Navigating Through a Remote Work Environment
It’s no surprise that COVID-19 has drastically altered the way we perceive and engage in the working environment worldwide. With the spread of the Coronavirus, many giant tech corporations have announced that they will allow all employees to perform day-to-day operations remotely indefinitely. However, being confined to a home office has its own benefits and challenges, which contribute to the overall productivity of one’s day-to-day tasks. While it requires more planning, effort, and intentionality, I have found that having a routine and investing in my workspace are key factors in creating the optimal experience and overall success in remote work.
Here are some of the tips that have helped me streamline my day-to-day operations. Keep in mind, these techniques and equipment work well for me, but may not be suited for every individual. Most of the fun comes in browsing around and experimenting with different workstation components!
Tip #1: Differentiate Work from Home and Personal Life at Home
It is quite easy to fall victim to odd work hours with little opportunity for changing scenery, socializing with fellow colleagues, and working long hours when the commute is not a factor. This often results in burn out from overworking and exhaustion. I found that setting reminders and alerts for breaks are important. I have a Google Nest Mini set up in my office to help section off these hours, and send me reminders throughout the day to:
Eat lunch (12 PM)
Get up for a short walk/Go down for a glass of water (2 PM)
Wrap up work to prepare for dinner (4:45 PM)
But let’s say that an extra 30 minutes of work is required before wrapping up the day, what happens if you are sucked back into your work vortex, eyes locked into the screen? Thankfully, many IoT devices can be linked to the Google Assistant and scheduled as another reminder for specific times throughout the day. I have my smart bulbs set to turn on at 5:30 PM, which serves as my reminder that I absolutely must take a break.
Tip #2: Posture Matters
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), Low back pain is a common health issue which two thirds of adults will experience in their lifetimes. This symptom sources from sitting for a prolonged period of time. When spending most of the week in front of a computer, it is worth building an ergonomic workstation conducive for work. But how do we know if our current workstation has proper ergonomic setups? Here are a few general rules of thumb:
Sit at a 90 degree angle
Knee angle should be a 90-degree angle
Wrists are straight, with elbows rested at a 90-degree angle
Screens are positioned at eye level from seat
Chair provides lumbar support for the lower back
There are many ergonomic office furniture options that will help retain healthy postures. Here are a couple of items that have helped me throughout this Work from Home environment.
Uplift Desk - A height adjustable desk goes a long way when long days sitting in front of a computer screen can cause lower back problems down the line. With the option of adjusting the desk height, working while standing is a welcomed option to address fatigue one might experience while sitting.
VIVO Keyboard Tray - While an adjustable desk is nice for sitting and standing alterations, the keyboard and mouse may not seamlessly adjust to the height accordingly, causing an uncomfortable slouch to accommodate keyboard and mouse positioning.
Herman Miller Aeron Posture Fit - To complete the ergonomic setup, I found that the Herman Miller chairs are great for retaining proper posture while sitting. When I switched from a basic IKEA brand chair, I felt noticeable improvement in my lower back. Any chair with lumbar support and adjustable height will work just fine, given Herman Miller may not be the most budget friendly.
Depending on your selection, it is important to remember that your setup should provide the necessities to execute your operations efficiently and necessary ergonomics such as a lower back lumbar support.
Tip #3: Invest in a Productive and Comfortable Space
There are two questions to ask yourself when looking to reinvent your workstation:
Will this increase my productivity?
Will I be comfortable with this setup?
When evaluating my workspace productivity, the first items I questioned were my monitors, keyboard, and mouse. As a software developer monitoring many windows at once, I found that having multiple screens drastically improves my work environment. Depending on your occupation, more monitors may not be as important, but I discovered that more screen real estate has saved significant amounts of time.
The search for a monitor with optimal size, pixel quality, and price can be daunting. Depending on the use cases, purchasing the flashy, state-of-the-art monitor may not be needed. Currently I am working off two ASUS VS247 monitors. They are definitely old for today’s standards, but given my use case of writing code, graphic intensive screens are not required. I’ve attached the two screens to a dual monitor mount, which allows for adjustable height and pairs nicely with an ergonomic set up, discussed later.
To give perspective on how I find my layout to be optimal, I want to share a glimpse into my daily tasks and operations, as well as the use case for each display. Each of these screens serve a different purpose:
Develop and Prototype
Now let’s delve into the actual use case of each display.
Develop and Prototype:
Because I spend the majority of my day developing and prototyping, I’ve chosen the entire left screen as my coding space. The nice thing about VSCode (which is my preferred text editor) is the integrated terminal, which allows the capability to develop and interact with command lines and consoles in one screen. If a larger screen is within your budget, do it. It is a game changer -- you can view more files and text at once, thus increasing productivity.
Prototyping goes hand in hand with development, so I placed this on the screen directly next to the text editor. When working with web apps, having a screen dedicated to a browser is a must. Given a bulk of the work interacts with the browser’s inspection tools, this can take up half the screen on its own.
The Sidecar feature is a neat tool that works well with the iPad and newer version of Macbooks. It allows users to extend a screen over as if it is another monitor. Given the slightly smaller screen size, it fits nicely as the primary screen for communication and task management tools. However, for those who do not have a tablet handy, there are certainly mini monitor screen alternatives which plug directly into the computer via HDMI.
Research and References
Last but certainly not least, the native laptop screen serves as the primary device for web browsing, research, and API documentation referencing. Web browsing activities can be accomplished through any standard laptop screen (13-16 in.), so I feel that it makes the most sense to utilize my larger screens for the aforementioned prototyping and development, which consume the majority of my time. On one hand, I find that I best code and work with UI on a larger and higher resolution. On the other hand, messaging and task organization apps are designed to fit screens as small as smartphones, so it made the most sense to relegate these tasks to my smaller displays. That being said, researching falls somewhere in the middle, as tasks are most commonly performed on a laptop anyway. Therefore, research and documentation fits comfortably on a standard laptop display and allows me to read easily.
Though not necessary, a pair of noise-cancelling earphones or headsets is a nice-to-have. For most people, having music played in the background is a great way to set the mood to be productive. Most modern computers have strong built-in audio, but they do not offer noise cancellation from external distractions. Virtual conferences have become standard forms of communication between cross-platform teams in the remote world, so having an audio device that delivers great input and output sound quality helps.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 are my current headsets and I have been very happy with the quality. The features included within these headsets provide true value and the best bang for your buck.
The ability to pair the headsets multiple devices actively at once is a nice touch to the newest XM4’s, which was not included in previous versions. This may sound somewhat niche, but the ability to connect the headphones to the computer and phone at the same time is a seamless feature, allowing the user to be connected to Zoom meetings and incoming phone calls simultaneously.
Perhaps the most gimmicky feature is the speak to chat function, which detects when the user is speaking to someone, it pauses the audio, and turns off noise cancellation until the user finishes the external conversation.
To keep the workspace tidy, mounting a headphone stand with USB charging underneath the desk makes headphone access and device charging convenient. Any mounted headphone stand on Amazon would do the trick, but mine pictured can be found here. With this stand, I have a dedicated headphone space, as well as charging other devices such as my phone, keyboard, mouse, and tablet.
I recommend spending time tracking where you devote most of your time, breaking it down by application type and task. This helps gain insight and understanding into where you may be changing the screens the most. Depending on the number of displays you have (or wish to have), first distinguish categories of the day-to-day operations, then divide it by the amount of screens needed. It may take a few trial and errors to find the right set up for each screen utilization, but once optimized, it creates a more efficient workflow.
Tip #4: Invest in the Right Computer Components
In terms of computer components, the Logitech MX Master 3 for Mac and MX Keys for Mac work nicely with any Apple computers. Setting shortcuts such as a button to flip between desktops, side scroller, app navigation (to name a few) and your mouse and keyboard definitely makes the workflow much easier. With the keyboard paired to the same computer, the mouse’s functionality can be further extended to include additional shortcuts.
To link these computers and devices, the Macbook needs some way to hook it all together, given that two USB-C ports is not sufficient. This is where a docking station comes in handy. I have been happy with the performance of the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro. It helps consolidate all connections going into the Macbook to a single USB-C connection. It also doubles as a charger.
Tip #5: Having Fun While Creating Your Workspace
As previously mentioned, this equipment works for me, but may not be the right fit for you. I had a great time building my work from home station, and you should too! The important takeaway is that your workstation setup leads to better productivity and comfort, while reducing burnout throughout the COVID-19 work environment. This does not mean shelling out a mini fortune for an at-home office -- it is more important to find comfort and efficiency, going through multiple iterations of adjustments and small calculated purchases will help to find what works best for you. Most importantly, set realistic expectations, and prepare for changes within your setup.
I personally enjoyed experimenting with new tools and seeing how each one brings value to my day-to-day job. In many ways, it turned into a fun side project for me and hopefully it will for you too. From one remote worker to another, Happy Building!
- Andrew Kyu Full Stack Developer - Software Engineer Buzz Solutions
Enjoyed reading this article? Share this with your colleagues.