Rocking chairs allude to home, family and comfort. But, rocking at work? Research reveals the surprising benefits of rocking for wellbeing in the office.
This fall, Coalesse introduced the Montara650 Rocker, a new interpretation of an iconic form that has been designed to move about the modern workplace. Rocking chairs have a nearly universal, emotionally positive connection to relaxation and comfort, both for soothing and for leisurely pastimes. And, they figure in our warmest associations, across lifespans, from newborns to grandparents.
But, rocking at work? As the Montara650 rocking chair was in development, the leadership team at Coalesse wondered what specific and measurable benefits of wellbeing the act of rocking might bring to the workplace — meaning, not only the spirit of this archetype, but very specifically, the rhythmic motion that a rocking chair enables. Coalesse General Manager Lew Epstein recalls discovering rocking chairs in an airport several years ago, prompting an interest in rocking chairs appearing in other public spaces: an extension of the porch mentality, an invitation to friendly conversation, supported by a calming rhythm. John Hamilton, Director of Global Design at Coalesse, had also been following varied reporting on the kinetic benefits of fidgeting, doodling, pacing, and even standing at a desk, as discharges of stress that were found to bring greater focus to complex thinking.
Rockers are not new to commercial and industrial design. However, rockers have not been widely used to serve a typical role at work, nor have they been studied in this capacity. When Lew and John connected their separate threads of interest, their intuition led them to explore what rocking might mean to the activities and behaviors of modern work.
“Led by intuition, backed by research, and driven by design…the opportunity to test and design rocking chairs that would benefit workers and workplaces is such a full expression of our brand promise and our mission to bring new life to work. With rockers, we can tap into one of the most primal patterns of movement we know as humans. It’s a fascinating mix of the old and new with this form.”
— Lew Epstein
In some of the first research of its kind, a small pilot study was sponsored by Coalesse and conducted in early 2017 in collaboration with the Steelcase WorkSpace Futures group. The findings not only confirmed rocking’s positive symbolism, but they were also surprising. Rocking was shown to have a qualitative effect on people’s relating to each other and to their workplace, in unexpected ways.
“When we started this project, it was interesting to find that rocking had been primarily studied in the past for its therapeutic and medicinal value. This was an exciting opportunity to look into rocking from a different perspective that had not been widely examined before, bringing it into an office setting. We are beginning to understand how our assumptions and beliefs about rocking chairs and the act of rocking will bear out through the research in this fascinating new area.”
— Gaby Scarritt, Design Researcher, WorkSpace Futures
Companies that incorporate rockers are seen to be progressive in understanding the value of comfort in creating a more well-balanced work day.
Often credited to Benjamin Franklin, rocking chairs were first adapted in England for use in gardens, in the early 1700s. The classic Windsor rocking chair, which is still being made and interpreted, originated in this period. The form quickly became iconically American and varied by region; rockers have been remade for centuries according to the styles and materials of the day, from wood to wicker to cane, metal and plastic; Shaker to Mission to modern versions by designers like Hans Wegner and Mies van der Rohe.
For such an historical and instinctive mode as rocking, the rocking chair brings unexpectedly modern interpretations with it when situated in the relatively new context of the office. Subjects of the study thought that the presence of rocking chairs in a work environment signified a progressive company that cared about the wellbeing of its workers. These companies were seen to be innovative in understanding the value of homelike comfort as a key ingredient in creating a more meaningful, well-balanced work day.
“I feel like this would indicate a company that likes to try new things…to encourage a more relaxed environment,” said one of the study participants when asked what a rocking chair signifies. A rocker was seen as a surprising statement piece that represents an innovative culture, and one that supports the wellbeing of its employees.
Comfort is shaped by four key dimensions: physical, social, emotional, and cognitive. Wellbeing has in fact become a multi-disciplinary domain that is leading the cultural conversation about what the workplace requires today. Within the broad dimensions of this requirement, there is a need to fulfill workers by attending to their sensory engagement and comfort.
The WorkSpace Futures study showed that rocking can satisfy elements of all four dimensions of comfort, especially when designed for a sensory experience as much as a rocker’s appearance.
“Solving for wellbeing begins with understanding the senses of comfort that can augment the entire workday. We are increasingly focused on this point of view in ways that go well beyond the basic perception of whether a piece of furniture feels physically good to work in. Comfort is a very exciting discipline to be exploring today.”
— John Hamilton, Director of Global Design, Coalesse
Rocking can satisfy elements of all four dimensions of comfort: physical, social, cognitive and emotional.
The WorkSpace Futures study underscores that comfort is far more than an ergonomic fit — a felt sense around the body. Rather, it shows how the four dimensions of comfort can be activated by rocking, and how they can be surprisingly vital for the connections we seek together in modern work.
Ergonomics of a good rocker.
One of the first observations in the study is that while people have highly positive associations with rocking chairs and the act of rocking, many chairs are found to be rigid or spindly, and therefore, uncomfortable to sit in. Both modern and historical rockers can fall short of those built-in, fond expectations, and inadvertently discourage rocking — no matter how attractive they look. In order to make rockers more useful, there seems to be an opportunity to better satisfy three key criteria of physical comfort — to surround the body, support the posture, and create the balanced motion for a smooth ride that makes rocking easy for people to do.
The ergonomics of a good rocker include the height, size and curvature of the seat, the pitch and height of the back to support the upper torso, the level of starting recline, and the presence of armrests. The way the frame holds a body in an upright, open posture allows a person to move naturally, with the chair guiding the rocking rather than having to exert effort to guide the chair. Also, the more lightweight the chair, the easier it is to quickly reorient, to echo surrounding social cues.
Rocking with good motion is a measure of the balance that makes it easy to engage the chair. This includes the arc and smoothness of the rocking motion on the runners and allowance for the feet fully meeting the ground, to ensure that we don’t feel we are spilling too far forward or falling backwards. When it takes too much effort to set a rocking chair into its motion, we will actually be less inclined to rock.
Rocking puts people at ease.
The presence of positive social bonds is known to help build the trust and deeper relationships that are essential for people to collaborate and solve complex problems together. The resulting aspect of social comfort — the presence, development and fulfillment of those positive bonds — is among the most significant elements of trust in the modern workplace.
Social connection is consequently a key work mode today. It encompasses the wide range of more informal and conversational engagements that are part of the fluid personal–professional continuum that exists now at work.
“Social comfort is something we intuitively understand. We experience it in countless places within our lives…we know when we’re comfortable or uncomfortable, or when we’re in a productive or unproductive state of mind, around other people. That’s why enhancing this dimension of comfort is a great way to get to know people better, to become more engaged and productive together. How can we be collaborative, and genuinely good contributors, if we aren’t socially comfortable?”
— Lew Epstein
Both subjects and researchers in the study expected to find a sense of relaxation and emotional recharge in rocking. But the most surprising gains from rocking strikingly appear to lie in social connection, where people are put at ease with each other in ways that accelerate building bonds of trust.
How does social bonding work through rocking? The rhythmic movement was found to naturally telegraph, or extend, into other open gestures through the body. In the subjects of the study, rocking amplified a set of nonverbal cues suggesting friendliness and closeness — nodding, leaning forward, even laughing.
Moreover, when more than one subject was rocking, people began to synchronize or mirror each other. These mind-body connections demonstrate that the rhythm of rocking aligns people without conscious effort, while signaling their social comfort.
Rocking may contribute to people being able to focus more comfortably on each other and on preparing for tasks.
The cognitive state of comfort relates to thinking and reasoning, with factors that can support a person or group’s ability to remain focused for extended periods of time, and productive while concentrating. This is the deep processing that people are being asked to do today, where an ability to feel grounded in the moment with attentiveness and awareness allows them to synthesize complex matters and transform them into meaningful work. It’s the flow state, the zone.
The rocking research, though targeted, correlates with Steelcase neuroscience research on creativity, focus and learning. The latter particularly shows how important the body is to cognitive performance, in mind-body connections. And like the other kinetic activities which release stress, that John Hamilton had noticed, having control over micro-movements during rocking allowed subjects in the study to fidget yet adjust well to their conversation partner.
Accordingly, rocking may contribute to people being able to focus more comfortably on each other and on preparing for tasks. This is about reducing distraction, paradoxically, by adding motion with the peaceful rhythm of rocking in the background. That conception is part of how John and the Coalesse Design Group originally envisioned the new Montara650 Rocker; it would also be grounds for a new front in further research.
Rocking promises to work well for small groups and for mixed seating, where one or two rockers might accompany other chair or lounge options. A minimal number of people rocking could positively impact the entire group. This attunement is likely to inspire the productivity that comes from cognitive flow. Rocking can be part of the early stages of social and creative collaboration, when those deep states of engagement are activated.
“Looking to the future, there’s much more to learn about how our brains work in relation to movement. Emerging research in neuroscience is beginning to examine if there are ways that we can synchronize our brain waves to move our mind into a different emotional or mental state…whether it’s focus or relaxation, creative flow or being energized. The sensation of movement is thought to be one way to intentionally change one’s mental state. And rocking could be a prime means of doing that.”
— Gaby Scarritt
The soothing qualities of rocking can bring people to a healthier state of emotional wellbeing that results in both personal and social satisfaction.
Emotional comfort is foundational to how we become fully present to our surroundings, tasks, and other people. Emotions are hard-wired responses to stress and stimuli. In addition, they are a component of the more layered state of feelings that includes what we are thinking and how our environment influences us. Emotional comfort is the inner barometer of how we feel — how open we are to seek, create and participate – from our intuition and heart as well as our intellect.
As part of the rocking study, a secondary review surveyed some of the literature on the neuroscience of wellbeing. It reinforced that our social relationships can positively or negatively affect our emotions. And our emotions will then affect our cognitive performance — because it’s harder to learn or reason when we are in a negative state of mind.
It’s known that strong interpersonal relationships can help temper emotions and align people. This is just as true, and just as important, as taking time by oneself for calming and rejuvenating practices. So, as rocking works on social connections and cognitive flow, its soothing qualities also work on bringing people to a healthier state of emotional wellbeing that results in both personal and social satisfaction.
In all these aspects of comfort, rocking moves us to a state of ease. Rocking chairs evoke an informality that is in synch with many workplace cultures today — particularly in flatter organizations, where power dynamics are intentionally lessened as much as possible. In just one welcoming form of furniture, rocking provides some of the key conditions for people to take their guard down when speaking and connecting, as well as raise up their engagement when participating in the moment. It lets storytelling and quiet togetherness naturally alternate — often, the precursors to inspiration and collective big ideas.
Successful teams are marked by two things: “equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking and high social sensitivity.” Rocking can help to equalize the tone of meetings as people connect in informal rocking chairs.
— research referenced from Google’s Project Aristotle in the WorkSpace Futures study
In that dual state of both relaxation and connection, rocking offers a new catalyst for comfort and a meaningful destination for work. As we continue exploring all the dimensions of comfort that inform our experiences at work, we invite you to look for new introductions from the Coalesse Design Group in the months ahead, with the creation of additional rocking chairs and more.
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