When the current COVID crisis hit, there were a lot of posts and questions about working from home. But of late I’m seeing an interesting trend of posts on social media from people who have been working from home, but were just told they’ll be working from home permanently. They will never return to the office, at least that of their current employer.
These folks have been “getting by” with temporary setups. Using a laptop on the kitchen table, or on a desk in the corner of the bedroom. Now that they’ve been told this will be a permanent situation, they are looking for suggestions and advice on how to setup a permanent home work area.
As someone who has worked from home for the majority of the last decade, I thought I’d share a few tips and tricks. Granted some of these may seem obvious, but since the questions are being asked I’m hopeful at least one or two of my suggestions may help the new breed of work-from-home people.
Some of these suggestions involve tech, but some also involve your daily workflow. Let’s get started!
One of the best things you can do is have more than one monitor. Now granted, I went a bit over the top having a rack with six monitors, as you can see above.
In my case I do a lot of video recording and editing for all of my Pluralsight courses. In the big 32 inch monitor at the bottom center I hold the content I’m recording. In the lower right I put my notes that pertain to what I’m recording. The left side gets my recording software.
In the upper left I put my audio editing software. Upper right gets my web browser so I can quickly look things up that may arise as I record. Finally the upper middle is for miscellaneous stuff.
Having six monitors has increased my workflow as I don’t have to cycle through applications, everything is right there where I can see it.
I admit, most people don’t need this setup. However I would suggest at least two monitors, or even better three, as an ideal work setup.
If your main machine is a laptop you should have at least one external monitor port. You can get more through either an external GPU box (if your laptop supports it) or one of the many USB-to-Video adapters on the market.
Most monitors support multiple inputs, and you can use buttons on the monitor to swap between inputs (in my case, multiple laptops).
As an alternative to multiple monitors, I’m also seeing people using a 4K TV. The 4K resolution amounts to having four 1920×1080 monitors in a square. Using software like the Windows PowerToys you can easily snap an application to one of the four areas, or you can use the full area when you want to.
Racking Your Laptops
I use multiple laptops, as I work in multiple environments. I have a Lenovo P51 on the bottom, in the middle is my Apple MacBook. On top is another Lenovo that I am running Linux Kubuntu KDE Neon on.
My laptops are stacked on a wire shelf that I got from my local big box store. I like the wire rack as it helps with air flow around the computers.
I really like these shelves, they are affordable, easy to configure, and hold a lot of weight. My home office doubles as my “ham shack” (amateur radio), here’s a shot of the back wall and a little bit of the side.
The wire racks on the back wall hold my antique radios as well as some of my “antique” or classic computers like my Commodore 128 or the older “egg bowl” Mac. To the right of the Mac are my modern ham radios.
I use zip ties to hold each tower together so it winds up being a solid unit. Just be sure to have good, sturdy tables that hold a lot of weight.
Get A Good Keyboard
You are on your computer all day, and most laptop keyboards are not that great. (Although I do love the keyboard on my Lenovo P51). Using a bad keyboard can lead to many health issues with your hands. In addition, if you have multiple monitors using an external keyboard makes it much easier.
This keyboard is part of the Logitech line which (although it’s a bit hard to tell from my mediocre pic) does have a slight curve to it making it more ergonomic.
The big thing for me is the ability to Bluetooth connect it to multiple computers. This is connected to the three laptops you saw in a previous pic. I can just use the 1, 2, and 3 keys to quickly swap between computers (I use the buttons on the monitors buttons to swap inputs between the three laptops).
As someone who has suffered from hand issues, I find a regular mouse painful to use after a while. For years I’ve been a fan of the Logitech trackballs. I was amazed at how quickly I became used to them.
Pictured is a Logitech MX Ergo, which unfortunately can only pair to two computers so I have another older model trackball for use with the third machine.
You may wonder about the scrap of a yellow post it note over two of the keys. I work in PowerShell within VSCode a lot, and frequently use the F5 and F8 keys. I’m also one of those people who likes to work with the lights on very low, and with my old eyes distinguishing between the function keys can be difficult.
Using the little scrap of post it notes can make it easy for me to find my often used F5/F8 keys.
Use A Good Headset
Do you participate in online calls (Zoom, Skype, etc.) all day? Then for crying out loud, get a good headset!
It drives me nuts to be in meetings with people who use the built in mic and speakers on their laptop. These are NOT quality, and often sound like the person is in the bottom of a barrel. A very echo-ey barrel.
The wired earbuds some people use are a little better, but not by much. The microphone is tiny and comes across as very “tinny” for lack of a better word.
First, they are wireless. Drives me nuts to have a wire I can easily get tangled up in. Plus, and I admit this is a duh moment, I’ve stood up multiple times with the old wired headsets forgetting about the wire and jerking the headset off my head.
Second, and more important, is the muting. To mute my microphone, all I have to do is lift the boom up. That’s it, no having to fumble for a button on the headset. Just lift it up, it’s muted, lower it back down and people can hear me. It makes calls so much easier, I can hear people clearly, and they have clear audio of me.
They are so good I use them on a weekly Minecraft stream my friend Marc runs on YouTube. (I participate as ArcaneMining).
I will add, for recording my Pluralsight videos I use a Yeti podcaster microphone on a large boom arm. It gives excellent quality, however that is very much overkill (unless of course you are also recording Pluralsight videos).
Trust me, you will have a much better experience and the people you meet with will thank you. Plus they are at a price point that makes them affordable to most people.
Along with the headset also consider an external camera. While most laptop cameras are decent, I really get tired of looking up people’s noses during a call. You can place it on top of your external monitor for a much better view.
I’m fond of my Logitech C922, runs about $100 on Amazon, but there are many similar cameras of good quality.
Now we’ll shift from tech to workflow related items. The first of these is to isolate yourself.
If you live alone this is easy, but if you have a bunch of people in your house it can be important to find a place you can isolate and have quiet time to think. Put your home office in a place where you can close the door, and make it understood when the door is closed to consider it a “do not disturb” sign.
I can understand there will be situations where you can’t isolate all day. But try to find set times where it’s clear to others in your household that you should be left alone. When the door is open, they are free to come in.
Not only will this make you more productive, but it will avoid embarrassing situations like a kid running through the background of a Zoom call in only their underwear.
It’s important you take breaks through the day to move. To get up from your desk and walk around. I know personally I will get so focused on what I’m doing that time flies by, then I realize three hours have flown by without me moving from my chair. When I finally stand up, well my creaky old man body reminds me.
Use some kind of app or device to remind you on a regular basis to move. My Apple Watch will buzz every hour reminding me to stand up, and will even track how often I actually do it.
There are also apps for the various brands of smart phones, plus I’d imagine many freeware apps for your computer. If nothing else get a good old fashioned timer from the kitchen section of your favorite big box store.
Another advantage to the wireless headphones I mentioned earlier in this post is the ability to get up and move during an audio call.
Have Laptop Will Travel
An advantage of having a laptop for your main computer is it’s (surprise) portable!
Finding time to work at alternate locations can help keep work enjoyable. Perhaps once a week, take your laptop down to your local coffee shop (assuming it’s open), sit and work there with a cup of coffee for a bit. (Hint, good earbuds and music on your phone can help drown out the other noisy patrons.)
Go outside! I often carry my laptop onto my back porch to enjoy fresh air and sunshine while I work. There’s also a nice park nearby, I sometimes work from there using my phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Don’t think you need to stay all day. Sometimes just two or three hours can be energizing and very productive.
Of course this assumes you aren’t doing a meeting, but most of us have time in the day or week with no meetings scheduled.
And because you are the go doesn’t mean you have to give up multiple monitors. If you have an iPad, and a modern MacBook the sidecar feature will let you use the iPad as a second monitor.
If you are on Windows, or an older MacBook, there is a nice piece of software called Duet Display that will let you connect your iPad to your computer (via the USB cable) and use it as an external monitor.
If your tablet is Android based, Splashtop offers a free piece of software called Wired XDisplay for both Windows and Mac that enables your Android tablet as an external display.
Of all the pieces of advice I can offer, this by far is the most important.
First, set boundaries with others in your household. Make it clear when you are working from home, you are WORKING. Just because you are at the house doesn’t mean you can “go ahead and do some laundry”, cut the grass, dust, make dinner, or any of the other typical household chores.
This goes for you, as well. When you work, focus on your work. When you are not working is the time for the other chores.
It’s also important to set boundaries with coworkers. Make sure they understand when you are available for meetings and when you shouldn’t be disturbed. Use your company work calendar to indicate when you are available for meetings.
They also need to understand you can’t just hop up on a moments notice to come into the office for “a quick meeting”.
Don’t be afraid to say NO! Push back for phone / online meetings. I used to work for a company that let us work from home two days a week. Even though I had it on my work calendar I was constantly having project managers schedule two hour “in person” meetings on my work from home days.
I finally started pushing back, saying I wouldn’t be in the office that day but give me a conference call line and I’d be on the call. Of course they’d say “we really want you here”.
I’d then ask “what value is provided from me being there versus on the phone”? “How will the meeting be different or less productive if I’m on a call?”
If they couldn’t provide a good answer, a really good answer, I’d tell them I’ll be there on the phone call talk to ya then. (Of course I also had a great boss who supported me, you may not be so lucky.)
Finally, set boundaries with your time. Designate the hours you will work each day. When you are working, make it clear to your family you aren’t available to do household tasks.
When it’s outside work hours, make it clear to your coworkers you are off. It is far too easy to wind up working far more hours than you normally would when working in an office. When (for example) 5 pm hits get up and walk away from your computer, and don’t go back until the next morning.
In this post I’ve shared some tips for people who are moving to a work from home situation based on my years of experience doing just that. I really love working from home, and I think you will as well if you setup a comfortable environment, with the right equipment, and having set boundaries with your family and co-workers.