When you’re working from home for the first time, you quickly realize that it requires more thought than plunking your laptop on the coffee table.
Nailing down the tech is a large part of it. But we realize, too, that there’s a “softer” side: what hours you keep, how to stay in contact with coworkers and friends, and even what to wear. PCWorld’s editors are ready with all the tech tips we’ve learned from years of working from home ourselves.
Define your workspace
First things first: As we’re learning, there’s no “normal” with the coronavirus. But that also applies to where you live. “Home workers” now include apartment dwellers, Millennials who share a house, Midwesterners with basements, suburbanites in McMansions, and more. You’ll have to figure out what works for you, within your own unique environment. Still, some rules apply to just about everyone.
Establish a workspace. Our first tip is to claim a physical working space. Maybe it’s a corner of your dining room table. Or the breakfast nook. Or a small desk you picked up at a thrift store.
Make sure you and anyone else stuck at home knows that when you’re seated at your workspace, you’re on call and can’t be bothered. Likewise, don’t feel compelled to “visit your office” after hours. Defining separate spaces for work and play may seem silly, but it can make a big psychological difference.
Whatever you do, don’t swap a crowded office for a crowded coffee shop. (Coronavirus can’t tell the difference!)
Ergonomics is essential. We’re not going to dive too deep into the subtleties of computer chairs. But use some basic guidelines when establishing a workspace, such as what the Mayo Clinic recommends: Keep your monitor at eye height, and your desk at arm’s length. Don’t work on your couch! It’s going to strain your neck and back, and may tempt you to nod off. Get up and walk around periodically, to refresh your mind and body.
Give some love to your chair
You’ll quickly realize that working on a hard kitchen chair for eight hours a day isn’t feasible, which is why we’ve been promoting deals on seat cushions. A good chair, preferably an office chair, is a must. I think I paid just under $200 for my office chair about 20 years ago. The only “maintenance” it’s required has been to address the cracked armrest padding—where Amazon’s armrest pads have you covered. Or you could try creating your own.
Which PC is right for you?
If you already have a work laptop that’s been assigned to you and you were allowed to take it home, this question is moot. Otherwise, consider these factors as you select a PC for working from home.
First, we recommend a laptop over a desktop. We know we just told you to pick a dedicated workspace; nevertheless, for most people, it’s more convenient (and space-efficient) to use a laptop. Who knows, you may need to move from the dining room to the living room—or to a quarantine facility.
You can find many good choices among the best laptops we’ve reviewed, or check out one of the cheap laptops from Amazon and Best Buy that we think are good deals.
While weight and battery life matter in any laptop, homebound workers don’t have to worry as much about those factors. You’ll be plugged in most or all of the time, and you’re not taking it to a nearby cafe—right?!
If you have space, a great wireless keyboard can offset a laptop whose typing experience is subpar—keys that are too small, or travel that’s short or clackety. This is mostly an issue with thinner or cheaper laptops. Business or workhorse laptops, and thicker laptops, tend to offer better keyboards for prolonged typing.
Note that laptop fan noise, which may melt into the background in an office environment, could be more noticeable in a quiet home office. There’s no easy way to recommend quieter laptops, as the fans are tuned by the vendor; however, if you need a whisper-quiet workplace, look for a fanless laptop (usually a thin-and-light laptop, perhaps with an Intel ‘Y’-class processor), or if nothing else, avoid gaming laptops, whose high-end CPUs and discrete GPUs tend to keep the fans busy.
A good basic USB-C hub
Aukey CB-C65 3-Port USB Hub
Most modern laptops have at least one USB-C port, and if it’s Thunderbolt, congratulations!—you can connect your laptop directly to a Thunderbolt-compatible external display. But maybe your display is an older model with HDMI, DVI, or even VGA connections. Maybe your laptop has just one USB-C port and none of those older ports. For any of these reasons, you’ll probably want a USB-C hub, which gives you more connectivity options. It adds to your desk clutter, though.
Could you use a Chromebook? I worked for over a year on one, and I was tripped up only when it came to certain pieces of software, such as my workplace’s PC-only VPN software, or some app that requires a full-fledged Windows PC. (Our Chromebook vs. PC explainer can walk you through some other considerations.) The same goes for an ARM-based PC like the Samsung Galaxy Book S, which has some compatibility issues with 64-bit apps. You might want to check with your IT department if you’re interested in either species of laptop.
More monitors means more productivity
At your office, you’ve probably figured out that more screen space means greater productivity, as you can work among multiple applications and keep an eye on emai. Here’s how to accommodate different display scenarios:
Mobile first requires mobile displays. If you’re using a shared space like a kitchen table, you might think you’re stuck with your laptop’s display. You’re not. Here are three easy solutions to expand your screen space:
Any old 1080p flat-panel display can be pressed into service, assuming you have the right port on your laptop or hub. You’ll need to stow it somewhere, though. And that monitor could even be a TV!
A spare laptop can be used as a secondary display, using the Windows 10 “Project to this PC” function. Go to the Windows 10 Settings > System > Projecting to this PC setting on your older laptop, allow it to be used as a secondary display, then Project to it (Win + P) on your primary laptop. The pricey Logitech Flow-enabled hardware does the same thing, or you can be sneaky and do it for free with Microsoft’s own Mouse without Borders app.
Desks are best. If you have a dedicated office or bedroom, hurray! You should have space to spread out and maximize your productivity. Our multi-monitor guide will help you get started, and is especially helpful if you have a desktop PC. Some things to think about in this scenario:
Invest in a couple of inexpensive 1080p displays. High-refresh-rate displays such as this $150 144Hz 23.6-inch Asus display may be aimed at gamers, but they mean less eye strain for anyone. Whatever you use, make sure the refresh rate is set at or above 60Hz.
I prefer a high-resolution (though more expensive) 4K screen, as it’s easier on my eyes than a 1080p display, especially as a primary monitor. Just make sure that it’s 60Hz capable (most are) and ensure that your laptop can output to a secondary 4K screen at 60Hz. A 30Hz display will fatigue your eyes over time.
The single-display scenario. If you’re stuck on a single display (desktop or laptop) don’t despair. Windows 10’s Task View allows you to switch between several different “screens,” or desktops, simply by swiping them back and forth. Here’s how to use Task View effectively.
You needn’t work alone if you have a webcam! Keep reading to find out how.
Coworking via webcam…or not
Social introverts like me enjoy chatting and interviewing, then retreating to the silence of their offices to digest and analyze. Extroverts get anxious when they’re not interacting with others. Slack, Teams, and other apps help both personality types.
You should always have at least one open line of communication, whether it be something as basic as email or chat. Keep a private chat window open with a coworker, or have a group Skype video call open to avoid feeling lonely. And when you’re not speaking, mute your line!
Do you need a professional-quality mic or additional lighting to look sharp? If you’re dealing with clients, possibly. You’re still representing your company, and yourself.
Bringing the tech lifestyle home
Working at home requires discipline, even in the best of times. Here are some tips we use ourselves:
Establish work hours. You’ve ditched the commute. But “transitioning” from home to work may be worth a few minutes’ walk outside to clear your head. Likewise, don’t feel compelled to work 24/7 just because your office is in your home.
Working from home can give you flexibility, too: Some PCWorld staffers start early or leave late, and others juggle childcare that may gobble up chunks of time in the middle of the day.
Get comfortable, but not too comfortable. Some coworkers prefer “dressing up” in work clothes. Others prefer casual jeans and a T-shirt. Remember, you might need to jump on a conference call at any time. Oh, and wear pants.
Know where your coworkers are. PCWorld staffers use Slack to stay in touch from wherever we are. Just make sure your coworkers know where you are and whether you’re available. Chime in from time to time, so they know you’re engaged and participating.
Pay attention to your data cap. PCWorld has staffers living in rural areas, using basic broadband. But some of us have data caps. If you’re working from home, all the bandwidth for video calls, streaming, and downloads will now be coming from your home allowance. AT&T has said it will waive data caps for the time being, but other carriers have yet to follow suit.
Other handy tips
Here are some other things to think about as you work from home:
Expense it. COVID-19 has dramatically altered the way companies look at work-from-home policies. If you need a piece of equipment to do your job, consider asking your employer to pay for it. It’s the price of doing business. And if you do end up buying something, save your receipts! Maybe you can get a tax break.
Keep up with the news, but not all day. The overwhelming flood of cancelled events, stock market crashes, and other coronavirus calamities could distract you from the task at hand. Check for updates once or twice, then get back to your job.
Find comfort. If you’re stuck at home, use your extra time to read, study, cook, clean, play games, or whatever makes you happy. Discord servers offer a way to chat with friends about your own personal interests outside of work. You can still be as social as you’d like! Just not in person, for right now.