💻 Working from Home

A desk with a laptop on it. The laptop is showing the Slack app with usernames pixelated out. To the left of the desk is a black cat whose paws are on the desk itself. Behind the laptop is a small plant.

One of my guilty pleasures is looking at pictures of other people’s desk setups. You’d think this would be a niche activity, but you’d also be surprised how many blogs and sites have features like this.

In this post, I want to focus on the physical infrastructure of the home working environment: The desk and the space around it. There are already lots of excellent resources on the internet on overcoming the other challenges of home working, and even a book.

First of all, some background. I’ve done a limited amount of remote working from Montreal, where I’ve worked closely with colleagues in Vancouver, Melbourne and London. My current role involves working as part of a tight-knit global team with colleagues in the U.K., Australia and Greece. I get to work with some amazing people and we’ve all embraced the challenges of being on a large global team, overcoming issues such as time zones. But in all these cases I’ve still worked from a real office with my own local team.

Besides working the odd day from home, my main insight into home working up until now has come from my team mate on the US West Coast who’s been remote working for 10 years. But suddenly, the majority were thrown into the same boat as the minority of home workers, and the learning curve has been steep. I’m fortunate to work with people who can share their experience in this area with me, but everyone’s home presents unique challenges on how to optimise or repurpose that space to substitute for your office.

In this post, I’ll share my own challenges in the area of creating a good desk setup with limited space, and what I’ve ended up with as a result. It’s nothing as fancy as you’ll see, yet my hope is others will take a way a few ideas to add to their arsenal.

Desk Equipment

In an ideal world, you’ll have a nice spacious desk with lots of legroom and a large area to spread out your equipment. In reality – or at least in my reality – you’ll have to make do with the limited space available.

For me, I have just enough space for an “old-skool” (pun intended!) school desk. It is a little cramped, and certainly there’s not really enough space for a monitor. But, it does well enough to provide room for my laptop and an ergonomic keyboard rest.

A laptop sits on a traditional wooden school desk. In front of it is a wrist rest, and to the right is an iPod Touch mounted on a small metal tripod. The laptop has two small pieces of paper on it either side of the trackpad, and two pens placed to its left.

Behind it, I have a small stand with an IKEA light underneath it which I can control remotely and set a lighting theme. Even though my chair is right next to a window, the desk itself by juxtaposition is in a dark corner, so having a bright light behind the laptop which is capable of mimicking daylight is important. I’ve also found having this faux natural light helps keep me energised, which is especially important during the Winter when it gets dark early – Due to my shift hours I do half of my working day in darkness at during the cold months!

On the shelf behind it is a fake plant to complement the many real ones around my flat (more on that in a bit). Also, an old iPod touch – 4th generation – which I use as a dashboard. I built a custom script on my laptop, which provides a web server over the local network and interfaces with my company’s Jira to provide me with important information at a glance. This is my hack to avoid needing a second monitor.

Above the desk and around the wall, I’ve hung a few trinkets to help create a space equal parts inspiring and cosy. On my laptop itself is another small hack which I use to help keep myself focussed on my current task. This is important when there are lots of distractions around which will try to steal your focus away from the moment.

Wires & Plugs

Since my work desk doubles as a bedside table at night, I have a lot of wires lurking around. Not just for powering my laptop and charging my phone, but also for other things such as charging my Nintendo DS. I’ve also a small USB hub which contains some extra data storage.

With all those wires around, and never knowing which wires you’ll need at any one time, I found the best solution is just to use large file clips on the sides of the desk with which to hang the wires. They’re flexible enough to allow you to pull the wires through as you need them, thereby extending their length. But most importantly, it keeps them out of the way and out of sight when they’re not needed.

Beneath the desk, it doesn’t take too much effort to keep the plugs organised. Propping the multi-plug up against the wall and using a couple of rubber bands does the trick, keeping a bit of space for me to stretch out my legs during a long conference call.

Plants & Pets

I’m fortunate in the fact my wife has something of a green thumb, and our flat has large windows which let in lots of natural light. It means we’re surrounded by plants, which creates a calm working environment.

Whilst pets aren’t ornamental per-se, there something comforting in having a very relaxed cat chilling next to me for much of the day, and this helps me get into flow when I need to focus and keeps me calm when things get intense.

In terms of actual wildlife, I situated my desk next to the window not just for the light, but because there’s a really nice tree which especially brightens up the view in the Summer when its leaves are all out. Additionally there are birds who frequent the tree and provide a chilled out soundtrack to the day.

Making the Best of your Infrastructure

Given the lack of desk space, all I have is the bed next to me which becomes a makeshift table. I use the bed frame to hang my headphones on when I’m not using them or if I want to charge them. On the bed itself, I tend to distribute my notebook and any other items I need to hand.

Of course, I tend to graze throughout the day and I’m often prone to the odd meal as I work. To avoid making a complete mess of the bed, use a tray with a tea towel on it. Not only does it keep your food where it belongs, but it actually feels quite homely.

A small wooden lap tray with a mug on it, and a plate with a cup cake. The mug reads “Montreal” and the tray has a red patterned tea-towel underneath the mug and plate.

Importance of a Good Chair

If like me you’ve not worked from home that often in the past, you’ve probably not given much consideration to a decent office chair. The one we have at home is made of wood, and not exactly ergonomic. I was able to improve it a little by adding a back rest, but once I realised working from home wasn’t going to be a temporary thing, I decided to invest in a better chair.

There are lots of options out there, and you don’t have to break the bank to get something comfortable which will support your back and set you at the right height for your desk.

In my case, I went for this IKEA chair. It’s not fancy, but it does the job and provides some back support.

Creating an Ad-hoc Standing Desk

I’m still uncertain about the health benefits of standing desks, or whether they’re a fad which will pass with time. I do know that investing in a standing desk is an expensive endeavour, particularly one which can be raised and lowered at will.

So, I’ve improvised. We have a shelf by our front door makes a perfect stand-in for a bonafide standing desk. It’s just the right height for me, there’s even a fetching map of London right behind to create a nice backdrop for all those webcam calls.

Although I don’t spend much time working here, it’s nice to have the option when I feel like stretching my legs, and it allows me to be in proximity to my family rather than stowing myself away in the bedroom.

My overall strategy is to move between locations depending on the work I’m doing. I use the standing location for planning my day over a morning espresso and the desk for actual work. If I need to reset, I head back to the standing desk to regroup my thoughts and re-plan or, as we’ll see, I can visit the balcony.

On the Balcony

Sometimes it’s just nice to get some fresh air, or at least what passes for fresh air when you live on a high street with a not insignificant amount of traffic. That said, the impact of COVID–19 has reduced traffic and increased air quality a little. When the haze gets me during the working day, it’s easy to disconnect my laptop and get a change of environment.

Back to Work Then!

I was probably a bit slow off the mark to write this. I felt like mere seconds after the lockdown began that everyone was suddenly a working-from-home-expert, and the blog posts and YouTube videos were flowing. But remote working seems to be here for the long-run, with many tech companies throwing themselves behind it in ways I could never have imagined pre-COVID. Anyone wanting to take advantage of this new way of working will need a good setup at home, and hopefully you’ll take away a few ideas from this post if you’re restricted with what you can feasibly do.

For myself, I’m already starting to rethink my desk setup for the longer term. I miss having a larger monitor, and being able to work with more than one screen. Space permitting, I’m considering how I can take the best parts of my current setup and enhance them. When I do, I’ll be sure to share the changes with you.