From the Canyon Edge -- :-Dustin

Monday, March 9, 2020

Working from Home: Lessons Learned Over 20 Years & a Shopping List

I've been a full-time, work-from-home employee for the vast majority of the last 20 years, and 100% since 2008.

In this post, I'm going to share a few of the benefits and best practices that I've discovered over the years, and I'll share with you a shopping list of hardware and products that I have come to love or depend on, over the years.

I worked in a variety of different roles -- software engineer, engineering manager, product manager, and executive (CTO, VP Product, Chief Product Officer) -- and with a couple of differet companies, big and small (IBM, Google, Canonical, Gazzang, and Apex).  In fact, I was one of IBM's early work-from-home interns, as a college student in 2000, when my summer internship manager allowed me to continue working when I went back to campus, and I used the ATT Global Network dial-up VPN client to "upload" my code to IBM's servers.

If there's anything positive to be gained out of our recent life changes, I hope that working from home will become much more widely accepted and broadly practiced around the world, in jobs and industries where it's possible.  Moreover, I hope that other jobs and industries will get even more creative and flexible with remote work arrangements, while maintaining work-life-balance, corporate security, and employee productivity.

In many cases, we would all have a healthier workplace, if anyone generally stayed home when they were feeling even just a bit unwell.  Over these next few weeks, I hope that many other people discover the joy, freedom, and productivity working from home provides.  Here are a few things that I've learned over the years, and some of the tools that I've acquired...

Benefits, Costs, and Mitigations


  • Commute -- If you're like me, you hate sitting in traffic.  Or waiting on a train.  Erase your commute entirely when you work from home.  I love having an extra hour in the morning, to set out my day, and extra time in the evenings with my family.
  • Family -- Speaking of family, I'm adding this as a benefit all on its own.  I love being able to put my kids on the bus in the morning, and be home when they get home, and have quality time in the evenings with my spouse and daughters and dogs.  When I have worked in an office, I've often found that I've left for work before anyone else was awake, and I often got home after everyone was in bed.
  • Location -- Work-from-home, in most cases, usually means, work-from-anywhere.  While I spend the vast majority of my time actually working from my home office, I've found that I can be nearly as effective working from a hotel, coffee shop, airplane, my in-laws' house, etc.  It takes some of the same skills and disciplines, but once you break free of the corporate desk, you'll find you can get great work done anywhere.
  • Productivity -- Your mileage may vary, but I find I'm personally more productive in the comfort of my own home office, which has evolved to meet my needs.  Yes, I love my colleagues and my teams, and yes, I spend plenty of time traveling, on the road meeting them.

Costs and Mitigations

  • Work-life-balance -- This one is important, but it's not hard to fix.  Some people find it hard to separate work and home life, when working from home.  Indeed, you could find yourself "always on", and burn out.  Definitely don't do that.  See the best practices below for some suggestions on mitigating this one.
  • Space and Equipment -- There's quite literally a dollar cost, in some cases, to having the necessary space and equipment necessary to work from home.  To mitigate this, you should look into any benefits your employer offers on computer equipment, and potentially speak to an accountant about tax deductions for dedicated space and hardware.  My office is a pretty modest 10'x12' (120 sqft), but it helps that I have big windows and a nice view.
  • Relationships -- It can seem a little lonely at home, sometimes, where you might miss out on some of the water cooler chatter and social lunches and happy hours.  You do have to work a little harder to forge and maintain some of those remote relationships.  I insist on seeing my team in person a couple of times a year (once a quarter at least, in most cases), and when I do, I try to ensure that we also hang out socially (breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner, etc.) beyond just work.  It's amazing how far that will carry, into your next few dozen phone calls and teleconferences.
  • Kids -- (UPDATED: 2020-03-10) I'm adding this paragraph post publication, based on questions/comments I've received about how to make this work with kids.  I have two daughters (6 and 7 years old now), that were 18 months apart, so there was a while in there where I had two-under-two.  I'm not going to lie -- it was hard.  I'm blessed with a few advantages -- my wife is a stay-at-home-mom, and I have a dedicated room in my house which is my office.  It has a door that locks.  I actually replaced the cheap, contractor-grade hollow door, with a solid wood door, which greatly reduces noise.  When there is a lot of background noise, I switch from speakers-and-computer-mic, to my noise cancelling headset (more details below).  Sometimes, I even move all the way to the master bedroom (behind yet another set of doors).  I make ample use of the mute button (audio and/or video) while in conference meetings.  I also switch from the computer to the phone, and go outside sometimes.  In a couple of the extreme cases, where I really need silence and focus (e.g. job interviews), I'll sit in my car (in my own garage or at a nearby park), and tether my computer through my phone.  I've worked with colleagues who lived in small spaces, turn a corner of their own master bedroom into a office, with a hideaway desk, with a folding bracket and a butcher block.  My kids are now a little older, and sometimes they're just curious about what I'm doing.  If I'm not in a meeting, I try to make 5 minutes for them, and show them what I'm working on.  If I am in a meeting, and it's a 1:1 or time with a friendly colleague, I'll very briefly introduce them, let them say hi, and them move them along.  Part of the changes happening around the work-from-home shift, is that we're all becoming more understanding of stuff like this.

 Best Practices

  • Dedicated space -- I find it essential to have just a bit of dedicated space for an office, that you and the family respect as your working space.  My office is about 8' x 12', with lots of natural light (two huge windows, but also shades that I can draw).  It hangs off of the master bedroom, and it has a door that locks.  Not that I have to lock it often, but sometimes, for important meetings, I do, and my family knows that I need a little extra quiet when my office door is locked.
  • Set your hours -- It's really easy to get swept away, into unreasonably long working days, when working from home, especially when you enjoy your job, or when things are extra busy, or when you have a boss or colleagues who are depending on you, or a 1000 other reasons.  It's essential to set your working hours, and do you best to get into a consistent rhythm.  I usually put the kids on the bus around 7am, and then either go for a run or play the piano for a bit, and then start my day pretty consistently at 7:30am, and generally try to wrap up by 5:30pm most days.  Of course there are always exceptions, but that's the expectations I usually set for myself and the people around me.
  • Get up and move around -- I do try to get up and move around a few times per day.  If I'm on a call that doesn't require a screen, I'll try to take at least one or two of those from my phone and go move around a bit.  Take a walk down the street or in the garden or even just around the house.  I also try to unplug my laptop and work for at least an hour a day somewhere else around the house (as long as no one else is around) -- perhaps the kitchen table or back porch or couch for a bit.  In the time that I spent at Google, I really came to appreciate all of the lovely bonus spaces where anyone can curl up and work from a laptop for a few hours.  I've tried to reproduce that around my house.
  • Greenery -- I think I worked from home for probably 4 years before I added the first house plant in my office.  It's so subtle, but wow, what a difference.  In my older age, I'm now a bit of gardner (indoors and outside), and I try to keep at least a dozen or so bonsai trees, succulents, air plants, and other bits of greenery growing in my office.  If you need a little more Feng Shui in your life, check out this book.

Shopping List

  • Technology / Equipment
    • Computers
      • Macbook Pro 13 -- I use a 13" Apple Macbook Pro, assigned by my employer for work.  I never use it for personal purposes like Gmail, etc. at all, which I keep on a separate machine.
      • Thinkpad X250 -- I have an older a Thinkpad running Ubuntu on my desk, almost always streaming CNBC on YouTube TV in full screen (muted).  Sometimes I'll flip it over to CNN or a similar news channel.
      • Dell T5600 -- I keep a pretty beefy desktop / server workstation running Ubuntu, with a separate keyboard and monitor, for personal mail and browsing.
    • Keyboard / Mouse
      • Thinkpad USB Keyboard -- I love the Thinkpad keyboard, and this the USB version is a must have, for me.
      • Apple Wireless Keyboard and Trackpad and Tray -- I use the wireless Bluetooth keyboard and mouse pad for my work computer.  I find the tray essential, to keep the keyboard and mouse closely associated.
    • Monitors
      • Samsung 32" 4K UHD -- I use two monitors, one in portrait, one in landscape.  I really like Samsung, and these are the exact models I use: Gaming Monitor (LU32J590UQNXZA) – 60Hz Refresh, Widescreen Computer Monitor, 3840 x 2160p Resolution, 4ms Response, FreeSync, HDMI, Wall Mount.
      • Monitor Desk Mount -- And for those monitors, I use this desk mount, which is full motion, rotates, and attaches to my standing desk.
    • USB Hub
      • I use this dongle to connect my Macbook to the external 4K monitor, wired gigabit ethernet, and power supply.  This simple, single plug certainly helps me quickly and easily grab my laptop and move around the house easily during the day.
    • Laptop Stand
      • Nulaxy Ergonomic Riser -- I find this laptop stand helps get the camera angle on the top of my Macbook in a much place, and also frees up some space on my desk.  I sometimes take both the laptop and the stand outside with me, if I need to relocate somewhere and take a couple of conference calls.
    • Network
    • Storage
      • Synology -- I generally keep copies of our family photo archive in Google Photos, as well as a backup here at home, as well.  I'm a fan of the Synology DS218, and the Western Digital Caviar Green 3TB hard drives.  Really nice, simple interface, and yet feature-rich.
    • Printer / Scanner
      • HP Officejet -- While I avoid printing as much as possible, sometimes it's just inevitable.  But, also, working-from-home, you'll find that you often need to scan documents.  You'll definitely need something with an automatic document feeder and can scan directly to PDF.  I like the HP Officejet Pro 9015, but you're looking for a less expensive option, the HP Officejet 5255 is a fine printer/scanner too.
    • Speakers
      • Google Home Max -- I can't stress this enough: I find it extremely important to have high quality, full range speaker, that faithfully reproduces highs and lows.  I really need something much better than laptop speakers or cheap PC speakers.  Personally, I use a Google Home Max, with the Google Assistant microphone muted, and connected over Bluetooth.  I actually like it positioned behind me, believe it or not.  You could just as easily use an Amazon Echo or any other high quality Bluetooth speaker.
      • Bang and Olufsen Beoplay A9 -- This speaker is an absolute dream!  I used it in my office for a while, but eventually moved it to the family room where it's used much more for music and entertainment.  Besides sounding absolutely incredible, it's basically a work of art, beautiful to look at, in any room.
    • Headphones
      • Apple AirPods -- I use AirPods as my traveling headphones, mostly on planes.  I like that they're compact.  The short battery life leaves a lot to be desired, so I actually travel with two sets, and switch back and forth, recharging them in the case when I switch.
      • Bang and Olufsen Beoplay H9 -- Overwhelmingly, I use the Bluetooth speaker for my daily slate of teleconferences, meetings, and phone calls.  However, occasionally I need noise cancelling headphones.  The Beoplay H9i are my favorite -- outstanding comfort, excellent noise cancelling, and unbeatable audio quality.
      • Bose QuietComfort 35 ii -- These Bose headphones were my standards for years, until I gave them to my wife, and she fell in love with them.  They're hers now.  Having used both, I prefer the B&O, while she prefers the Bose.  
      • Wired headset with mic -- If you prefer a wired headset with a microphone, this gaming headset is a fantastic, inexpensive option.  Note that there's no noise cancellation, but they're quite comfortable and the audio quality is fine.
    • Webcam
      • Truth be told, at this point, I just use the web cam built into my Macbook.  The quality is much higher than that of my Thinkpad.  I like where it's mounted (top of the laptop screen).  While I connect the laptop to one of the external 4K monitors, I always use the 13" laptop screen as my dedicated screen for Zoom meetings.  I like that the built-in one just works.
      • Logitech -- All that said, I have used Logitech C920 webcams for years, and they're great, if you really want or need an external camera connected over USB.
    • Microphone
      • Like the Webcam, these days I'm just using the built-in mic on the Macbook.  I've tested a couple of different mics with recordings, and while the external ones do sound a little better, the difference is pretty subtle, and not worth the extra pain to connect 
      • Blue Snowball -- Again, all that said, I do have, and occasionally use, a Blue Snowball condenser mic.  While subtle, it is definitely an upgrade over the laptop built-in microphone.
    • Phone
      • For many years working from home, I did have a wired home phone system.  I use Ooma and a Polycom Voicestation.  But about two years ago, I got rid of it all and deliberately moved to using Google Hangouts and Zoom for pretty much everything, and just using my cell phone (Pixel 3) for the rest.
  • Furniture / Appliances
    • Standing desk
      • Uplift (72"x30") -- While I don't always stand, I have become a believer in the standing desk!  I change my position a couple of times per day, going from standing to sitting, and vice versa.  I'm extremely happy with my Uplift Desk, which is based here in Austin, Texas.
      • Apex -- I don't have direct experience with this desk, but this was the one I was looking at, and seems quite similar to the Uplift desk that I ended up getting.
    • Desk mat
      • Aothia Cork and Leather -- I really love desk mats.  They're so nice to write on.  These add a splash of color, and protect the desk from the inevitable coffee spill.  I have a couple of these, and they're great!
    • Coffee machine
      • Nespresso -- Yes, I have a coffee machine in my office.  It's essential on those days when you're back-to-back packed with meetings.  While I love making a nice pot of coffee down in the kitchen, sometimes I just need to push a button and have a good-enough shot of espresso.  And that's what I get with this machine and these pods (I recently switched from the more expensive authentic Nespresso pods, and can't really tell the difference).
    • Coffee Mug
      • Ember -- I received an Ember coffee mug as a gift, and I've really come to appreciate this thing.  I don't think I would have bought it for myself on my own, but as a gift, it's great.  Sleek looking and rechargeable, it'll keep your coffee hot down to your last sip.
    • Water cooler
      • Primo -- And yes, I have a water cooler in my office.  This has really helped me drink more water during the day.  It's nice to have both chilled water, as well as hot water for tea, on demand.
    • White board
    • Chair
    • Light / Fan
      • Haiku L -- My office is extremely well lit, with two huge windows.  Overhead, I used to have a single, nasty canned light, which I replaced with this Haiku L ceiling fan and light, and it's just brilliant, with a dimmer, and voice controls.
    • Air purifier
      • HEPA Filter -- Some years ago, I added an air purifier to my office, mainly to handle the pet dander (two big dogs and a cat) that used to room my office.  It's subtle, but generally something I'm glad to have pulling dust and germs out of the air.

Now I'm curious...  What did I miss?  What does your home office look like?  What are you favorite gadgets and appliances?

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


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