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Your best work(space)

Doing your best work requires placing yourself in the right environment. For me, I need to be in an uncluttered space, free from major distractions, yet close enough to interactions to avoid prolonged isolation. I also believe in surrounding yourself with the energetic and inspired people, if you can afford such a luxury.

The model workspace

My wife an I are re-doing our office at home. Currently mulling over design ideas, but websites and catalogs only take me so far. I find they fall short of giving me the actual look and feel of a future space. To cope, I have built a model using SketchUp, catering to my geeky need for spatial visualization. It took me 35 minutes to build the framework using SketchUp: the walls, doors and closets and windows. Now, it's taking us much longer to design and build the workspace inside it. I was under the impression that, just as in geoscience, we need models for making detailed descisions. But perhaps, this model is complicating or delaying us getting started. Or maybe we are just being picky. Refined tastes.

This is a completely to-scale drafting of my new office. It is missing some furniture, but the main workspace is shown on the left wall; a large, expansive desk to house (up to) two monitors, two chairs, and two laptops. The wide window sill will be fitted with bench cushions for reading. Since we want a built-in look, it makes sense construct a digital model to see how the components line up with other features in the space. 

More than one place to work 

So much of what we do in geoscience is centered around effectively displaying information, so it helps to feel fresh and inspired by the environment beyond the desktop. Where we work affects how we work. Matt and I have that luxury of defining our professional spaces, and we are flexible and portable enough to work in a number of settings. I like this.

There is a second place to go to when I want to get out of the confines of my condo. I spend about 30 hours a month at a co-working space downtown. The change in scenery is invigorating. I can breathe the same air as like-minded entrepreneurs, freelancers, and sprouters of companies. I can plug into large monitors, duck into a private room for a conference call, hold a meeting, or collaborate with others. Part of what makes an office is the technology, the furniture, the lighting, which is important. The other part of a workspace is your relationship and interaction to other people and places; a sense of community.

What does your best work space look like? Are you working there now?

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Reader Comments (13)

Hi Evan

Nice work with the new office model!

About the shared place, nice idea, good for you.
My sister, who's a freelance architect and interior designer in Rome, works most of the time in such a co-working space with other independent professionals. She loves it. I've been there once last year during a visit: it's in a nice open-concept loft with access tio a quiet courtyard wehre they can sip an espresso during their breaks. I felt happy for her, and a bit envious of the atmosphere and vibe.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMAtteo

I am glad you liked the model. I have used Sketch-Up several times now, mostly for things inside my house that I want to build (I am a very amateur carpenter). As you probably know, Google created it, but it still is awesome and free. Your sister sounds like she has a sweet gig. You've painted a teasing picture, sipping espressos in Rome in a quiet courtyard. That's what I am talking about!

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan Bianco

@Evan: Actually, SketchUp was not created by Google, but by @Last, a small company in Boulder, Colorado. Google bought it when @Last started building a Google Earth plugin. (Google didn't build Earth either — a lot of awesome Google stuff was created outside the company. Just last month The Verge published a nice graphic of its acquisition history.)

October 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterMatt Hall

You guys and I have got to stop generating coincidences like this. I have just finished optimizing two work spaces (one at work and another at home) and am in the process of testing a third one, and was thinking about writing a post on this process.

My difficulties usually center on the balance between mnimizing clutter and having access to key material without taking too much time or conducting unergonomic repetitive activity while reaching for those things. So, I automate. Anything long-term gets digitized (and pitched) or filed, mid-term requirements are in folders on a shelf above my left arm and immediate requirements are right in front of me. While they are in front of me, I keep the half-circle area (that my arms create in front of me) clean save for water, post-it notes, a pen, a pencil and small speakers for my music.

Same for my home work-space where I make more physical things than I use the computer. It's a small desk so I have to keep ingredients/tools right around me and inspiration (pictures, center pieces) in front of me while giving my arms enough room to draw, hot-glue, bead, sew, etc.

I really have to write this up for MaitriLAB - a new maker website I am in the process of constructing (already a prototype at

Oh, and get yourself a Grid-It Cocoon organizer for small spaces and travel if you haven't already.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaitri

Meh, I'm not to picky. Anywhere you can fit a workstation and 3 30" monitors :)

As for sketchup, Anyone who has done any heavy work in it knows it's not a google product. How many other google projects use ruby for their plugin architecture?

Personally I use it for building models for my 3D printer, But I'm always enamored with the concept of building 3d geological models in sketchup and displaying them in google earth.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterToastar

No, Sketchup is not a google product but was acquired by them a few years back. I've used it to try to quickly create 3d buildings from existing oblique aerial photographs. Pretty good for that given the imagery resolution and angles we have now.

Does anyone interpret with less than 2 gigantic monitors any more?

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaitri

When moving into my new (tiny) studio. I made some sketches of possible furniture configurations. I moved everything into the first to test. I didn't like it so I moved everything to the second. Moved some little configurations around. In the end it took me 3 beers and 4 different configurations before I was happy. Definitely not the easiest method, but I immediately knew if it was a Yes or a No.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTSherry


What I meant is the majority of google's infrastructure is built on python. So sketchup using using ruby is quite a bit odd.

Some of the Sketchup plugins i've seen really are magic.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterToastar

I'm not as lucky, and am working in a reasonably classic cubicle based office. We have had a ton of discussion on how to build something that meets the needs the different types of workers we have - some love to collaborate, some would prefer an office with a door, some would prefer a 3x3 hotelling station and the ability to connect to our network securely from a coffee shop or clients office.

It's quite difficult to meet everyone's needs when you have 600+ in an office, and I think defaulting to the cube farm might make some people happy, but leaves a lot to be desired for people at either end of the introvert/extrovert spectrum.

The project i'm currently on has 3 of us working around a board room table when we're in the office, and 2 people working remotely from Montreal and Vancouver - its great to have no walls between my co-workers and whiteboards to work on when needed. Luckily all three of us are comfortable in that environment, and occasionally I get the whole room to myself when my coworkers are working remotely. The idea was to encourage working from different places, and testing out how mobile we can be with our current networks - I'm usually home twice a week, and it's been great.

All that to say, I'm really jealous of both of your work spaces, and wish Ottawa had a decent coworking space.

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChapman

Shame on me for assuming that Sketch-Up was a Google creation. I suppose I just same the name Google, started using it right away, and didn't look into it.
one point about monitors. For me it's all about resolution, not size. Sometimes a screen can be too big, I find I am more efficient when I compress the size of my windows especially during interpretation. But perhaps I have gotten used to a bit of portability. One laptop screen synced with one larger monitor, if what I use most often. Maybe I am missing out, but I have become efficient with real estate.
ah yes, the trial and error approach. Empirical. Nice. Unfortunately, for me, I want to actually build in some furniture, so the pieces don't actually exist yet. Yes, nothing beats the real thing, and a few bottles of beer to keep it all in the right perspective.
Some people love the cubicle space, and Matt can attest to the inviting cubicle space that ConocoPhillips has in the Gulf Canada Centre in Calgary. When I visited in the past, there was a calming buzzing ambiance, heightened by state-of-the-art white noise speaker systems for noise cancellation.

My brother told me about the computer game / technology company called Valve. They have people define their own workspaces, it's as easy as unplugging from the wall, and pushing your desk on wheels. At first it sounds a bit chaotic, but that might lend itself nicely to some organizations. The Valve new employee handbook

Next question: what is it about the non-physical parts of a workspace that make it great? And, can that quality or culture be engineered?

October 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterEvan Bianco

I have read that handbook a dozen times - what they have is truly unique, and I can imagine incredibly hard to replicate.

As for non-physical parts of a work place; (Finally a topic I feel I can contribute intelligently to!) The project I am on now is very much about trying to build or engineer a culture that makes our organization an even better place to work.

We're working to put together some different ways of sharing knowledge and communicating across the organization to try to bridge gaps between our regional offices. Using social intranets, wikis, enterprise IM, all that good stuff, to connect people and give them the ability to find the information they need, when they need it.

We're also hoping to shift the culture to one that is focused accountability and trust - we want to see people sharing ideas openly, and not being penalized for being wrong. There is always a lesson to be learned, and with those lessons and that attitude you can progress, and react to change, quicker. This also takes the right kind of leadership, something that I believe can be engineered in some ways.

One of the most appealing things about the type of workspaces you have is the freedom; to work when you want (at 8 am, or 7pm) in the environment you want. That type of freedom is part of a culture that is hard to get to in a large organization; It takes a big mind shift for an old-school manager to accept that their employee is still productive when they aren't in their cubicle.

All of this is what you'd read about in fastco or hbr style articles, but actually having the opportunity to design and implement is a whole different story/challenge.

Thinking of the places we've all worked in the past - what was it about the culture, or non-physical work place, that made the environment great, or stifling?

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChapman

Morning Agile;

From West of the Beaverlodge Area and Savanna Drilling Rig # 634;

Your article set me to thinking about the present state of the wellsite work space. The present version is quite ubiquitous and generally suits a wide variety of service hands besides just the wellsite geologists. Condition dictated by the drill rig and lease, climate, client demands and 24-7 work "day" have created this version that affords some flexibility to allow each user to put his or her slant on this office/lodgings combination.

Granted it is a "trailer" but has an abundance of modern conveniences for a field office and the pointy end of the stick ... or exploration. Large desk area, lots of pin-board wall area, relatively large picture window, comfy office chair, Internet/satellite connection and coffee maker in the kitchen at hand are key elements. Although the commute to the office can be long, the view is often impressive, occasionally spectacular and changes frequently.

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGregg

I was thinking about your question during my walk in this morning. When I think back over the great moments in my profession, they have always been in the midst of conversational geekdom. Sitting in a coffee shop at the U of A with Sam Kaplan, Mostafa Naghizadeh, and Ted Bertrand, drawing out a geologic cross section with Neil Watson in a cramped office, or sitting on a couch with Matt with a notebook and cup of tea. So for me, what makes an environment really awesome is this quality or the ability to hand-wave or the ability to B.S. Maybe it is the capacity or freedom to dream. I realize that not only have my best achievements been initiated under these circumstances, but they have also resulted in some of my greatest friendships. Of course, being able to stand up and doodle on a white board is not enough, one needs the diligence to actually execute and carry the doodles into something material.

So, a factor for me in defining a great environment? The ability to sketch, doodle, converse, put your feet up. Why? I don't know, but I have made several rich friendships this way. Perhaps not the only factor, but look to create an environment where people can be allies, and advocates.


I am so glad that you wrote in from the cozy confines of your well site trailer! Yours, I'm sure, is an environment that requires just the right amenities. Efficiency and minimalism, and comfort I am sure. Pinboard and natural light! I can imagine those make a big difference. Especially when you are receiving timely updates, memos from the city, updates on prognosis and so on. I can see how the right environment inside the office can go a long way to making the (long) workdays fun.

October 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterEvan Bianco

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