Having worked freelance for most of my adult life, I’ve set up my desk in countless locales. It took me a while, though, to realize how to set up the desk in relation to the view. That’s not the kind of thing I was ever taught – I had to learn the hard way, through experience.
When I was a sessional instructor in the English Department of Simon Fraser University, my desk was mainly something to lean on while I talked with students about their essay preparation and results. I always counted myself lucky that I had entered grad school in English, because the Communications Department – my other choice was in the windowless maze of the Classroom Complex. By contrast, the English Department was on the north and west side of the sixth floor of the Academic Quadrangle. Each semester, I would have a variation on one of two views: The inner one, where I could see people passing through the quadrangle and, in summer, lounging on the grass, and the outer, which gave a spectacular view of the mountains to the north. I could, and did spend hours at my desk staring out at that semester’s view. But I never expected to get much work done anyway, because it would be sure of being interrupted just as I became absorbed.
When I became a technical writer, and later a marketing and communications consultant, the view became more important. At one long-term position, my window overlooked the top of the Hudson Bay parkade in downtown Vancouver. Looking down, I could see not only the people coming to and from their cars, but also the car thieves going systematically down the row of cars. I can’t have been the only one watching, because security guards would always come along a few moments before I thought to call them. But I was lucky that the project kept changing directions over the thirty months of its existence, or else I might have been too obsessed with the view below to keep up.
The same was true when I worked in Yaletown. The two storey building across the road had a flat roof that, over the decades, had accumulated enough top soil to support meter-high weeds. The weeds make the roof a perfect place for seagulls to nest out of sight of predators. Later, when the chicks came, they would scurry into the grasses to escape the detection of crows. Later still, they made their first stumbling efforts at flight across the roof, crash landing in the clumps of weeds. I was more fascinated by the progress of the fledglings than in the work I was doing, by far.
But my real downfall came when I worked on the twenty-third floor of Harbour Centre. I was the fourth person hired, so I more or less had my choice of locations for my desk. I placed it squarely facing the window, looking down at the harbor and beyond it to the mountains. The view was relaxing when I was negotiating ad space and bundling agreements on the phone, but a disaster when I was trying to write a manual or ad copy. I’d find myself staring out the window, and realize guiltily that I had left my thoughts to rove freely for the last ten minutes.
I wasn’t prepared to give up the view entirely, so I moved my desk at right angles to the window. That way, I could focus on my work without the distraction of a seaplane landing or a cruise ship docking, but, when I was on the phone or wanted to take a moment’s break, I only had to swivel in my chair.
I’ve followed the same arrangement ever since. Now, as I write in my townhouse, I am at right angle to a view of the trees beyond my third floor balcony. The view is not as breath-taking as some I’ve had away from home, but with the parliament of crows thirty meters away and its occasional visit by red-tailed hawks, there is still more than enough to distract me if I permitted it. But by not looking at it directly, I keep my productivity high, and can still enjoy the sight of the swaying tops of the evergreens when I stand, stiff and in need of a stretch after a long bout of work.