On Offices

When I was growing up, with my bedroom’s single window looking out onto a mishmash of tiled rooftops and weed-infested back patios, I had little reason to aspire to sweeping vistas and streaming sunlight.

That was back in the mid-70s, and my bedroom was wallpapered in deep blue striping, with indigos and thin streaks of cyan vying for attention above head height - or, rather, windowsill height, for I had yet to grow enough to peek out onto the world.

So I’d spend my afternoons in the living room, basking in sunlight from an adjoining balcony, more often than not leafing through magazines or books.

Getting my own white formica desk didn’t do much regarding changing that, but as time moved on I started spending an increasing amount of time doing school work on a foldaway desk my parents set up for me in the living room (in a set of Olaio pine furniture that I later reassembled at my own house, over a decade ago now).

Not much later on, I sat there for hours on end glued to a black and white TV set into which we plugged a couple of generations of Sinclair devices, and as a result enjoying the view became somewhat secondary.

Fast forward a few years, and having a desk became anathema - in between home, college, and any of the various places I sat in front of a computer (or, more likely, a dumb VT220 terminal with blurry scan lines and bashed keys), there was hardly any sense of ownership attached to the place where I was sitting, and little ability to counteract a (nearly constant) absence of any sort of outside view.

The Age of the Laptop was soon upon us, of course, and over time I started venturing out of the VAX caves and began a more pleasant nomadic existence upon the Internet savannah. By that time I had pretty much stopped bothering with desks, and nearly always considered them as waypoints rather than places to be at. Hotdesking helped, when the company did it properly1, but mobile phones and Wi-Fi made location pretty much irrelevant, and mobile broadband was just icing on the cake.

Six years ago I was at my nomadic zenith, and you’d be hard pressed to find me at my regular desk - I’d arrive at the office, undock my laptop and spend the day traipsing around the building, ducking away between meetings at the nearest “Zen zone” (nearly every floor had a “quiet” zone facing the river, with massive windows, comfy chairs and low tables), extending battery life by relying more and more on Citrix and remote environments that let me pick up whenever (and wherever) I left off - it wasn’t unusual for me to check my mail in the evening, disconnect, and fire up a remote session from the office, London, Milan, you name it.

These days, the kind of flexibility I had is pretty much taken for granted - you can do the same in a hundred different ways, and if remote desktops aren’t your thing, Dropbox and the like turn any computing device into your device, or the closest possible facsimile thereof. And there’s this little thing called the iPad.

And yet, I’ve probably spent more time at a desk in the past year and a half than ever before.

Which is, quite frankly, weird. And, quite honestly, a bit depressing. The desk and office come with the job, of course, and I happen to have a great multi-monitor setup:

Yes, that’s five displays. The leftmost one is hooked up to a Ubuntu box that hosts a bunch of VMs, but the other four are all hooked up to a single Mac mini, making for a desktop nearly 8K pixels wide.

It’s a great setup for the ungainly mix of graphics, coding and whatnot that I have to do or manage, but it’s not exactly doing wonders for my health, quite simply because I sit there for too long.

Long enough that I’ve started having cabin fever - since I’m not in an open plan office anymore, it’s even worse. But even with forced breaks to interact with people and stretch my legs, you can only visit people so often before they start freaking out…

So I’ve started wishing I had a standing desk2 or room to take my laptop and hang out near the teams I manage, but alas, there are no spare seats anywhere (there is a great “geek room”, but it’s far from being a quiet one at times).

As a sort of counterpoint, it will probably take years before I’ll be able to enjoy the luxury of sitting at a desk at home for more than ten minutes. There is an actual desk, and an actual chair and an actual desktop computer, which even has the requisite minimum amount of displays, but in between kids, lack of elbow room (the office is crammed full of stuff we simply can’t keep within reach of tiny hands) and a miserly view, I tend to simply use the mini remotely from the comfort of my iPad.

Which works and can be done from anywhere on the planet, but ultimately sucks because that’s simply not how I wish things had worked out.

I’ve been doing it all wrong, really. I probably shouldn’t have a desk at work at all (so as to force me to go back to working on the go), and find a way to have one of those dreamy, spacious offices at home.

You know, the kind that overlook the Swiss Alps or a stretch of beach, seen through floor-to-ceiling glass panes and with a humungous white desk upon which would sit the epitome of desktop computing in all its 27 inches of glory. Like a black, futuristic monolith, with nothing else on the desk. Or the rest of the room.

Yeah, right. Still, to cut this pseudo-rant down to a manageable size, I think I can do something about my cabin fever, and the first step was diagnosing it.

After all, an office shouldn’t be a place where you are pigeonholed away into a depressingly dark corner, but a good mix of interaction and room for reflexion - i.e., it ought to provide you with opportunities to go to and fro at will, mixing with ease direct interaction and human contact with quiet periods for solo working.

Which, as pretty much everyone in the industry knows, is an incredibly hard stunt to pull off…

  1. I distinctly remember working at consultancies where people went out of their way to sabotage hotdesking by leaving extra jackets and stacks of books at a desk for months on end. ↩︎

  2. Which is tantamount to being a member of a fringe cult over here, based on most people’s reactions to the notion. ↩︎