When I first laid down in the Altwork Station, I squealed. While I held down a button, the fully configurable desk-and-chair combo slowly began to move, the seat reclining like a dentist chair and the monitor rising to follow. My stomach churned a bit from the unexpected feeling, and all of a sudden I was fully reclined, the magnetized keyboard and mouse hovering above me. It would be a great way to watch movies. But for working? I wasn't so sure.
The workstation is the signature product of the startup Altwork, which has spent the past six years developing an ergonomic solution that is completely customizable, converting from a standing desk to a more traditional sitting desk to a reclined position. The chair was inspired by the company's cofounder, John Speicher, who had been injured in a car accident and could only work comfortably while reclining. After research and testing, Speicher and cofounder and CEO Che Voigt came up with a medical-looking workstation. But it's not meant exclusively for people who are injured or disabled—Voigt imagines the Altwork station for anyone whose main professional tool is the computer. It is designed to be a chair you never have to leave—a fitting metaphor for our work-obsessed culture.
The task chair has a long history. In late 1800s, engineers created chairs that would make jobs like sewing, surgery, and hairdressing easier—using innovations that we take for granted today, like adjustable heights and seat-tilt tension.
Modern ergonomics emerged as a result of World War II, when workers' comfort both in factories and in the cockpit could save lives. The task chair only became an object of high design in the 1970s—in 1976, the designer William Stumpf created the Ergon chair for Herman Miller, popularizing the concept of the dedicated office task chair with cushy molded foam with back support. As computers became an integral part of the workplace in the 1980s, task chairs came along too, reaching an iconic form with Herman Miller's 1994 Aeron chair, which promised both comfort and status with its expensive, ergonomic engineering.
Today, companies are more concerned than ever with how to keep employees happily typing away. Yet, as research has shown that sitting down all day every day is terrible for your body (and even exercise doesn't undo the damage), the task chair's role has evolved to make room for standing desks. Both are now staples in many offices, and many variants, like treadmill desks, have also become more common.
The Altwork Station seems to be the next step, rolling all the seating and standing trends into one infinitely adjustable device—the ultimate expression of the tech world's obsession with productivity and comfort. We have truly reached peak task chair.
The tech industry in particular has a cozy relationship with ergonomics, the idea being that the more comfortable your programmers, the more hours they can spend coding. It isn't unusual for a task chair to cost more than $1,000; they are treated as status items, as evidenced by Silicon Valley's use of a CEO's own high-priced task chair as a plot device last season.
This seems to be the audience that Altwork is targeting, and Voigt says that some of the largest tech companies in the world have bought the device for their employees (though he wouldn't say which companies). Many of Altwork's clients, he says, have purchased a few to see if people like them.
That companies, not individuals, seem like the target client for the Altwork is not surprising. The "standard" model costs $5,900 (not to mention exorbitant delivery fees). For an extra grand, you get to pick colored fabrics and real-wood finishes meant to give the station a warmer, friendlier feel, humanizing a system that looks markedly high-tech. (Its user interface, which consists of a set of clearly marked buttons and memory positions, evokes the controls of a hospital bed.) Meanwhile, workers are supposed to outfit the station with whatever computer, keyboard, mouse, and monitors they want, while a dual monitor mount and a laptop mount available are available from Altwork for purchase.
The station itself requires plentiful space in an office—it takes up about 26 square feet, not counting entry or exit, or any kind of side table that will likely be necessary (even computer workers need a place to put their coffee). But once the Altwork station has been bought, shipped, and set up, what is it actually like to use this expensive, sprawling contraption?
At first, playing around with the different positions was fun. I wrote stories while lying on my back. I took phone calls while standing. I wrote emails while sitting. Then I'd recline back while looking for story ideas, and the rotation would start again. Making adjustments is easy, especially because the desk and the monitor adjust according to the position of the chair. But at the end of day one and two, I found my back aching from the time I'd spent lying down, especially because using the mouse and keyboard in that position really strained my shoulders and kept my body tense.
Voigt told me that the desk is meant to encourage movement, which has been proven to increase comfort while working. But eventually, I found myself mostly just sitting in a similar position to what I'm used to working in every day. Perhaps it was force of habit; perhaps it was from the annoyance of trying to find a reclined position that I could comfortably work in for more than an hour. The unending adjustability—while a pleasure to experiment with initially—ended up giving me something like decision fatigue when I had a hard time figuring out which positions would make me the most comfortable. And if I was reclined, it was a little embarrassing to be stretched out in such a vulnerable position among coworkers.
One of the magazine's developers, Mike Bernin, who has suffered from pain in his body from his current set up, tried out the station as well. He only used it in standing mode, mostly, he said, because he was too busy to try anything else. I too spent a decent amount of time using it as a standing desk, and that was the best thing about it.
Still, I eventually tired of standing so I did the one thing the Altwork station isn't designed for: I stepped away from my computer and took a break.