Finding the Right Bench — On Working in Non-Traditional Work Spaces

Amélie Matte
Jul 28, 2016 · 7 min read

This is an idea that’s been rattling around in my head for a while. My world since graduating from university has yet to involve a desk job. In one previous professional role I had a desk, but I was an absentee desk-holder. I would estimate that 10% of my time in that position took place at that desk. The other 90% was spent on the go, in coffee shops, parks, client’s homes, and in coffee shops. Did I mention that I spent a lot of time in coffee shops? Good. In my current role, I do social media coordination and consulting which is primarily remote with the occasional face-to-face meeting with clients. So take it or leave it, this is my owner’s manual for non-traditional work spaces.

Who needs a desk when you’ve got a well-appointed park bench?

Step 1: Start Building “The Map”

This was actually the first advice I would give to interns in my former role. As soon as you start working in a non-traditional space, start building a mental map of all of the resources you hold dear, and require to get you through a work day. I’m talking about where the WiFi is, where you can find clean public washrooms, where can you find water, a place to sit, a place to eat lunch, to make phone calls, to take notes between meetings, etc. In the summer and winter (especially in Canada) knowing where the nearest climate controlled buildings are is valuable information. Swap this intel with your colleagues and expand your collective knowledge. The more fleshed out your mental map is, the less time you will spend during the day trying to source appropriate work locations. Also, knowing where to find the best ramen in the city doesn’t hurt either.

Parks make excellent offices. Just be sure to wipe the grass off your clothes before your next meeting!
Yonge & Dundas Square — perfect for brainstorming, phone calls, and people watching.

Step 2: Find the Right Bag

This step is incredibly important if you rely on walking or public transit. Your backpack, briefcase, or tote just became your mobile office. It holds everything you need to get you through a work day, which for me involved a laptop, personal phone, work phone, chargers for all three, referral papers, notebooks, water bottle, lunch, and (on good days) gym clothes. So lots of pockets to keep organized, and good support to hold all that weight are a must. I am also a big believer in the theory that bag contents are like goldfish — they will grow to fit the size of their environment. So if you want to keep it light, keep it small.

That being said, I am also an abundance-lover, and would rather have too many things with me than not enough, because, you know, what if I need that one thing I left at home? So my bags are usually reflective of that tendency. In fact my bag was labelled an “overnight bag” (My bright red Lug Puddle Jumper). This bag was seriously awesome in terms of capacity, second only to Mary Poppins’ ever-expanding carpet bag, but its downfall was its single-shoulder design. After a slew of neck, back, and shoulder complaints I threw in the towel with my Lug, and upgraded to a professional backpack.

Grey days are never grey with a bag this bright.

Yes — professional backpacks exist, and are wonderful, and there are usually about 4 different designs that I’m lusting after. I settled on a Herschel Little America Backpack, and we were quite happy together for several years. Until a lipstick melting incident tore us apart, but that’s not a story for today. When you’re vetting a bag, keep comfort and support at the top of your priority. No amount of cute will stop your shoulders from aching at the end of a long day.

Step 3: Adjust Your Language Accordingly

In most fields, safeguarding confidential and sensitive information is paramount to building trust with the clients you serve. If you’re having an animated conversation about a client meeting in your office, likely no one will be too concerned. But when you’re out in the world, you never know who could be sitting next to you at Starbucks, or behind you on the bus. The wrong sentence, falling on the wrong ears can easily become a harmful confidentiality breach. The solution is to keep information communicated on your end non-identifying. This means using descriptors that can’t lead listening ears back to the subject of the conversation, despite having heard your end of a phone call. If someone requests info over the phone that requires explicit descriptors, a simple “I can email you that information right after this call” usually does the trick.

What more could you want when meeting a mentee?

Step 4: Make and Keep Connections

A non-traditional office doesn’t just differ in terms of furniture and environment, but the company you keep changes drastically. In fact, you may not have any physically-present coworkers. This can make it feel like you’re operating in a bit of a bubble. And while alone-time can be used to recharge and reflect, it can also lead to stress and loneliness. However, not having a room full of peers does not mean that you’ve lost having sounding-boards for your ideas, support, and friendship. You just have to navigate it differently. Keep a steady rapport going with colleagues throughout your work day, and not only when you’re in need of assistance. Crack a joke via text message. Commiserate the undesirable tasks you may share. Just keep a dialogue going, so that when you do need a second opinion when weighing a high-stress decision, you know you’ll have a safety net.

Game: text your co-workers a snap of your current location, followed by the question, “where am I?”

Step 5: Press Pause

Every now and again, just stop, look around and think, “How flipping cool is it that I’m at work right now?”. Take pleasure in the little things, and find a way to make the deskless life more fun and fulfilling for you even on dreary days. For me, it was starting an Instagram photo series to track of the weird and wonderful things I would see on lawns. Suddenly I found myself scouring front yards for something that would spark my imagination, and my commute turned into a hobby. I most certainly had days when nothing seemed more desirable that a nice, sturdy desk, but then I would look down a snowy, sunny sidewalk and think, “This is my hallway” and the desk would seem a bit less alluring.

This is my hallway.

Step 5: Establish Home Base

This is where I’m at right now. For many years, working from home meant sitting on my couch for hours, clacking away at my laptop. The reason? I didn’t have a horizontal surface to work on, and it wasn’t a priority at the time to acquire one. Now that I’ve started freelancing from home, I’m kicking myself for not setting up a home office sooner. My back is happier, my lap isn’t overheating, and I find that I’m more focused when I’m sitting in a space that I’ve labelled a “work space”.

For me, sitting on a couch can blur the lines between personal and professional, and I’ll find my mind wandering away from work more frequently. You know how people are always say to reserve your bed solely for sleep to ensure better sleep hygiene? For me, working on the couch is very similar. If I get too lax about doing work on the couch, I find that it becomes easier for work to creep into my mind when I’m trying to preserve the sanctity of a Netflix binge. When your home is your office, and your office is your home, I find maintaining boundaries is particularly important. Work space is for work, and non-work space is for, well, just about everything else!

An ever romantic evening with my dearest laptop.

Whether it’s a home office, a coffee shop table, or even a park bench, I hope this has been helpful in giving you time and space to reflect on your own non-traditional work practices. I would love to hear about your own adventures in remote work! Tweet me @AmmmieM or comment with your stories.

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