Updated: Sep 14, 2020
There is an idiom in Chinese: "A skillful woman couldn't make a meal without rice". While clearly, there is an abundance of starch options in the world, the moral is that in order to do the job well, some basic ingredients are needed; and that is precisely what this post is all about - the tools and gadgets that help make your work from home experiences better.
I have been a proponent for WFH for many years, well before the pandemic forced the issue. When my child landed, I was one of the first staff members on my team to formally request flexible work arrangements so that I could better manage the demands of home and work. Also thankfully, my organization was quite supportive of these initiatives and had long implemented technologies such as DirectAccess and VPN to enable these initiatives. All that is to say, I am very familiar with the tools I need to work effectively at home. So, I am sharing some of my favourite "gotta have it" gear when working at home.
I have not been paid to produce these recommendations. I will not receive any compensation for any products linked below.
1. Good ergonomic keyboard and mouse
Having been a knowledge worker for the last decade, I highly recommend a mouse and keyboard that provides good ergonomics.
Having good ergonomics at home makes a huge difference on your physical health.
If you are working from home, chances are you are spending a lot of time on a computer. Repetitive tasks such as typing and mousing can take an invisible toll in the form of carpel tunnel syndrome (CTS). According to a Rheumatology Research Foundation report, carpel tunnel syndrome affects 4-10 million Americans and is the most common nerve disorder experienced today. While it is not medically conclusive whether keyboarding and mousing types of office tasks cause CTS, it is thought by many office workers that these tasks do serve to aggravate symptoms.
These tiny chicklet keyboard and flat mouse are probably the epitome of style but not so much comfort... at least not for me. I find their small formfactor pinches my wrist and elbow at awkward angles. While occasional use is not problematic, hours upon days upon months makes these things quite literally painful to use.
This ugly hulking thing of a keyboard, called the Microsoft Wave, has been my favourite office keyboard ever. If you have never learned how to touch type, these split keyboards are difficult to get used to. However, they present some significant ergonomic advantages since the wavy split shape places your arms and wrists at an optimal, and natural angle for typing.
However, if you're a fan of both form and function, get the Microsoft Surface Ergonomic keyboard. It combines the ergonomics of the original Wave keyboard, but gives you the slimer profile and better design.
For my mouse, I recommend my Logitech MX Master mouse. The Logitech MX line has been constantly updated for form and function, and I have owned every single iteration. The original MX Master had a terrible battery life which thankfully is no longer a problem. This mouse has a thoughtfully crafted shape designed for natural hand posture, programmable buttons to streamline tasks, and can be setup for 3 separate devices so it’s easy to use the same familiar device on multiple computers.
2. A good chair.
Similar to typing and mousing, the normal office worker sits a shocking 15 hours every single day. Like a good bed for resting, you should have a comfortable and supportive chair when working.
Forget all the cute stylish chairs you see on Instagram. Find a chair that is ergonomic to you. Style should be secondary to function in this regard.
What is the point of it being pretty if it generates you grief and affects your health? Unless your job is to take pictures of your designer office, likely no one will ever see your office chair, or care. Besides, you can always swap it out for the Gram if you're really so inclined.
3. A large(ish) external monitor.
Again, your screen is something you are going to be staring at for hours every day. So get a high quality monitor so it doesn’t create eye strain. Generally speaking, just about any monitor on the market will do the trick these days. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Screen resolution Screen resolution is the measurement of the number of dots on the screen. The higher the number of dots, the crisper the image usually looks. However, there is a diminishing return after a certain point. For most office workers, a monitor with a 1080p resolution is more than enough.
Colour gamut Colour gamut is the range of colours that the monitor is capable of producing. The wider range of the colour gamut, the better the image will be in terms of "true to colour". If your job requires you to do a lot of work with accurate colours (think proofing design documents), then this will be important to you. If your job mainly requires Excel and Word, then I wouldn't worry about this.
Screen size The most important factor for me personally, is the screen size. There’s nothing quite like screen real estate when it comes to productivity. When I was still working at my corporate job, I had 4 dedicated monitors. This allowed me to monitor my work dashboard, keep an eye on my email and chat, while still being able to perform work tasks on two monitors. These days, my work doesn’t require that much screen real estate but having an additional monitor secondary to my notebook screen makes a huge difference for me. It makes copy/pasting, dragging and dropping a cinch. If I have to make comparisons, it’s easy to place the copies side by side.
A point of note is that I find an external monitor can be better adjusted to reduce neck strain when working. So, even if all you have is your laptop screen, consider getting a desk riser to elevate your laptop to the appropriate eye level.
Your monitor choice doesn’t need to be extremely fancy, but consider something that is at least 23 inches, and has a 1080p resolution.
My personal favourite monitors are:
Both of which are quality monitors and are reasonably priced.
4. Conference speaker.
Chances are the new normal for you also includes a lot of Zoom or Teams calls. Your default laptop camera might have done the trick for video, but your built in laptop mic leaves a lot to be desired. Since you can't speak face to face, having great quality audio can make or break a meeting. How annoying is it when someone is fading in and out and you’re constantly asking them to repeat themselves? Don’t be that guy.
My favourite conference speakers are the Jabra Speak line. These speakers have a small form factor, so it’s ultra portable and convenient. At around $200 CAD for the 510 model, these speakers are well worth their price. The omnidirectional microphone ensures you are coming through loud and clear no matter where you’re sitting. The built-in soft button controls make it easy to mute and unmute yourself to reduce audio clutter and noise. If you have some extra cash, invest in one that has Bluetooth and full-duplex feature. The Bluetooth capability allows the speaker to not only be used with computer audio, but also with your smartphone as well. I’ve honestly taken meetings in my car with this thing and the audio quality was still loud and clear.
I used to wear headphones for work at my corporate job. I bought myself some comfortable, noise cancelling headphones because our office had a lot of chatter, and the powers-that-be were moving towards an open concept floor plan (yikes…). Also, people really liked to swing by my desk to either chat or ask questions. Chances are you've experienced this too. I found all the noise and interruptions at the office distracting so I would put on my headphones to get some focus back. A good playlist was not only more enjoyable, but my large headphones were a visual signal to co-workers to please not bother me.
You know how you put on headphones on the bus so strangers don’t talk to you? This was basically the office equivalent.
At home, the headphones serve a similar purpose. If your spouse is now also working from home and you’re working in close proximity, it’s inevitable at some point one of you will be having a conference call while the other is trying to get some quiet work done. Having your own headphones will help you concentrate when this happens. As an unintended benefit, when I put on my headphones, it’s a physical reminder for me to be quiet. I don’t know how this works psychologically, but if I put my headphones on, their presence on my ears gently reminds me to be quiet.
My favourite headphones are these Sony MDRXB950N1/B ones. They are very comfortable and have great audio quality and battery life.
As for my choice of audio, my favourite is actually a Knife Party playlist. But I realize that's not everyone's cup of tea... so if you want something a lot more soothing, A Soft Murmur has been my go to website for years! It's a DIY white noise machine that lives in your browser, and I think that's just fabulous.
6. A Multifunction Laser Printer
Hey, if your job doesn't require you to print anything, then move along and save some money. For many people, printing is no longer a necessity. However, if you do require printing capabilities at home, I recommend a multifunction laser printer.
For years, I bought ink jet printers because they’re cheap to purchase. So cheap in fact, it’s almost not worth it to buy replacement cartridges. As a result these printers ended up in electronic recycling, and that's just plain wasteful.
So why my switch to laser? If you work in an office, have you noticed that your office only has laser printers? Except for our Marketing department who had a special purpose inkjet plotter, it was across the board laser. There is a reason for this. Laser printers and inkjet printers work differently when it comes to placing colour on paper. Inkjet, as the name implies, literally sprays ink on paper. Laser works differently with a two-step process. A toner drum places dry powder pigments called toner on paper, then a fuser drum uses heat to bind the powder to the paper. Why does one type of machine work better? It largely depends on what and how often you are printing.
The reason most of our home inkjets fail, is because we don’t print enough.
Have you ever used a hand soap or lotion pump that has sat there for awhile? What happened? The tip of that pump nozzle dried into a crust? Yup. Same thing happens in an inkjet printer. The print nozzles that spray ink onto paper become dry and clogged. This is how you get fuzzy prints or misaligned colours. To prevent this from happening, we need to print at consistent intervals. So, unless your work calls for this, an inkjet will probably fail the next time you need it.
A laser printer, however, uses dry toner powder, and doesn’t use print nozzles. So it will never dry and clog. It will always work the next time it fires up, no matter how long you’ve left it sitting there. Honestly, that kind of reliability is hard to beat. Also, because the toner does not dry out, the cartridges have a longer shelf life. This means I can buy them when they're on sale and save money.
This is all to say having some essential pieces of office gear, tools, and equipment at home can help us feel more normal and be more productive. As an added tip, speak with your employer to see if they'd be willing to help you with any of these expenses. Even if you have to pay out of pocket, see if any of the expenses can be deducted as part of your Income Tax.
Do you have a "must-have" piece of gear in your home office that's not covered here? Let me know what helps you be more productive!