Hiltmon

On walkabout in life and technology

Working From Home ... 88 Days Later

Follow on post to Working From Home … Here We Go! written in March.

88 Days ago in New York we all started working from home. 88 Days ago we stopped commuting, sat down for the first time at our fledgeling home workspaces, launched our first Zoom or Slack meetings and started figuring out how best to do our jobs from there. 88 Days later, we’re still doing it and will be for the foreseeable future.

My entire company has been remote the whole time, spread across New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and a few stalwarts remain in the city. A lot has happened since, but most importantly, we’ve learned a few very key lessons about our home environments that we wish we’d known before.

And I thought I’d share them with you who are still on the fence about investing in a better home workspace.

Get a good chair

By far the biggest number of issues faced by my team have been back and shoulder problems from sitting on bad chairs hunched over tiny workspaces or kitchen counters. We all know that if you sit for 8-10 hours a day at a desk, good ergonomics are critical. But most folks never really used their home setups except for the odd hours here and there, and so did not invest in them. Cheap (or dining room) chairs, old desks or kitchen tables and a tiny workspace were common.

Step one is to have a good chair. There are plenty of second hand, refurbished high-quality office chairs out on the market, they all deliver and assemble with ease. Those that bought chairs have not regretted the decision. This who have not, still suffer back pain. If you have to spend the most on anything for your home office, start by getting a good chair.

Upgrade your internet

The second most common issue was internet reliability and capacity. And this one has been the hardest to deal with. Most folks had a basic internet plan with the one and only internet provider to their homes, which meant terribly limited bandwidth, unreliable routers and plenty of outages when it rained.

Those that had changed providers or services in the past few years seemed to be better, but the majority who had fallen off the end of their “honeymoon” contracts all had problems. In most cases, calling the provider rarely helped. It took a month or two of lockdown before they would start responding and none have been able — yet — to get their connections fixed or upgraded.

In short, do not let your internet contract lapse, either negotiate a new one whenever you can, or better yet — and if possible, switch providers for both a better deal and better service. None of the providers we use seem to care at all for customers with long service records, only with gaining new customers. Your loyalty is worthless to them.

I recommend you get on it now, it may take a while to happen, but we’ll be doing this a long time more, and better, more reliable internet is critical.

Get an external monitor or laptop stand

As with the chair, working on a laptop is fine for a few hours a day. But eventually the act of hunching over the keyboard and squinting at the tiny display will cause neck, wrist and eye problems.

In this case you have choices: put the laptop on a raised laptop stand on your desk (if the laptop screen is larger), or get an external monitor. In either case, you will need to buy a mouse and keyboard. These are very cheap and any will do.

Raising the screen of the laptop to eye level will fix the ergonomics of your desk, and save your neck and shoulders. It will also place the laptop camera up to a good face level for video calls. Place the keyboard and mouse below on the desk.

Modern external monitors are ridiculously cheap these days. If you can afford it, get a 4K 24" or 27", but honestly any new computer monitor will do. It will raise your eyes and head, making you more comfortable and give you way more screen real-estate than a teeny laptop, adding to your productivity.

If you do go external monitor, I also recommend running the laptop in clamshell mode (closed) or raised on a laptop stand to bring its screen up to the level of the monitor. I am aware of issues (and slowdowns) with clamshell mode on some older computers, but having the screens up at eye level and not having to stoop your head to look at data on the laptop screen is far better for you.

Use an old iPad for Zoom / Teams / Slack calls

Most people’s laptops or desktops have terrible sound and video (if at all), and often lose video quality, sound bites and connection when using the computer at the same time as Slack, Teams or Zoom calling. Which makes it frustrating for the user and for those on the call which cannot understand what’s going on.

All iPads have great microphones and cameras, even the ones from years ago whose batteries have failed. Stand the iPad next to your computer on the desk, plugged in to the charger, with the front-facing camera towards you and use that for all video and voice calls. If you don’t have an old iPad, an old mobile phone is second best. This device will provide dedicated video and audio throughput while your computer chugs along with its work.

Headphones with microphones, or speaker mode

This one is all over the place. Some folks using AirPods, wired headsets or headphones with built-in microphones seem to be OK. But not all the time. Sound quality is sometimes good, sometimes terrible. The newer AirPods and recent over-ear headphones do seem better, but only while their batteries last. Lots of folks now run iPads or iPhones hands-free on speaker mode, it does allow ambient noise in (kids, pets and sirens) but ironically, the voice quality seems the best that way — and we’re all used to hearing background noises on work calls now.

Whichever solution you use, make sure you can always swap to a different audio model. If one gets bad or fails, switch early in the conversation. I have the iPad on speaker for the main group call, and use headphones with the laptop or iPhone for secondary calls - and when that gets bad - I go to speaker mode there too.

Finally, step away when done

Most importantly, step away from your workspace when eating, taking breaks and when you are done working. Change your Slack status to away for breaks. Step out of the group call (you can always come back). And walk away from your workspace when the day is done. Treat it as separate office, as a consulate where different rules apply. Let the family know that when you leave your desk, you are back home and theirs again.

If you need your laptop or iPad after hours, unplug it, go somewhere else and use it there.

Thoughts

We may be re-opening up soon, but I feel that work-from-home is going to remain a big part of our lives. Whether there are more waves of virus, or whether its just more productive to skip the commute on days where you have no special reason for being in the office, or whether this is the new norm, I feel we will we working a lot more from home. And having a good work environment at home is critical to your health and productivity.

If you have not done it by now, be about it. This is not the end of work-from-home, its just the beginning.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.