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My First Herman Miller Chair

Primavera SchedulingClosing out 2017 I thought I would change gears and talk about something near and dear to me; my posterior. As a professional trainer I am required to spend a fair amount of time sitting down. Now, that might seem easy, but I have learned over the years that my students simply do not have my stamina when it comes to being stationary. They shift side to side, arch their backs, lean forward – anything that reliefs the pressure of just sitting there. My favorite is when someone’s leg makes sudden contact with the metal privacy panel on our training desks with a loud CLANG. That tends to get everyone’s attention.

Our training chairs, however, are not to blame. Given my vast experience with sitting down I know a good chair when I see one. I sit in the same type of chair as my students and they are really quite comfortable. However, I do have an alternative chair in our training center that is rather unusual. It is barrel-shaped with a convex bottom. The concept is similar to those inflatable balls that some people sit on, but that seems a little too Romper Room for my taste. Here is what my alternative chair looks like:

Primavera SchedulingThis is the Turnstone Buoy by Steelcase. It is height-adjustable, which is a vast improvement over an inflatable ball. I also do not need to worry about my chair wandering off when I stand up.

A “wobbly” chair like the Steelcase Buoy encourages movement, circulation and strengthens core muscles. The only disadvantage for me is that the padding on top is not particularly thick, so after a few hours I have to switch to a more traditional chair. My natural padding is simply not adequate, which I suppose could be a plus.

But what I really want to talk about today is my first Herman Miller chair. I started thinking about this subject when I read an article that was originally published in Vanity Fair back in 1998, “My First Gulfstream”. The article was written anonymously but the author (a Microsoft executive at the time) has since revealed himself. He was a little embarrassed to be buying a jet when even his own boss (some guy named Bill Gates) did not own one.

Only the top 1% of earners can relate to the trials and tribulations of dropping $10 Million on a used jet and another $2 Million in renovations ($100,000 for a digital phone makes me almost appreciate my Verizon cell phone plan – almost) but his search for the perfect office chair seemed rather pragmatic to me:

“In an unusually reflective moment, I sat down one day and made a list of everything in my life that could be improved. The top of the list was easy enough: my office chair. I realized that I spent more hours sitting in that chair than in nearly anything else I owned. On that basis, I should be willing to spend a huge portion of my income on that chair. As it turns out, that isn’t really possible. Antiques and art pieces can be pricey, but if you’re buying a chair for your behind rather than for status you can get a Herman Miller Aeron for about $1,150.”

Yes, the Herman Miller Aeron chair. I did not read the Gulfstream article until recently (it is available online) but I was in fact dreaming about the Aeron chair back in 1998. Released just a few years earlier, it was/is the perfect office chair. Often imitated, but there is no other office chair that can make work more pleasurable. Here is what Herman Miller’s website says about the Aeron:

“Aeron’s PostureFit SL technology affords the ideal sit — chest open, shoulders back, pelvis tilted slightly forward. Adjustable pads provide lumbar support and stabilize the base of the spine for the perfect balance of ergonomics and comfort. Our breathable 8Z Pellicle suspension seat and back create eight zones of varying tension for optimal support.”

That said, many of us would have to think pretty hard (and get permission from our spouses) before spending $1,150 on an office chair. Heck, back in 1998 the consulting firm I worked for had one email address for the entire company. Anyone trying to reach me via this newfangled technology would have to put my name in the header. I would then wait for a secretary to print out the email for me. When traveling on business my employer would rent a laptop for me because we did not own any such machines.

I left that company in 1999 and moved to Kansas City. My wife had received a promotion at General Electric and I knew someone who owned a small consulting firm there. So it was a pretty easy decision. And when GE offers to move you, things happen fast. On the day that my wife accepted the promotion a Realtor (paid by GE) showed up at our condominium to get the listing started. Within two weeks all of our stuff had been transported from New Jersey to Kansas City.

Meanwhile, I had not stopped thinking about the Aeron. So imagine my surprise in 2001 when I walked into the conference room and saw IT in the corner of the room. Hello beautiful. The meeting starts, with no explanation right away. Finally, the president of the company explains that a friend of his who owns an office supply company was trying to convince him to upgrade to Herman Miller chairs. So we would take turns trying out the Aeron for a week.

Needless to say, nearly every one of us loved the Aeron. But still, I kept thinking that the president would change his mind when he realized how many employees wanted the Aeron. Perhaps it would come down to seniority? A coin-flip?

In the end, everyone who wanted the Aeron got one. I enjoyed every minute I spent in that chair. When I was being recruited by another consulting firm to move to California I regretted leaving behind the Aeron. But I did pick up a gently used Herman Miller chair while in Kansas City. It is not the Aeron but it is such a well-crafted chair that I still use it today in my home office – more than 15 years after I bought it.

When I started my career in 1982 hardly anyone paid attention to ergonomics. But in the 1990s I developed pain in both wrists after several years of trying to use a keyboard on a desk not intended for computer use. That was a wake-up call for me. The thought of being debilitated by pain at the age of 35 was scary. With a more appropriate desk and chair I have not experienced any such pain since then even though I use a computer much more often today.

Being comfortable is no laughing matter. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) account for one-third of all workplace injuries and illnesses. You may not wear a hardhat or steel-toe boots at work but that does not mean there are no risks. We joke about paper cuts and stapler incidents but the reality is that poor ergonomics cost companies millions of dollars every year in workers’ compensation claims.

With that in mind, I wish you a happy, prosperous and safe 2018!