Creating a comfortable computer workspace

I just started work at the KnowledgeWorks building at Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center yesterday. The CRC is a nice place with lots of wide open spaces between buildings, lots of greenery and a quite lovely little lake in the middle of it all. The place I’ll be working is a floor that houses a large portion of Tech’s Computer Science department. The floor has an interesting layout. There seem to be faculty offices around the outer walls of the building and the central space is dedicated to grad students. They aren’t quite cubicles, but it’s not open space either. There are numerous curving partitions with about 3-4 workstations along each partition. There’s also a small area with couches for a more relaxed setting. It’s different from the large open computer labs that I’m used to working in, but I think it’ll grow on me. Each individual work area is just enough for one person to work. It’s quite possible to ignore everyone else (especially with a pair of headphones) but there’s ample opportunity for interaction. I only wish there were more whiteboards.

Yesterday was also the first day I actually got my Linux laptop to use an external monitor correctly. I’ve tried hooking up an external monitor to my laptop on numerous occasions, but I don’t think I ever got it to work quite right. There were a number of things working together to stop me everytime: drivers that didn’t work quite right, window managers that didn’t handle multiple monitors quite how I wanted them to, etc. I think I came close on a number of occasions, but I wanted something that ‘just worked’ and none of the solutions I tried were quite like that. However, a combination of XRandR, the open source radeonhd driver and the Xmonad window manager managed to let me hook up an external monitor in a way I really liked. Xmonad lets each monitor act as a viewport onto a different virtual screen, which I think is the best way to do multiple monitors. By comparison, the Mac Spaces approach of treating both monitors as a single huge desktop is something I can’t stand. I only wish that the Xmonad documentation were updated to say that their support worked with XRandR instead of the deprecated Xinerama.

The previous two paragraphs might seem unrelated, but they both have to do with creating with comfortable, efficient computer-centric workspaces. An increasing number of people are spendingsignificant amounts of time in front of computers (for business and for pleasure) and so it’s important to have a space that is enjoyable to be in. After coming back from work I remembered that I had read about a really amazing home office setup which I thought was a very good place for a computer professional to work out of. Some googling around turned up three such well thought-out office layouts that I think are good examples of what a comfortable workspace should be like. They are:

The spaces these people have made are pretty close to a computer geek’s dreams. Not only do they have an amazing amount of power under the hood, they also look good. These are all spaces that I would love to work in. Though I would probably run Linux with a tiling window manager of some sort.

Since I started college, I’ve learned to appeciate the value of a good working space more and more. I’ve also learned that building a good space isn’t easy, especially if you work with other people. It’s hard to get the right combination of openness and privacy. Back at Lafayette I live in a single room. It’s nice to be able to shut the door, but my desk is pretty small and the chair really sucks. The labs have much more space and better chairs but it can get a bit distracting if there are a lot of people in the room. The library is well lit and spacious and a good environment on the whole, but again too many people are a problem.

A lot of these problems are solved by simply having a personal office (with a door) with coworkers within walking distance. Beyond that, the problem becomes one of setup, equipment and space utilization. I think the setups described above are really good at serving the owner’s needs. At this point, a lot of the descriptions are subjective. I personally would have no idea what to do with 5 or 6 monitors, but I could definitely get used to 2 or 3. In fact, I’m starting to think that two large monitors is the bare minimum for anyone who does serious work with a computer. A comfortable chair and a decently ergonomic setup are essential unless you want to shell out a fair amount of cash for medical treatment later. I don’t have much of an opinion on tables and desks, but I’m fairly picky about chairs and keyboards.

On a bit of a tangent, I’ve been hearing about this new trend called coworking where freelance workers (mostly software people) get together to work in a semi-public space. Now, I love to have people near me to bounce ideas off, but I wouldn’t be comfortable working in a semi-public setting all the time. I love my laptop, but don’t like to be working off it all the time. If I ever become that sort of a freelance/work-from-home worker, I might cowork once or twice a week, but I’ll still want a decently tricked out home office.

On an ending note, let me just reiterate how important I think it is to have a good working environment. I still have a long way to go before I can put together anything as neat as the spaces you can find online, but till then I’m going to keep my eyes open for interesting and comfortable setups and environments. Though one thing is certain, I’m definitely going to have a bunch of monitors.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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