Best office chairs 2021: Tried and tested
It’s increasingly clear that remote work could become the new normal, so if you haven’t already, now is a good time to consider upgrading your home office. Whether you’re trying to punch up an existing setup or make a temporary situation feel more permanent, one key upgrade you should make is swapping out that dining room chair for an actual office chair that won’t wreak havoc on your back.
In an effort to discover which office chairs are actually comfortable, we spent more than a month testing 12 different options varying in price, function and style. We compared important features, like back and lumbar support, and dug into whether more expensive options are really worth the extra money. In the end, two chairs sat comfortably at the top of our list:
The Steelcase Series 1 stood out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At around $400, depending which color you choose, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.
The Alera Elusion Series Multifunction Chair emerged as our best budget pick, standing up to (and in some cases far surpassing) office chairs that retail for more than five times its price point, particularly in the comfort and adjustability categories.
Best overall office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $391.78; amazon.com)
PHOTO: Hayley Saltzman/CNN
On its website, Steelcase offers a good deal of information about what makes a quality office chair. The basics: It should “flex with you — helping you change postures while you sit; fit the natural contour of your back; move as you do,” while also allowing your arms to stay straight on your desk and your eyes level with your screen while you recline. After spending nine workdays testing three different Steelcase models, we feel safe in saying Steelcase knows what it’s talking about.
While all three of the Steelcase chairs received high scores in our testing pool, the Series 1, Steelcase’s most affordable option, blends exceptional comfort and value better than any chair we tested.
At first glance, the chair’s aesthetic is unassuming, with simple, clean lines and a compact size. When compared with the other products we tested, which sometimes had sharp angles, oddly elongated backrests and unnecessarily large armrests, we found the Series 1 to be one of the better-looking office chairs in our pool.
But when it comes to chairs, it’s more important that they’re easy on your back than on your eyes. We’re happy to report that with the Series 1, Steelcase marries function to that beautiful form. After three days of sitting in the chair, we felt the seat had the perfect balance of cushiness and firmness. While we were initially concerned that the thick, plastic lumbar adjustment would feel stiff, it wasn’t an issue. The mesh backrest was both flexible and supportive throughout the testing period. The backrest, which has what Steelcase refers to as “Integrated Liveback Technology,” might not look as structured as some of the heavily padded backrests on the market, but it outperformed the cushioned backrests because it moves with you as you work and shift positions.
As we learned throughout the chair testing process, backrest and seat comfort are negligible if a chair doesn’t allow you to customize it to fit your specific body. This is where the Series 1 really shines. While some of the other office chairs we tested merely offer adjustable seat heights and backrest angles, nearly every aspect of the Series 1 can be adjusted. And as an added bonus, it’s actually easy to make each adjustment with minimal guidance: While several other adjustable models require diagrams, videos and guides for proper setup, the Series 1 generally moves and conforms with the body in a very intuitive way.
The arm height adjusts within a 5-inch range to help relieve upper back and shoulder fatigue; the arm width adjusts 4 inches overall; arm depth can retract 2 inches to allow the user to get closer to the work surface and into tight corners; seat depth adjusts within a 2.25-inch range to accommodate different leg lengths; lumbar height adjusts over 2.25 inches; the arm caps pivot independently 40 degrees inward and 40 degrees outward depending on your preference; and the seat height adjusts within a 5-inch range. If that list doesn’t mean much to you, here’s the bottom line: This chair is extremely adaptable.
This chair is less than half the price of several others we tested, yet provides more comfort and flexibility than just about every chair we tested at any price point, making it a clear winner in an expensive market.
Best budget buy: Alera Elusion Series Mesh Multifunction Chair ($154.92; amazon.com or $151.62; walmart.com)
PHOTO: Hayley Saltzman/CNN
The Steelcase Series 1 might provide the best bang for your buck, but it’s still a fairly hefty purchase at around $400. While the majority of sub-$300 chairs we tested were more akin to a stack of cinder blocks than a high-end office chair, the Alera Elusion Series Mesh Multifunction Chair offers superb comfort and adjustability (it ranked third in that combined category, bested only by our best overall office chair and the Steelcase Leap Chair) with a very reasonable price tag.
The Elusion was one of the comfiest chairs we tested. Its thick, cushioned seat stood up to more expensive chairs, and the breathable mesh back was one of its best features.
While some of the adjustments on this chair are easier to make than others (though none of them work as seamlessly as with the Series 1), the Elusion does offer all of the customizations you need in a chair. Throughout the testing process, it became clear that height- and width-adjustable arms are key, and this is another area where the Elusion succeeded. While the Elusion’s armrests are very adjustable, they’re not as easy to adjust as the Steelcase armrests. To adjust the armrest width on the Elusion, you have to reach below the seat and turn a knob until you reach your desired position. The buttons for armrest height also feel a bit stiffer and harder to adjust than the mechanisms on any of the Steelcase chairs, but with a bit of force, it’s simple enough to move them. While the Elusion wasn’t the most adjustable product we tried (particularly with regard to armrest angle, which was not adjustable), both the height and the width of the armrests were ultimately more adjustable than the armrests on some of the much pricier competitors.
One of the least desirable aspects of this chair is its assembly process. Of all the chairs we had to assemble, the Elusion took the longest: a cumbersome 43 minutes (after unboxing) to get the chair set up, not including adjustments. Given the number of chairs that arrive fully assembled, you do have to commit a bit of elbow grease to save some money with the Elusion. The instructions were incredibly vague and we wasted a good amount of time trying to attach the armrests. But given that the assembly is just a one-time inconvenience that results in a very comfortable chair, it was not a deal-breaker, especially at this attractive price point.
While the Alera Elusion clearly has some limitations to its level of adjustability (most notably in the armrest angle and backrest height categories), its overall comfort level makes it one of the best options for its price tag, even after taking into account the somewhat lengthy assembly process.
The testing process for these office chairs lasted nearly two months. We unboxed and assembled each chair, paying special attention to the amount of time each unboxing and building process took. For the chairs that required assembly, we logged the amount of time it took to put each chair together. Once each chair was fully built, we reviewed all of the adjustment materials included and adjusted the chair to the proper specifications as much as possible.
Once the chairs were properly assembled and adjusted, we sat in each chair for three consecutive 9-hour workdays in the exact same office setup and conditions every day. We carefully noted how each chair performed in different positions accommodating various tasks throughout the workday (typing, writing, phone calls and video meetings). We also logged the overall comfort level after several days of sitting and working in each chair. Overall, we evaluated based on what would be the most important to the user: comfort and adjustability, build and length of the warranty.
To determine the most accurate overall scores for each of these three larger categories, we broke the testing into 10 subcategories:
Comfort and Adjustability
- Seat comfort: We noted how the seat felt upon first sitting down, and then re-evaluated at the end of the three-day mark.
- Backrest comfort: We noted how the backrest felt upon first sitting down, and then re-evaluated at the end of the three-day mark.
- Armrest comfort: We noted how the armrests felt upon first sitting in each chair, and then re-evaluated at the end of the three-day mark.
- Adjustability: To evaluate each chair’s adjustability, we made a note of the various features on each chair that could be adjusted, ranked individual adjustability of each feature on a scale of 1 to 15, then averaged these numbers to get an overall adjustability score. We analyzed adjustability on a scale of 1 to 15 for each of the following office chair features: Seat height, seat angle, seat depth, armrest height, armrest width, armrest angle, backrest angle, backrest height
- Back and lumbar support: We noted the level of lumbar support each chair provided (if any) upon first sitting in the chair. We also analyzed the level of back support each chair provided, paying special attention to how supportive the backrest felt in a range of angles and chair positions. Like the other tests, we then re-evaluated at the end of the three-day mark to determine a final score.
- Ease of reclining: First, we noted whether each chair allows the user to recline. Then, for the chairs that did include a recline function, we ensured that each chair was adjusted to its loosest or easiest recline setting, then noted how easy it was to recline the chair while sitting in a normal position.
- Ease of assembly: For the chairs that required some level of assembly upon delivery, we recorded the amount of time it took to unbox and assemble the chair, from start to finish (not including time spent properly adjusting the chair).
- Quality of chair materials: We made a note of our first impression of the fabric, armrest materials and finishes on each chair. We paid special attention to how sturdy each chair seemed upon first impression (i.e. did it squeak or seem as though it could fall apart?). We also made a note of these details after three days of sitting in each chair.
- Overall aesthetic: We assessed each chair’s overall appearance compared with the other chairs on the market and in our testing pool. We also made a note of the variety of color options for upholstery, metals, plastics and other materials used to make each chair.
- Does it have a warranty? We rated the length and coverage of the warranty for each chair.
Branch Ergonomic Chair ($299, originally $349; branch.com)
This is one of the most affordable chairs we tested. Its biggest attributes, especially at its price point, are its simple aesthetic, its excellent 10-year warranty and its ease of assembly. The Branch chair is also relatively adjustable — offering easy-to-adjust armrests, seat depth and lumbar support. In spite of these positives, the Ergonomic Chair ultimately failed to outperform the Alera chair or the Steelcase Series 1 chair in the key category of comfort.
The Ergonomic chair’s mesh back and armrests are comfortable enough, and its seat, while less cushy than the Alera Elusion, is adequate. The lumbar support, however, proved to be so uncomfortable that our tester was looking forward to the end of the test period. In spite of adjusting the lumbar support to its lowest and highest heights, and then ultimately consulting with one of Branch’s ergonomic experts (which the brand offers free to every customer), we couldn’t find a height that provided support without causing intense pressure on the lower back. One tester, who’s just over 5-foot-2, was on the lower end of the recommended height requirements for this chair; another, who is 5-foot-5, never experienced lumbar discomfort while using the product. For shorter consumers, this chair isn’t likely to be your favorite. For others, it’s likely a decent option if you’re looking for something a little prettier than the Alera Elusion and more affordable than the Steelcase Series 1.
Ikea Markus Chair ($229; ikea.com)
While this was one of the most affordable chairs in our testing pool, it was also one of the least comfortable chairs we tried. It’s still better than a dining room chair, but its thinly cushioned seat was uncomfortable after two days, the armrests were incredibly thin and rubbery, and the lack of adjustability was a major issue. Additionally, we found the backrest to be unnecessarily tall, and given the chair’s lack of adjustability, it just didn’t feel like a fit.
Herman Miller Aeron Chair ($1,395; amazon.com)
This was one of the most aesthetically pleasing chairs we tried, and it received a high score for comfort and build across the board. The main downsides here were the steep price tag and relative lack of adjustability.
Hon Ignition 2.0 Chair ($313.86; amazon.com)
While this chair received a relatively high score for adjustability, it lacked sufficient lumbar support and had an uncomfortable backrest. Although the backrest angle is adjustable, it was one of our lower-scoring chairs in terms of ease of recline. If you like to be able to comfortably shift back and forth between sitting upright and leaning back, this might not be the best chair for you.
Steelcase Gesture Chair ($1,003.83; amazon.com)
Steelcase chairs were some of our favorite products we tested. The Steelcase Gesture received a perfect score in terms of build, ease of assembly, and quality of materials. Its lifetime warranty also gave it high marks, but it simply wasn’t as comfortable as the other Steelcase chairs we tested. If you like a very structured, supportive backrest, this might be a good option for you. If you favor a more flexible, mesh back (and a lower price tag), go with the Steelcase Series 1.
Steelcase Leap Chair ($921.42; amazon.com)
As previously mentioned, this Steelcase chair was actually the highest-rated chair in our testing pool, and it remained exceptionally comfortable even after three days of use. But, despite costing more than twice as much as the Series 1, the only areas where the Leap Chair beat it were in backrest and armrest comfort. Ultimately, product value is a key factor in our product recommendation process, and the Leap’s much higher price tag kept it from being our number one pick.
AmazonBasics High-Back, Leather Executive Chair (no longer available)
The best thing we can say about this chair is that it has very comfortable armrests. That aside, the lack of adjustability for the armrests (and for almost every other aspect of the chair) made it one of our least favorite products. This chair also received low marks in terms of build — it started squeaking on day one, and after three days of use, several of the screws fell out of the chair. Even if we concede this could be due to user error during setup, nothing like this happened with any other chair we assembled, so poor quality and assembly instructions are at least partly to blame.
Humanscale Freedom Chair ($935.20, originally $1,549; wayfair.com)
This chair felt comfortable and cushioned without relying on thick, heavy padding. The overall aesthetic is impressive, plus the seat depth and backrest height were more adjustable than many of the products we tried. Unfortunately, the fact that the armrest width and angle didn’t adjust as much as we would have liked made this chair relatively uncomfortable after three days. The default width for the armrests was far too wide for our personal comfort level, even at its most narrow position. If you don’t mind wide-set armrests and you’re looking for a chair with a quality build, this is a solid option.
Humanscale Diffrient World Task Chair ($583.20, originally $898; wayfair.com)
This was another high-scoring chair. The mesh moved with us very easily, and overall it felt incredibly supportive yet light. This chair received a perfect score for seat comfort and backrest comfort, and we were impressed to note that its “tri-panel backrest” also provided exceptional lumbar support. Its ease of recline was also seamless — allowing for a supportive backrest no matter how much you choose to lean back. The seat depth and backrest height are both adjustable, which is a plus, but the armrests can only be adjusted up or down. If you think you’ll need to adjust the width and/or angle of the armrests on your chair, you might want to go for a Steelcase product instead. Ultimately, in spite of its high score, the Diffrient World Task Chair didn’t secure a top spot on our list, mainly because of the armrest issue and the fact that this chair normally costs almost twice as much as the Series 1.
Sihoo Office Chair ($199.99, originally $299.99; amazon.com)
For almost every testing category, our notes on this chair contained some version of “not great, but not awful.” Overall, that’s how we’d have to summarize this chair, too. This chair received very low marks for its one-year warranty, and average scores for build, comfort and adjustability. The seat and backrest are pretty comfortable and the chair adjusts in all of the main ways you’d expect it to, but the armrests are wide-set and contain strange divots, making them some of the least comfortable ones we tried.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: