Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Now Stand in the Place Where You Work

When I used to blog 5 days/week, it was easy to come up with topics. No topic was too trivial, it seemed. Since I haven't been blogging every weekday, suddenly each potential post comes with extra baggage: is this topic important enough for a rare post? I ask myself. How can I write about mundane issues when I haven't even commented on the fact that some female Olympic athletes from certain countries (Japan, Australia) flew to London in coach class while the male athletes were in business class? Also, there has recently been an amazing outpouring of letters on behalf of FSP-as-mentor (thank you everyone for this); shouldn't I write something mentor-y? etc.

Maybe I should, but today I am not. Because it's summer? My blog muscles are flaccid? All this is to warn you that the infrequency of my blogging does not correlate with the importance of my blog-topics when a rare post appears.

What I was obsessing about recently (and not for the first time) is how we arrange our faculty offices so that people (students, colleagues) can visit us and have an obvious and convenient place to sit. I think about this particular topic:

- when I visit some other faculty offices*; and
- when people visit my office;

(* but not in my own department!; my colleagues mostly have the visitor-chair situation figured out very well. I cannot, however, say that I have this figured out for my own office.)

Despite the fact that many of us have visitors in our offices multiple times every day, it is amazing to me how many times I go to someone else's faculty office for an extended chat and it is not clear where I should sit. In some cases, there is no available chair, or no chair in an obvious place for conversing with the person whose office it is, and so on. Oh sure, there may be one or many chairs scattered about the office, but some or none of them seem safe/convenient/possible for sitting and conversing. It doesn't matter what type of institution it is -- giant university, small college: many of us are furniture-challenged when it comes to receiving visitors in our academic offices.

This is amazing to me, but in a hypocritical kind of way, as my office seems to confuse many people who stop by to chat. They seem perplexed: should they sit in the more comfortable place further from my desk or the less comfortable place closer to my desk? I contribute to the confusion when I occupy the more comfortable seating option rather than sitting at my desk (I do this because I no longer have a desktop computer so why not sit wherever I want? And also I find that sitting in a comfy seat rather than in my desk chair reduces this effect.) Many people choose to stand.

As it turns out, I actually have two offices, and I recently started reorganizing one to be more visitor-friendly. I don't really want to talk to people across a big wooden desk (well, sometimes I do, but most of the time I don't), and I don't want people to stand because they aren't sure where to sit. I also don't want to get up and walk across the room to sit in some other chairs every time someone stops by for a brief chat, etc.

So, how is your office arranged? (Fig. 1).  Do you talk to visitors across your desk? (That is, you are seated behind your desk, visitors are sitting or standing on the other side.) Or do your visitors typically sit in a chair at or near the end of your desk (or desk-like thing)? When you have visitors, do you move to a seating area away from your desk? Or something else?

Figure 1. Some possible office configurations.

And: Is your office arranged in a particular way for visitors because you have thought about how you want to interact with visitors, or because you don't really have a choice given size/furniture constraints?

And most important question: Do you have always/commonly/sometimes/never have to move piles of papers and other stuff off a chair so that a visitor can have a seat?

No, actually this is the most important question: Do you think it matters how your office is arranged with respect to where visitors sit? For example, does it affect how you interact with students and others? Can a well-arranged office make you a better mentor? Or not?

38 comments:

John Vidale said...

I have situation C, and had F in my office at my last institution. I was taught this is the only correct choice for computer-bound office-sitters.

The window is generally on the opposite side of the room from the door. Ergonomically, to avoid eye strain, one should not have the computer screen (or four screens in my case) backlit by the window, nor have the light from the window reflect off the screen, hence the desk should face the side wall.

Also, then one can have half an eye on the door and also have the scenery outside in view. Then a couple of chairs are over by the door, and a couple more in the passageway outside to bring in if the meeting exceeds three people. It works for me.

Erica Sparkenbaugh said...

My current PI has a great set up. He has a corner desk with a rolling chair. In the other corner of the room, like in Figure F, he has a small table and a chair. Now, when he has visitors or we have meetings, I sit at the chair, and he rolls around to meet me, and we sit at the table. We often draw out data, write experimental plans out, etc, so he has a stack of scrap paper and some different colored pens there. It's really comfortable!

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, FSP!

My office has a little bit of flexibility about arranging furniture. I have arranged it so that whetehr working on my own or discussion/conversing with visitors/students, I am behind my desk. The other person could be seated across the desk or alongside (A or B in your figure) and sometimes D. In the pictures A,B,D,E, the wall on the left has a board, and we often swivel around to look at it.

I'm not completely happy with the arrangement, mainly because if both me and visitor want to look at the computer screen (the right wall in A,B,D,E) they end up looking across the desk.

I'm reasonably happy about the fact that the desk is mostly clear (I have more desk space near the computer screen for cluttering) and the chairs are always clear. But I've been accused of being regimented!

I think office arrangement matters. it sends out subtle signals to the visitor - thou shalt stand and talk to me, thou shalt not be comfortable in my presence ...

MM

FSGrad said...

Most of the profs in our department have some variation on C. Some exceptions, but they are very rare. Of course, there's hardly room in the offices to do anything else.

Anonymous said...

I have two colleagues, each with a comfy chair in their office. A person sitting in the comfy chair sits at a low height relative to the colleague.
Colleague A has the comfy chair because she is able to take a short nap in it. She provides a standard chair(s) for visitors and steers them to it, so they will not feel at a disadvantage from having to look up at her.
Colleague B does not provide another chair.
I usually choose the comfy chair when visiting colleague A because it is comfy and I know I have the option of a different chair. I am happy to visit colleague A. I am always slightly annoyed to visit colleague B.

mOOm said...

My office is a mix of A and F. Sometimes I sit across the desk from someone and sometimes we both go and sit at a smaller second table. The second table was there when I moved into my office but I moved the desk so I am sitting behind it and can look out the door and out the window. The previous guy had his back to the door and his face to the wall. So this was the main consideration - my view rather than where people would sit.

Doc said...

How interesting! I think it has a lot to do with who you are usually entertaining in your offices. My PI in grad school had his arranged more like F, but my office is more like D. The difference may lie in the audience. My PI rarely had ugrad visitors, so his office was more 'free flow' and I'd often just stand in the door to talk to him. I talk to at least 6 ugrads per day, and they tend to bring a lot of stuff and have a lot of very structured questions. Most of my colleagues also have theirs in a similar fashion and we even have extra chairs in the hall to accomodate larger groups.

Namnezia said...

I usually have two visitor chairs, a far one and a near one next to my desk. I usually keep my book bag on the near one. As soon as the visitor enters I ask myself "Is this person (likely an undergrad) someone with poor personal hygiene and shedding all sorts of viruses?" or "is this someone with whom I would like to share some data and common access to a pad of paper and computer screen?" If it's the first I direct them to the far chair, if it's the second I move my book bag out of the way and offer them the near chair.

chall said...

If I had room I'd like F, alas my office is C - but I have the chair next to the short side of the table. We're not allowed to keep the computer screen away from the door...(It can be half-turned but not completely as A and the likes).

I'm not a fan of the "across the table" set up in A _IF_ you're interested in keeping a friendly atmosphere. To me, it's more "you're in the principal's/police office" feeling.

And yes, I've ended up moving my papaers/stuff to a little side table to keep the chair free for visitors. Althoughm, I have to admit, it's almost always a bag or a book on it.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

I have a variation on scheme F, except that the room is long and skinny so visitors have to move past me to get to a chair.

This scheme was in place when I got the office and as the rest of the walls are lined with shelves full of documents of my research group there is little I can do about it.

I find that if I jump up and go to the whiteboard (at the far end of the room) I can induce students to follow me into the room and take a seat. Otherwise they hover awkwardly in the doorway.

I'm of mixed mind about this, because I get some visitors that I don't want to have hanging around.

Anonymous said...

now I have that REM song from the post title in my head..

GMP said...

Welcome back!!
The configuration in my office is something like D, only my desk is shaped like capital pi.

One leg of letter pi that is my desk is along the window, top is against the side wall, other leg is parallel to the window (obviously) but in the middle of the office, and the visitors sit on the other side of that leg. I have a two chairs ready for visitors by the desk, and a stack of a few more a the side, so I can accommodate up to 4-5 visitors.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Closest to C, except that my back is to the door and I have 3 visitor chairs: two right behind me so I can turn around to talk with visitors and turn back to share something on my monitor, one back by the door that can be dragged forward when I have 3 visitors.

There are always piles of papers on every horizontal surface (desk, filing cabinets, floor, chairs, …). I really need to clean up a bit this summer before the fall quarter starts.

Janice said...

The closest resemblance to my office is A. The path to my desk is a spiral. Square office, door at bottom left, walk in and there are visitors' seats right away (so we talk across my desk). I have an L-shaped desk jutting out from the right-hand wall.

I used to have my back to the door but I got tired of people dropping in and scaring the bejeesuz out of me. It's a bit tight along the walk up to the office and seems crazy to some that I walk into my desk area instead of having it butt up against the left wall but window glare is wicked there. Also, this arrangement gives me maximum shelf space for my thousands of books.

Anonymous said...

I have a colleague who organizes his office to discourage visitors. He has one small uncomfortable chair in an awkward place for visitors who stop by outside office hours, but then provides a better set-up for office hours.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Definitely A or D. I'm big on personal space, and have had a lot of people in my office who are... intense. Having that barrier there makes me more comfortable.

Anonymous said...

I used to have my desk against the wall, but people naturally stare at your computer screen if they can see it and then they ask annoying questions like "What are you writing?" "What are you reading?", "Why do you have an image of squirrel's pancreas on your desktop?" or they make comments like "Omigod look at all those edits, you are basically rewriting someone's paper, they are going to freak". But no one asks what you are doing if they can't see your monitor and I like it that way, so I moved my desk and now I talk to people across my desk.

Anonymous said...

Every professor in my department has something like F: they have their desk (usually in the corner) but also a smaller table somewhere between the desk and the door, with 3-4 chairs around it. (Useful for when a PI meets with multiple students working on a project.) So in a 1-on-1 meeting, I'm still talking to them across something, but it's this small table rather than their desk.

The uniformity makes me think that someone decided at some point that this was a desirable setup (maybe the thought was that it feels more collaborative than a "this is my desk but you're also here" kind of situation does?). But this does mean that they're moving from their own desk to the table in the way that FSP finds inconvenient. Nevertheless, I think that when/if I become faculty, I'd want to do the same if I have a choice about how to set up my office.

I also like this because there's a dedicated writing surface: I'm not in a chair that's too far away, but I'm also not forced to encroach on the prof's desk (both in terms of politeness, and the worry that there's physically not enough space on the desk).

At my undergrad institution, it was pretty much A all the way, in several different departments; the few exceptions were people who had particularly big offices with an extra table (more F-like).

Klaas said...

A bit like C except I have a lovely 7 foot comfy sofa from IKEA for visitors. However, they are all too scared to sit in my sofa and end up standing in the door or sitting on the armrest of the sofa. Weird.

Anonymous said...

My office is pretty much A. I do that for two reasons: 1. most of my visitors are undergraduates and I like them to have their space and I have mine. This sounds harsh but as a woman, my personal space gets invaded easily in a too familiar way and 2. I need horizontal surface space for my junk. I wish I would keep it cleaner but after 16 years of saying that, I know in my heart that it just ain't going to happen.

Anonymous said...

FSP, based on the number of comments this post is generating, it is not considered to be trivial nor mundane.

I have worked with scenario F and I had no problem having my computer screen accessible to everyone. That being said, I also worked with colleagues who were professional and respectful and no one would make comments on what was on someone's screen (unless it was interesting data, then there was no stopping a discussion).

For our meetings, depending on whether everyone has their laptop and the comparable size of table vs desk, we would sit at the one that allows us the most comfort.

My current boss has a large office with the classic desk and a separate seating area with 4 comfy chairs. He also has 6 fold-up chairs in the corner as we collaborate with other labs and some of the projects involve many people. He has learned from having "spontaneous meetings" the advantage of having these additional chairs handy. This boss opts to sit in one of the uncomfortable folding chairs as he controls the length of the meeting.

Once we go beyond these 10 chairs, it is a clear indication that we should be booking a meeting room. In our facility however there are times during the year when these meeting rooms are fully booked. Does anyone else experience this in their institution?

Unknown said...

My office is a variation of F where the small table actually sits just to the left of desk (from the perspective of the owner of the office). This works quite well, if someone drops by I can just wheel my chair a foot or so and then we are collaborating around a table rather than talking across a desk. This preserves the utility of having a workspace (looking at papers, data on the students laptop, etc.) without coming across as formal as A,B,D,E. This is actually the standard furniture for my building, so I can't take credit, but it works really well.

Anonymous said...

Interesting responses. I'm intrigued by how few appear to consider whether their computer monitor is visible to people casually walking into the office. Working on exams, student grades, and other sensitive stuff, I really don't want it easily seen. I'm just moving into a new office, so I haven't had a chance to try out the configuration, but my criteria in arranging the furniture were:
1) Do NOT sit back to the door.
2) Computer monitor positioned so it can't be read from the door, without window glare, and not backlit.
3) Be able to look out the window.
4) Visitor accomodation.
I sit back to the wall, window at 10 o'clock, door at 1 o'clock, visitor chair in front of the desk. The desk is pointlessly deep, so I figure for visitors, I'll wheel my chair around to the end, and have some horizontal space for students and colleagues to put things down, scribble notes, and so on, and be less behind the desk, from their point of view.
It's a new wing, and several colleagues came by, looked at my configuration, and said, "Hm, that makes sense..." so I may be on to something. Only time and visitors will tell.

GMP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I have C (no choice, really, given the constraints of the room), but I covet F.

I think F puts everyone on equal footing (if you go sit at the smaller table with the visitor), which I see as a good thing (whether you are meeting with an undergrad or the Dean).

Anonymous said...

When I moved to in my current room the room was setup like A (most of my colleagues have their desks/rooms arranged like this). However, I rearranged my room to be like C. The room feels bigger this way, I can roll my chair when around when bored. I also like being open and friendly with visitors (students, etc.). Sharing PC screen etc.

Anonymous said...

My office is C

I wish I had F, but have a "two-headed" microscope in my office that also stimulates interactions with folks in my lab so there's no room for a table

PS Welcome back

Mark P

acdalal said...

Mine is closest to F. I have a couch just inside the door along the wall, with a low rectangular table (a bit higher than coffee table height, a bit lower than my desk height) in front and a wheeled chair on the other side. My desk sits just beyond the table, against the wall, with another wheelie chair. Most visitors (students, colleagues) sit on the couch, at least initially. If the visitor brings a laptop, I can either scoot the wheeled chair over next to the table or sit on the couch next to them. They can also come around the table and sit in the extra wheelie chair if we need to collaborate around my desktop computer. I've tried many office configurations and this is the only one that I've liked---it puts people at ease, has ample seating, and allows different collaboration variations.

Anonymous said...

My advisor has A. Works pretty good for me because I can put my laptop and my papers on his table and use the table. If I want to show him something on the laptop, then I move my chair to B (or he moves his chair to B). I don't mind having the table in between if it is just for a chitchat - I sometimes stand too. Without the table I feel to bare. Should I be closing my legs tight, where to put the hands/arms etc. And of course, where to put the laptop and the papers and they often fall down if I had just put them on my lap.

Alex said...

Glad to have you back!

My office layout is more or less C. It's really the only one that will work in here. My visitor chairs are arranged around a small marble cafe table that I got on Craigslist for the princely sum of $15.

Anonymous said...

I have a variant of F. I have a standing desk the width of my office facing out a window with a place to write and to use the computer. The monitor is on a swing arm so that it can be directed to or away from visitors/prying eyes. I have a comfy chair to read and a small cafe table with two chairs. When groups of students come, we all stand -- which makes meeting go faster. When I am working at the computer, I open FaceTime but don't connect and use the camera to see the door behind me.

ANON 7/25/2012 10:04:00 AM:

You might want to look for a P-shaped desk. I find the distance across the desk off putting when dealing with students (maybe that is a good thing though.)

Anonymous said...

Now I have to go dig Green out of the CD box in the storage closet.

jb said...

I have something close to D but with no chairs in front of the desk. On the far wall near the door, I have a small round table with wheels and a couple of chairs. Most students would just walk up in front of the desk and talk to me from there. If it's something that will take more time, I offer them a seat. I've never had a person come in directly and take a seat on the ones near my desk without being asked, student or otherwise. However, students do generally seat themselves on the chairs on the far wall while waiting for their turn.

EarlyToBed said...

I have configuration D. Everyone takes the seat across from my desk. Depending on the situation, I often get up and move to the other seats in the office so there is no desk in between us.

Anonymous said...

"Welcome! Please have a seat." (gesture to chair or sofa) Works with nearly all configurations and people.

JaneB said...

C. My office is long and thin so if I had the desk across the space I'd have to climb over it to get out, so I am rather forced into this...

I think it DOES matter - _I_ find myself getting intimidated by people who sit behind a large desk and make me sit on the other side (especially if the chair for the visitor is a crappy chair) - but I don't have much choice due to small office with awkward shape, so I've not been able to experiment and find the best solution for me

Anonymous said...

My office is 9' x 12', so I really don't have a choice. My 1870's office furniture wasn't designed for small offices, nor was it designed for computers. Plus I have a drafting table...It's not at all user friendly,(for me or anyone else) particularly since I have to wiggle around the furniture to get around to my desk. Window? ha! I'm in a sub-basement; I keep threatening to get an old window and paint soil and roots and pebbles on it to simulate a real window...

Anonymous said...

My advisor had the arrangement in which he sat behind a desk, backlit by a window. In afternoon meetings, I'm sure I often appeared perplexed and confused in his presence. Actually I was squinting uncomfortably into the strong light-- it felt a bit like being brought in for questioning. As a new student I never remarked on this and by the time I became more senior he moved offices.