There’s lots of lists like this of suggestions for how to set up your home office and such. I’m not going to try to re-hash a comprehensive list of such things; rather just share some items that I’ve found especially useful. Personally, while I have somewhat frequent business travel or meetings elsewhere, most of my work time is spent in my home office. Here’s what I’ve found. (Some of this obvious of course, but perhaps not always, or maybe there’s a useful perspective or two here. You will judge for yourself of course.)
I got a new chair. My wife will say, “You’re still talking about that chair?” The answer is, “Yes, honey, I’m still all very excited about the chair. I think I shall even write about it.” (I’m always looking for the best eye roll possible.) Anyway… We all spend too much time in the chair. Yes, we should get up more, but often we’ll get dug into a project and the next thing you know you it’s hours later. Perhaps more than anything else excepting your computer equipment, this is not the place to be cheap. This past year, I replaced my old chair. It had some sentimental value, but it was really not a healthy sit posture. High end ergonomic chairs can run over $1,000. (Which seems a bit much when you can get something serviceable for under $100.) Still, this is where you’re going to be spending tons of time. So looking at the high end we have things like Steelcase and the iconic Herman Miller Aeron. Either of which is likely $800 – $1,200. Except for one thing; you can buy these things used. You might not get the 10-12 year warranty, but at a reputable pre-owned office furniture place, you can get quality used units that have been properly cleaned and maintained for anywhere from $250 – $400. Now you’re in the range of something that may be more expensive then your local big box store’s run-of-the-mill ok chairs, but is on par with a solid quality chair. Except you’re getting the best.
True, getting anything used can be more risky over buying new. But if you find a large warehouse re-seller where you can test them out, (and look underneath at the production date label), you can probably find something less than 5 or so years old that will be good for 10+ years. Worst case, the most likely part to fail will be the tension springs or something and you could just replace them. I ended up with a Steelcase Leap V2. (Cost: $350.) It’s perfectly comfortable. I’d had Aeron’s before in office spaces, and those are great too. But this Leap chair is adjustable in so many ways, it’s just perfect; at least for me. Obviously everyone is different and the best way to deal with this is find a place that has a wide variety of models to actually try out. Even if it’s a bit of a trip to get to a place, you’re saving hundreds of dollars. (Of course, if you just don’t care about the price at all, things become easier and just go buy it.) The difference was immediately noticeable. I’d always – perhaps foolishly – thought that a little soreness after sitting for awhile was just normal. And maybe it is to a degree. Except… that just all but disappeared once I had something that gave me correct sitting posture. Yes, I know, I know, everyone is supposed to know that and now someone even makes a little device you can attach to your back that warns you on your cell phone if you’re not sitting correctly. But kind of knowing it and experiencing the difference are two different things. I’m a believer now and I’m here to tell you… spend some $$$ and get a great chair.
Don’t Skimp on the Tech
If all you need is a high end laptop, great. You’re done. But for being at a desk most of the time and working on multiple projects, a large screen helps. Personally, I mostly went to Apple Mac products 10 years ago and never looked back. So my primary desktop is a large screen iMac. Then I’ve got a couple of Simply NUC mini PC’s that run Ubuntu Linux on the side. Linux can be intimidating to some, and can sometimes be a bit more involved than typical consumer operating systems, but these days it’s not that challenging and it gives you relatively inexpensive means to run multiple applications at once and have everything you need in view. (Though some people might prefer to just use software on one box for multiple screens.) Having the separate setup can be hugely helpful if you’re screen recording a conference, but need to look up some aspects of the ongoing conversation, or have a requirements document or whatever open on a second screen. Also, if you do any programming or have occasion to mess around with your operating system, these things are ideal. If you just don’t keep any core important stuff on such a play/development test area, even if you trash everything, it’s just not a big deal to re-install a whole fresh new operating system.
My iMac has a thin USB Hub mounted on the bottom with a couple of card readers. This works for my headset, Fitbit, etc.. Then there’s a DVR drive to the side and two attached hard drives; one for Time Machine backup and one for large media files that don’t typically need to be on the main hard drive. (Of course, everything is also backed up to a cloud service.) As to Internet, I’m using a Linksys Max-Stream AC2200 MU-MIMU for wireless and a Netgear Nighthawk S8000 Gaming & Streaming 8-Port Gigabit Ethernet Switch. These are not the least expensive products on the shelf. If you’re in an apartment, chances are any ole’ wireless router will do. And if you don’t need more than a few Ethernet ports, you sure don’t need a switch. But in a house, the benefits here are:
- You can light up a whole lot of your house with just the base unit. But if you want to add another wireless access point, (likely via cable), modern routers like this can more easily allow for additional wireless access points without messing with DHCP settings or creating bridges as you had to with older equipment.
- You can – and I did – add hardwired cable for other gear to keep heavy traffic off of wireless. The switch allows me to put Cat 5 cable direct to a few televisions and their Roku Ultra boxes. The savings from cutting the cable TV subscription down and going with ‘net based television solutions saves enough $$$ to pay for all of the networking gear inside of two years. For maybe $80 total, you can also buy 250’ of Cat 5 cable, a wire crimper and some connectors and make all the cable you need. Wiring the connector ends and running cable is a hassle, sure. But it’s a one time hit. Then you’ve got high speed to everything and nothing junking up your wireless other than your laptops and maybe a few minor additional WiFi devices. Plus, if you decide to wire up home security cameras, you’ve got a few extra Ethernet ports to do it, or at least more bandwidth to spare if you go wireless for that.
- Backup Power: Your power is ideally reliable, but outages happen. I’m using a CyberPower CP1500 as backup. It can run everything I’ve got for an hour. The few times we’ve had power outages, (due to storms or whatever), the cable/Internet was still just fine as long as the router had power. Modern gear should be ok even if crashed due to power loss, but my main computer is wired to the UPS and should shutdown automatically when power gets low. If the other stuff somehow got fried, that would be bad, but not as big a deal as my main computer.
- Headset: I’m using a Jabra Evolve 65 wireless bluetooth headset. If you’re at home in a quiet environment, it could be your onboard speakers and microphone are fine. But in some cases, there can be an echo or other ambient noise that can interfere with conference calls. Better off to have the headset. And as to wireless? If you’re on a call, but don’t need to immediately participate, the wireless let’s you get up to get a drink, pace around a bit out of the chair for a moment or whatever, without being tethered. It’s worth it, though you do have to remember to keep it charged of course. One headset/mic warning: Breathing. With a high quality mic, if the input settings are a tad sensitive and the mic is placed too close to your mouth/nose, you could sound a bit like an axe murdering psycho. The problem here is that you might just not even be aware of this. So try to record yourself and make sure things are set and positioned properly before you talk to anyone important
- Desk Hutch: Since I’m an amateur woodworker, and I build my own furniture and can make custom pieces, I’ve got the perfect little cubbies for various office stuff I use. Most won’t go to these lengths of course, but still, you might find it useful to buy a nice hutch or a bunch of shelving for day-to-day items and the various computer gear accessories that otherwise get scattered about. One thing I’ve found especially helpful is my USB charging station area. Most of us these days have collected all manner of iCrap from tablets to portable chargers to headsets to fitness trackers to who knows what else or what’s coming next. Even if you don’t build your own, there’s plenty of relatively inexpensive charging bases and organizers out there. A search for “usb organizer” or “usb dock” should work. I’m using this USB multi-device charger and it keeps everything at least somewhat well in place.Some people don’t care about what kind of mess is around them. But personally, I find clutter distracting. With a clean workspace, I can focus on what I’m doing.
- Wireless Speaker: This is another kind of luxury, but useful. If you occasionally have some music in the background while you’re working, a lot of software can be managed to mute it down if a call comes in. However, not everything plays nicely together. I’ve found it easier to have an ok quality Bluetooth speaker hooked up to my separate Mini PC for this. So if someone calls, I can just hit the mute button on that keyboard and not worry about interference. If you don’t do this, whether it’s Spotify or something running in a browser tab, sometimes somehow if you click on just the wrong thing, it can get noisy and you might even be challenged to quickly find which tab in which of several open browsers is the offending culprit. This is just not very professional.
- Pop-Up Backdrop: If you have a nice looking home office, you might not need this. My home office is generally fairly nice. Except… there’s no getting around that 10′ behind me is a washer/dryer. Neither my colleagues nor any business partners really need to see that. So I use a pop-up backdrop from Fovitec. These things give you a clean professional background and if you want to break them down for the weekend, they fold up similarly to how those car windscreen sun protectors fold. Though it can be a bit tricky until you get the hang of it. (Go to the one minute mark in this video for a visual on how this is done: How to fold a photography pop up.) ) background panel
- Lighting: Like a lot of folks these days, I’ve gone to LED lighting. The cost difference is truly noticeable in your electric bill. Unlike in the past where you would just go buy an 80 watt or 120 watt bulb, LED can be more complicated. Harsh lighting can be as much of a productivity killer as not enough light. For office space, I prefer the following: Soft White, 2700K, 80 CRI, 800 Lumens. You can search for LED light color charts or just go to a lighting store or big box hardware store to play with the options. But note that if you get dimmable lights, you may need to replace the switch. Even if you already have a dimmer switch, it might not be exactly right for dimmable LEDs. Now, one odd thing to note here is that LED lights do have one strange risk: radio interference. Mostly, this should not be an issue. However, the way power is supplied to LEDs potentially generates electromagnetic radio interference. High quality, properly shielded products should not do this. But it has been known to happen. If you have especially sensitive equipment, and all of a sudden something stops working or gets choppy after installing LEDs, you may need to consider alternative solutions; usually just better quality lights. (There’s stories of people putting cheap lights in their garage door openers and then finding their remote doesn’t work anymore. The usual culprit is cheap, poorly shielded lights.)
Lighting – Custom Hues
Update: December 2022. I had to update this to include something about the Philips Hue lighting bulbs and systems. I just got some of these and they’re really amazing. Even though I like tech stuff in general, I really wasn’t looking to complicate something as simple as a light switch. But it turns out to be worth it. My problem was this: In my home office I had a couple of bulbs go bad. No big deal; just replace them. But the LED bulbs I had on hand were really not the right color as the others. Fine. Just get some bulbs to match things up. This was still a problem. Why? The bulbs I got didn’t offer the right ‘color’ of light. This is my fault for choosing poorly; even after trying to sort things out with the color temperature chart and taking my best shot. The ambient color in my home office looked odd on video conference calls and it wasn’t good for just reading/writing either. Figuring out bulb temperature color charts or playing with the displays at Home Depot weren’t helping me much. Then I found these Philips bulbs. Their Hue series lets you buy, (for a super premium bulb price), either bulbs that can make just about any color you’d like, or just a white version that has tons of shades/colors/variants of white. (I think there’s other options as well, but that covers the basics.)
I started with a 4 bulb kit that included a hub/bridge for the bulb control. And then added a couple of more lights to fill out my ceiling track. They work immediately with a regular light switch and they looked ok just like that. But, after plugging everything in, you can download an app to set up everything to the color temperature you want. You can even use a bunch of their pre-sets, name new types of color schemes, and control the bulbs from the app if you want. It’s kind of cool actually; though you have to be careful you don’t end up spending hours just playing. Fortunately, a few of their presets fit my needs fine and I saved them as my main scences. In my case, I’m not really interested in using the app every day to control simple lighting. After setup, I just want things on or off. Though I did create a different color scheme for daytime vs. nighttime lighting. Then added the remote control to mount near the regular light switch. The remote is magnetically mounted to a wall plate you can just stick anywhere. It uses a watch battery to power it so you can leave it on the wall or take it with you to your desk. It has a simple on/off button and dimmer. buttons, but also a “hue” button that will cycle through your saved lighting schemes. Perfect. Of course, if you’re going to use the remote for on/off you have to leave your main power switch for the lights on. Personally, I just flip the main switch for on/off. I’ll probably rarely touch the fancy parts of this system again ever now that it’s set up. One thing I did notice though that’s maybe annoying, but understandable… My track lights were already on a dimmer switch. With these lights, if I use the main wall switch to turn on and then dim them, they just blink on and off. I assume that’s just something with the voltage regulation just being utterly not tuned right between these smart bulbs and a crude wall dimmer. So you really just need to leave any wall dimmer switch on high, (or change the switch out for a simple on/off), and use the app or the Philips remote for any dimmer control.
I felt compelled to update this old blog post with this info as this lighting system is really good. There may be other brands that do this as well; I don’t know. I found this one, didn’t really have time or inclination to shop, so went and did it. And it’s great. It’s really made a difference in my home office comfort. Probably productivity as well. The only real negative is price. We’re talking $20 – $25 per bulb. Which is insane when you think back when plain old light bulbs might be had for under a dollar! But here’s the thing… crappy LED bulbs you can get in the multi-packs at the big box stores are still maybe $10/bulb and even though they say the last for a decade, I’ve had them repeatedly burn out in months or just a year or two. The quality LED bulbs are maybe $14 – $20. So these are maybe just a bit more, but have a ton of capability that we’ve never seen in a simple light bulb before. These things supposedly are good to last, (at least the latest generation, (2 or 3)), something like 25,000 – 50,000 hours. That should be about 10 years at typical usage. We’ll see. But for now at least, really happy with the out come and I highly recommend checking these things out if your home office lighting feels like it’s lacking.
So… that’s about it for my perspective on these seemingly little, but potentially annoying aspects of working from a home office. I’ve just found that I can be much more productive when everything is set up nicely and comfortably and ideally something in here has been useful to you.