Take your workspace seriously

I’ve always been fascinated with creating a proper and efficient working environment. I’ve taken a fair bit of inspiration from the terrific writeup and gallery put together by Mitch Haile on his setup. Key takeaways:

  • Have separate coding and administrative areas
  • For coding, screen real estate is king
  • Bush Series C office furniture rocks
  • Ergotron makes fantastic monitor/laptop mounts
  • I’m not a freak for owning/buying tons of books (in paper form, either)!

During my 5-year stint at a local cabinet shop, I had enjoyed the opportunity to design and install two completely different office setups; one standing-height workstation and the other a traditional L. When I started Literacy5 a year and a half ago, I went through a variety of setups before I settled on something I really liked (some through necessity, and others out of a need to experiment).

Separate coding and administrative spaces

One of the most valuable lessons from reading Mitch’s office FAQ was the way he created different spaces for his coding and administrative/non-computer work. In my original office layout, I used the corner section to setup my Mac Pro and three 22” screens. The large bowed section functioned as my admin area. This worked REALLY well. My computer workstation area stayed immaculately organized while the admin area was always strewn with papers. That gave me the ability to keep extremely focused on the work at hand while coding, with zero distractions. When working on the business side of things, I could multi-task and juggle whatever I needed. My Macbook accompanied my to the admin area whenever I did my bookkeeping.

I eventually swapped the admin/computer spaces to support pair programming. Two of us could easily sit side-by-side at the large bow-shaped desk and each have our laptops out. While I didn’t use it that way very often, it worked out great!

At work, I keep my desk space as sparse as possible, still maintaining as much screen real estate as possible. As an aside, the Kinesis Advantage Pro has made a huge difference in the trouble I was having with my wrists. It’s a topic for another post, but switching to Dvorak at the same time worked out nicely. I really like having the two Dell 2209WA monitors on their side…it’s perfect for terminal windows, chat sessions, and Basecamp. The Macbook Pro runs the monitor on the left with the iMac 27” handling the one on the right. With a little creative SSH action, the left 22” can tail the Rails logs and it feels like you have three screens natively on the iMac.

Now that I spend the days at a shared office, my home office needs have changed dramatically. We are selling our 6,000 sq/ft home/office and will share office space with our friends John and Betsy at a converted warehouse. The office will primarily support managing our home, helping out with the non-profit we do accounting for, and my side projects. I may not even keep a computer there full-time, instead relying on my Macbook Pro. The new layout will still have two separate workspaces, but they will likely be split between my wife and I. I may even setup a dedicated podcast/screencast recording area so that I can leave my mic setup and ready to go.

Get a decent chair, please

One of the lessons I learned early was that a crappy chair can ruin your productivity (not to mention your back) by the end of the day. I’m a young guy, so I don’t care to complain about my back for at least another 20-30 years. The office I worked in before starting Literacy5 spent the bare minimum on chairs, so I’ve sat in some doozies. I never thought much of it since I was doing primarily IT support work with some programming sprinkled in. At most, I might be seated for 2 hours at a time with frequent breaks.

After a few more people were added to my staff, I spent considerably more time at my desk managing projects, coding, and handling server support. By this time, I was sitting in my chair for 7+ hours each day with only the occasional break. I realized just how important a decent chair (and having the sense to get up regularly to stretch) was.

So after launching out on my own, one of my major goals was to make sure that I got some decent seating. Like any new business, I didn’t have the stability to drop $1k on a chair right away, so I opted for a standing height work area…no chair needed! I build the desk myself and it worked great for quite some time. About six months in, I found that I was doing fewer meetings to attract new clients and had a lot more long stretches at my desk coding. While I really love a standing desk, I found that I couldn’t be comfortable more than 5-6 hours a day.

When I built a new office, I finally had the client work to justify a decent chair. I got a terrific deal on a top of the line Herman Miller Mirra through eBay, spending about $500. The Mirra is the follow on to the tremendous Aeron (I’ve tried both and prefer the Mirra). That has been the best $500 I ever spent. I’m sitting in it now and a year later it looks new, works perfect and still gives me 9-10 hours a day in perfect comfort.

Update: April 2010

I’ve had the opportunity to change my desk around, changing out a long 6ft table arrangement for an L-shaped workstation. It fits my monitor setup significantly better and affords a lot more space. I still stick to a clear work area, although it’s nice to have room for notebooks and printouts as needed.

I’m testing out the setup with only one 22” Dell screen and thus far, it’s working fine. That will leave me with an extra monitor to leave at the other office where I was using only the Macbook. Having a second screen there will make a big impact.

Published March 08, 2010

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