So you’ve got a shiny new remote job but a dusty old office at home, if you even have dedicated space you can call an office! How do you create a space in which you can be the most productive? A lot of it is stuff but there are some important things that you may not think about.
I’ve been working remotely now for nearly two years and regularly worked from home for the previous 8.5 years, especially in the cold and snowy Pittsburgh winters. I’ve had various setups but I’ve identified a few things that are important for me to maximize my productivity. This list is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather some important things I didn’t catch when reading others’ lists, the links to which I’ve since lost to time.
Perhaps you expected, dear reader, that my first recommendation would be some ludicrous chair or severe desk. No, I believe that lighting is one of the most important parts of a home office.
As an information worker, it’s important to have a daylight cycle. Sunrise. Sunset. This is important to keep you in touch with nature while you’re cooped up inside all day in a space that you may not necessarily be accustomed to occupying all of the time. It serves as a visual cue that it’s nearly time to stop working, too. A daylight cycle can help you enforce a work/life balance and keep you from overworking.
To facilitate this for myself, I set up some LIFX WiFi lightbulbs in simple desk lamps or standing IKEA lamps. LIFX bulbs have a neat dawn/dusk mode where they will turn on and change color with the calculated daylight change on a normal, clear day. I’ve found that this can even help fight the dreariness of a cloudy day — of which there are many in western Pennsylvania — by creating my own personal suns in my office.
A lighting-related thing I use from time to time is a pair of Gunnar glasses. While they were initially marketed toward gamers, they’ve grown in popularity among developers for their slight tint and slight magnification. I have two pairs: one kept at my desk and one in my backpack. A former coworker had a knock-off brand that had even greater magnification, enough that he ran a 4K monitor at native resolution instead of HiDPI (2x everything) and relied on the magnification of the glasses for him to be able to actually read things on the screen!
There are plenty of articles out there to help you decide between sitting or standing at your desk. I used a standing desk for 3.5 years before I went remote. The standing desk was transformative for me: I had more energy and my back pain went away. If you go the route of a standing desking, consider a thick mat to keep some of the lower back pain at bay, at least while transitioning to a standing desk setup.
One of the very important things I’ve done to help posture is to get a comfortable chair with lumbar support for a normal desk. Costco usually has an “executive” chair that is adequate. If you want to use a standing desk eventually and so decide to outfit yourself with a high desk, acquire a high chair, such as a drafting stool. Variable height desks are expensive but yet another option.
If you need additional structure to ease into better posture, try a posture-correcting shoulder brace. I use mine now and then to retrain myself into good posture when I get into a slump of not using a standing desk.
Put your monitor on an arm. I have two and prefer my one from Ergotech. Having an arm allows me to move the monitor more freely and adjust it to my seating more easily. I don’t move it very often but when I do, it’s super convenient.
I like to use an external keyboard and trackpad, too. I really like Apple’s Mac keyboards from 2010–2015 and so I use the wireless version for work and the wired version for gaming. The Apple Magic Trackpad is alright, too. It’s important to have your arms at or near a 90˚ angle and not overextended. Outside of a small range, you’re expending energy to hold your arms out or you’re bending your wrists at angles likely to accelerate the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome. I use a wrist rest to raise my arms and wrists just a little bit.
When you’re spending hours per day on video calls or conference calls, you want to have quality equipment turning an analog you into a great-sounding digital you. Few things can make you sound more professional than exceptional audio quality.
You’ll want to optimize for comfort with a good headset. A headset will virtually eliminate the possibility of feedback. I recommend circumaural headsets; you’re going to be wearing them for potentially hours and don’t want your ears to hurt from pressure. I use a Logitech G930 headset that I’ve had for years. I like it because its range is amazing, the volume control is accurate, and the microphone can be muted by simply rotating it upward. You can purchase refurbished or used ones for less than half of the retail price these days.
I strongly advocate against using a computer’s built-in microphone. Its speakers might be alright on a higher-end laptop but I’ve never encountered someone using a built-in mic that sounded good on a conference call. Frankly, I can really tell when somebody is using their Mac’s mic. It’s OK if they’re in a small room, but anything larger than 10×10, it drops off fast. The mic on your headset might be OK but a good professional mic is worth the money.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a comparison recording I made.
I use a Blue Yeti microphone on an inexpensive but decent microphone arm with a shock mount. At a higher price point but significantly higher quality, you can get the Blue Yeticaster package that includes everything. The Yeti Nano is more affordable for those who just need a single-person microphone (that’s probably you!).
If you don’t have much ambient noise — dogs, kids, traffic, etc. — then decent speakers and a microphone work pretty well. There’s a higher chance of feedback on crappier conferencing systems but you’ll learn pretty quickly what systems need headphones and what systems are fine with your microphone.
If you move around often — coffee shops, co-working spaces, etc. — then consider a nice mobile mic, too. A family member bought me a Blue Snowflake and it’s fantastic for on-the-go conferencing. The only thing that could make it better is it being USB-C so I can stop carrying adapters!
One of the rules I instated for my team is that we should always do video calls, with few exceptions. Video humanizes the experience more than only voice.
I’ve found that Mac cameras are generally sufficient in quality, but they tend to be poorly positioned at a far too inferior of an angle, especially when using an external monitor. Low-angle camera shots make the subject look “strong and powerful”. To combat that, I’ve placed a webcam on top of my monitor. Its lens is a few inches above eye level. It’s as close as I can get to a straight-on angle, as I do not perceive it as high enough convey the stereotypical “vulnerable or powerless” feeling of a high-angle shot. In the past, I’ve used put a webcam on a pile of books or used a predecessor of the Logitech BCC950 conference cam with a long neck below the lens.
The Logitech C615 camera I have is older, one of the first generation 1080p-capable units. These days, I’d recommend the Logitech C920 webcam for something on the affordable side or perhaps the Logitech BRIO if you want something top-quality with 4K resolution and a wide angle lens. The BRIO is great for a personal conference room but be wary of how much detail it captures! One important warning: most video conferencing systems are not going to actually take advantage of the 4K resolution of a high-end camera. That’s why a 1080p or even a nice 720p camera is adequate. If you’re going to be streaming video, then 4K makes more sense.
I don’t have recommendations on monitors. They’re too specific to the person. I’ve come to prefer the 21:9 ultrawide format. It’s visually pleasing to me to have two almost-square windows displayed side-by-side. I have two monitors, one curved and one flat, of the same size. The curved one is higher resolution and a higher quality display but it’s three years older than the flat one, a cheap one.
I used to review consumer networking hardware for a tech reviews website. I have had and tested so many routers in the last 10 years that I feel I’ve really come to appreciate higher-end equipment, especially for when a connectivity problem means I cannot work.
With the help of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, I installed a Ubiquiti Unifi network. I highly recommend Ubiquiti’s equipment. I have USG, a prosumer gateway, and a AP-AC-M-Pro, a mesh-capable access point. I purchased the latter on a special sale with intent to avoid the complexity of wiring multiple APs throughout my old house. The pair replaced an ASUS RT-N66U Black Knight edition, an 802.11n router I used for a long time until all four of my family’s phones and laptops could use the higher speeds offered by an 802.11ac system provided by modern equipment. For most folks, I recommend the UAP-AC-PRO instead of the Mesh Pro. Regardless, to complete the Unifi setup, you’ll need a Cloud Key to host the controller software or you can run it on another always-running computer. A Raspberry Pi will suffice but the Cloud Key is a great, brainless solution. For something more affordable, Ubiquiti has a consumer line called Amplifi.
I recommend running Ethernet to your desk if you can. Wired connections eliminate the dreaded drops during critical conference calls and shorten backups. Find a friend who knows how to make Ethernet cables and isn’t afraid to traipse about on the roof. I’ve got a few external runs of Ethernet that make my home network so much better than having virtually everything — some 40 devices— on WiFi. I find Ubiquiti’s switch products to be excessively expensive absent the need to provide Power over Ethernet to access points, so I continue to use a hodgepodge of Netgear and TRENDnet switches that I acquired through the years. Don’t forget to use a patch panel so that your Ethernet runs are independent of your active use cabling.
For a laptop, use a dock or a dock-like adapter. I don’t have recommendations to link here because I’ve had problems with virtually every solution I’ve tried. In most cases, the more expensive solutions have had fewest problems. USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 makes docking a lot easier because you can feasibly put power and connectivity over one wire.
Humans are social creatures. Well, most of us are! It can feel lonely transitioning from in-office work that includes regular interaction with people in person to remote work, wherein the most in-person interaction you may have is with the people who live with you or dodging folks at the grocery store. I know I really had to ease into it, visiting former coworkers for lunch and stopping in at my company’s local office where some folks worked full time.
I’m a fan of coworking spaces. Through various associations, I have access to two such spaces in Pittsburgh: Code & Supply and Work Hard PGH. It’s nice to occupy a different space once in a while, a change of scenery if it costs a bit. Most coworking spaces have an inexpensive monthly “flex desk” plan that enables access to the space whenever you want. It probably has a faster Internet connection than what you have at home and may allow you to host some servers that might be expensive for you to power at home. Social events such as potluck lunches or even just grabbing some folks for a lunch at a nearby restaurant can fill a crucial need for in-person interaction.
An all-remote company is more likely to have some structure that engages employees, some kind of encouragement to do a video hangout whenever there are two or more people wanting even just to hear someone swear when something isn’t working!
In short, many computer users are accustomed to having their workstation setup for them by their company, with a few small accouterments to make your new desk yours. When you’re in charge of that for yourself, especially for the first time, you have to think about the things that a competent company handles for you: good seating, good lighting, good connectivity, and good conferencing. Setting up your environment to optimize for comfort and quality is key to enabling your best productivity.
This post was inspired by a Twitter thread. My friend Jeff tweeted in May 2018 about starting a new remote job. A few folks jumped in, including myself!