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Che Voigt believes his company has solved problems that have plagued the working world since the advent of typing.
It’s a solution to hunched backs, stiff necks and tight shoulders. It’s a workstation that, with a push of a button, transitions from a standing desk to a seated table to a fully reclined platform like a dentist’s chair. Its seat expands and retracts, supporting the whole body from head to heels. Its desk moves up, down and rotates. There’s a screen and mouse and keyboard that follows the user’s eyes and hands.
It’s the way of the future, he says; the most comfortable you can possible be working at a computer. .
And if Silicon Valley’s track record is anything to go by, Voigt might be onto something. Tech firms have long embraced wacky inventions that promise heightened productivity and creativity — and the industry has a history of making them mainstream.
that once seemed extravagant are no longer common just at software start-ups; schools, government agencies and even the White House have gotten on board. Whether it’s open floor plans, ergonomic keyboards or yoga ball chairs, workplaces far removed from the tech world often co-opt the quirky and often costly office cultures of firms like Apple, Google and Facebook in hope that some of their success rubs off.
“Comfort is material to creativity,” said Voigt, 45, chief executive of Altwork, a company that builds each workstation by hand in a barn on a 65-acre family property shared with Zinfandel wine grapes in Sonoma County. “If you’re stressed or distressed, the mind can’t fall into creativity. We want to get into an area where you can be productive and do really good work.”
Twenty years ago, ergonomics was about finding a decent office chair and doing the occasional stretch throughout the day, said Joy Boese, an ergonomics specialist at E3Consulting who has worked with companies such as Toyota and Netflix. It was considered an office perk, something filed in the “nice to have” category. Today, particularly in tech land, it’s expected.
“Now it’s about tracking your health, tracking your steps, seeing how you spend your day, integrating fitness desks, treadmill desks, Zen rooms for people to take a moment to rest their mind,” Boese said. “These companies want people to feel like it’s more than just coming to work — they want a happy, healthy, engaged workforce.”
Silicon Valley is at the forefront of this, Boese said, which is no surprise, given that it is traditionally “two to three years ahead of the curve.”
But it’s also characteristic of the Valley’s ruthless optimization and productivity ethos.
It was software engineers who popularized Soylent, the liquid meal replacement for techies. It was tech CEOs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs who streamlined their wardrobes into a uniform, a move that Zuckerberg has justified saying it helped “clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible… on things that are silly or frivolous.” And it was the tech world that normalized “lockdowns” — intense work periods when employees don’t leave the office until a project is done.
These cultural quirks reflect the immense pressure that many tech workers face to deliver big projects on tight deadlines, justifying not only their own salaries but also their companies’ lofty valuations. The Altwork Station is designed for these people, said Voigt, who describes them as “high-intensity computer users.”
“Being comfortable at your desk is really important,” said Helen Wu, director of growth partnerships at San Francisco tech firm AppLovin, where every employee can choose between a sitting or standing desk and request ergonomic gadgets.
Wu herself doesn’t have an Altwork Station, but she uses a laptop stand on her desk, an ergonomic keyboard and a Handshoe mouse — a wireless gadget that looks like a fedora made for aliens — from the Netherlands.
“Having a setup where you don’t have to worry about your physiology lets you focus on your work,” she said.
“We worked with a brokerage firm to redesign their office into an open plan space, and it was hard to get people out of private offices,” said Melissa Steach, an ergonomics specialist at Herman Miller, the furniture firm whose midcentury designs are now ubiquitous in the tech industry. “There was a lot of ego attached to it, the whole ‘I’m a baller, I’ve earned this office and you don’t have one.’ ”
Silicon Valley, meanwhile, isn’t wary of workplace weirdness. It has embraced it — reclining chairs, bike-pedal footstools, treadmill desks and all.
There’s a copycat element to it too, said Michael Lukasik, a brand development manager for West Elm Workspace, an arm of the housewares business that furnishes offices. Start-ups often express Google-shaped aspirations even if their businesses couldn’t be further from Google’s.
“These smaller companies are coming to us and saying, ‘We saw images of Google’s offices — can you help us accomplish this?’” Lukasik said. “Everyone wants to attract the same talent that Google or Apple attracts and retains.”
It doesn’t always work, of course. The Googles and Facebooks of the world were at least bringing in revenue before they started lavishing their employees with ergonomic perks. Some start-ups find themselves in the reverse situation, spending big before they’ve hit the jackpot.
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