosing the right furniture is really important too – because it needs to be able to withstand the stresses of day-to-day use.
ERGONOMICS IN THE OFFICE
While you might be able to get away with using whatever inexpensive furniture you can find to kit out your home, office furniture is a rather different thing. You, and any employees that you have, will spend at least eight hours a day at work, and that’s a lot of time to spend sitting in uncomfortable chairs and hunched over awkward workstations. Ergonomics are incredibly important in the office, and that means you need comfortable chairs that are adjustable, well-designed desks, and an environment that is generally conducive to work.
Choosing Good Chairs and Desks
At a bare minimum, office desks should be curved in a way that means people can get close to them, and have a slide-out keyboard tray, as well as an appropriate footwell. The chairs that you choose should adjust in both height and angle. Arm-rests are optional – some people love them, some people hate them. Back supports are useful, but since back supports tend not to be one-size fits all, it might be a good idea for you to not bother with a back support built-in to the chair if you’re buying chairs for your employees, and instead to just opt for simple leaning/swivel chairs then let people buy back supports separately. If you’re buying a chair for yourself, try it in a store to make sure it’s comfortable.
A good office chair will be nicely padded, but if you work in a warm environment you might want one with a ventilated mesh back instead of padding. These are usually nicely curved to support your spine, and quite soft, so they are still comfortable to sit on, but they won’t make you sweat uncomfortably the way leather and faux-leather ones will.
Armrests are optional. Some people find that they are very comfortable, but some people find that they get in the way, and even experts are divided on their value. Depending on how you sit, you may actually do more harm than good by using armrests, because you may put pressure on the nerves near the elbows.
People with back problems may find that a traditional office chair is bad for them, and that they would be better off either using a stool, to support an upright posture, or one of the ‘z-chair’ style sitting chairs, that forces good posture. If you do opt for a traditional office chair, make sure that you adjust the height so that you aren’t slouched, and so that your feet comfortably touch the ground. If they don’t touch the ground even with the chair at its lowest setting, purchase a footrest to go with the chair, so that you aren’t putting undue stress on your thighs.
A good chair will have a tilt function, and adjustable height, and it should be easy to get the chair into a comfortable position and keep it there. When you are ‘at rest’ it should not rock or move excessively, but it should not be awkward to adjust it either. When you sit for extended periods, you should find that your head, neck and back are supported. If you can’t keep a comfortable posture in the chair, it’s not good for an office environment.
If you expect that the furniture will be shared between several employees, make sure that it is really easy to adjust. A reclining chair with hydraulic height adjustment is ideal. Pay attention to weight requirements, though. While most executive chairs are quite sturdy, many of the cheaper ‘office’ chairs have weight limits on them that are lower than you might first expect. This is especially true for international brands.
Be sure to think about your general office accessories, too. Eye-strain is a common problem in a lot of offices, because of glare from lights. Investing in good lamp shades can stop a lot of problems before they even become a serious issue.
Storage is something that often gets overlooked. From a health and safety point of view, having storage in a corner of the office, away from the desk, is a good idea because it means that it encourages people to get up and move around a bit more often while they are working. That isn’t always possible or practical though, so desks with built in storage can be useful.
There are some lovely, elegant hideaway storage options out there, and they can be useful for executive offices. However, for general employees a desk plus filing cabinet is probably a better choice.
Features That Matter
The most important features, for most furniture, involve the ability to make adjustments. Desks and chairs should be variable height. Ideally, your chairs should have arms that fold up and down. If you’re looking at storage, shelves that can be moved or removed are always handy.
Most office furniture these days has cable management features – and these features are far more useful than you might initially think. Having the option to run cables through a hole in the desk, then along channels to keep them neat, will make your IT team happy, and will help to avoid potential health and safety issues too. It’s a small thing, but it does save a lot of time and hassle, and it makes the office look a lot neater too.
If you’re looking at lockable filing cabinets, consider something with a combination lock instead of a physical key. This is useful because it means you don’t have to worry about the key going missing or an employee taking it and cloning it. You can just share the combination with people who need to know it, and change the combination when there are changes to your team.
AESTHETICS AND MAKING A GOOD IMPRESSION
If you are going to be getting visitors to your office, then you want to make sure that you give them a good first impression. This means making sure that all of your office furniture is clean and in a good state of repair, and that it matches. It is OK to have modern furniture in your home, but then have a strange old recliner that doesn’t match the rest of the living room –that recliner might have sentimental value, or it might be something you keep just because it’s really comfortable.
In an office, that sort of thing doesn’t go down so well. If none of the furniture in the lobby matches, it’s unlikely that visitors will think “that’s an eclectic set of furniture”. Rather, they’ll think that your company couldn’t afford to get ‘proper’ furniture. Having a stylish coffee table and matching sofas in the waiting area helps you to put forward a professional appearance, and will offer good functionality too, since it will provide people with a comfortable waiting area where they can sit and relax, and also get a little work done on their laptops if they need to.
There has been a lot of research done into how the way a room looks can affect people’s mood and performance. Natural light is better than strip lighting because it improves mood and is less likely to cause migraines. Pastel colors are good for calming people and reducing anxiety. The right choice of colors can make the room feel more spacious too – which matters more than you might think when you know that people are going to spend a lot of time in there.
When you’re buying desks, think about the color and the shape. If you’re a tech company going for a youthful feel, then bright colors make sense. If you’re an accountant or a law firm, then opt for something more understated – because that’s what your clients will expect, and if you aren’t trying to build a brand based on “exciting accounting” you should try to go with the safe, expected option.
When you’re shopping for office furniture, pay close attention to the measurements. Most reputable office furniture manufacturers will provide detailed measurements, including the height, weight and depth of the furniture, which you can use to work out whether you have space for all the furniture. You can even use the measurements to plan your office layout in CAD software.
Remember that making sure the furniture “will fit” isn’t the same as making sure it’s a good fit. Think about things like whether there is space for doors to open, and whether there’s space for people to move around. You don’t want enough space to just walk past your desk – you want to make sure that you can slide the chair in and out, and that someone can walk behind your chair if they need to. There needs to be space for you to stand in front of that filing cabinet AND open it. Those are the things that often get overlooked.
Sick building syndrome got a lot of attention in the 1990s, and while it’s not talked about so much now, it is still something that you should be concerned with. There are a lot of potential issues in an office, and they are things that you should pay attention to when choosing furniture.
Carpets can trap dust and dirt, and if they are not well-made they could contain chemicals that, when disturbed, could cause respiratory issues. Even the upholstery of your sofas and seats could be problematic in this regard. Try to choose “green” furniture. Many companies are looking to avoid plastics and buy metal, wood and cloth furniture that offers good ergonomics, and that avoids the potentially harmful, polluting foams and other chemicals that could make your employees sick.
If you’re going down that route, look for furniture that is upcycled, reclaimed, or made from wood from sustainable forests. There are a lot of companies making furniture like that, and if you buy from one of those companies you can feel safe in the knowledge that you are doing your bit for the environment.
There are numerous European and international health and safety standards for furniture. These standards test the endurance, load requirements, and fire safety of the furniture, ensuring that it won’t collapse or break down under normal use, and that it won’t quickly burn in a fire, or release toxic fumes. You can see the safety details on the packaging of most furniture, and it should be clearly displayed in catalogs as well.
Expect a 5-10 year warranty on any furniture that you buy, and expect to be able to buy replacement parts for any furniture with moving parts. That should be a bare minimum for anything that is offered for an office environment – such furniture will be under heavier stress than anything that you would buy for the home, and standards such as EN1022, EN1335-1, and ANSI/BIFMA x5.1, for chairs, should show that the product is up to the stress that you would reasonably expect it to be put under.
No matter what your budget, you can find office furniture to fill it – and that’s only a slight hyperbole. There are so many different choices out there, from furniture that is at the most basic end of the budget range to designer items where you can pay thousands for a single chair. The trick is finding furniture that is well-made, and that will give you the best possible value for your budget.
Before you open your wallet, think about what you need, and the best way of achieving your goals. If you’re on a tight budget, you might need to compromise in some areas and spend more on others. For example, you might not be able to afford a separate desk, storage, and chair set-up, so you might buy a cheap workstation with built in drawers, to give you more money to spend on a good chair.
If you’re kitting out an entire office, then a set of desks, some dividing walls, and a set of good chairs could be the best way of spending your money. It all depends on the look you are going for, and how much you are willing to spend.
If you are buying for a large office, don’t forget that a lot of furniture stores sell sets which you can combine in various ways – tables that can be pushed together to create workspaces of varying size, for example. You can put together conference tables, or fit several desks in a small space with concave areas for chairs, so that a smaller room can still feel like a spacious meeting area.
Look for desks with adjustable legs, and that can serve more than one purpose. If you can’t afford an expensive solid wood desk, a veneer one could be a good option. If your budget doesn’t extend to free-standing storage, shelves on top of the desk can create extra space, and be a good medium-term solution.
Don’t forget the option of standing desks. Not all employees will be open to the idea, but if you need to accommodate a lot of people passing through, then standing desks can be an option for short-term staff. In a retail store, for example, not every person who is going to do a little data entry needs a chair.
There are a lot of ways that you can save money while putting together an attractive and functional office space. Remember that the two most important things are ergonomics and build quality. It is a false economy to buy something that will lead to your workers getting RSI, and it’s a false economy to buy something that will fall to pieces after just a few months of ownership. Keep your furniture simple, but buy the best that you can, and then upgrade and accessorize when necessary.
Whatever you decide to buy, think about delivery, warranties, and assembly. Often, office furniture is flat pack, but you can pay extra for someone to come to your premises and assemble it for you. If you’re not a DIY wizard, or you don’t have a lot of time, it makes sense to pay extra for that service, because it will save you time and money in the long run, and it ensures that the furniture is built properly. The last thing you want is a lawsuit on your hands because your computer table collapses and hurts someone.
Don’t forget that if you’re buying a large amount of furniture, you might be able to access bulk discounts or credit agreements. Be sure to ask about tax relief too, because sales tax and value added tax (depending on your country) does not always apply to businesses.