October 6, 2020

The remote office equipment guide: Everything you need to work productively at home.

You could work with just a laptop. But here's what will turn your home into an office.

by @maguay

Founding editor @capiche. Writer. Amateur photographer. Information architect. Older work: @zapier, @AppStorm. Personal blog: @techinch.
maguay's avatar

It all started with a stack of books.

You don't just buy a desk on a whim, especially when you're not sure you can type reliably while standing. So, after one too many hours hunched over a desk, I enlisted my textbooks to help pay off the education they gave me. One stack to put the laptop at eye level, another for a keyboard and mouse. That precarious MVP worked well enough to make me rethink my workplace.

Fake grass. Wooden stools. Alarm clocks. Ethernet cables and webcams, decades after they were a must-buy accessory.

Remote work has somehow brought together a mix of the old and new. A laptop and WiFi are enough to work from anywhere; the kitchen table will do. But a few more comforts can go a long ways, and some of the oldest, simplest tweaks can be the best.

Here are the best home office recommendations from the Capiche community.

Lights.

Desk lamp

"Don't face the wall," suggested @sowenjub in a Capiche discussion about home office tools. "It's oppressing."

Wall or not, lighting is a new focus in today's Zoom-driven workdays. You need a bright workplace for your eyesight—and you'll look much better on video calls as well.

" Always keep the light in front of you, not behind you," recommends the Wistia team in their video production guide. "If a window is behind you, flip yourself around and face the light." You'll get a better view and natural lighting for free.

Or, grab a lamp. Repurpose a desk or floor lamp you already have around the house, or order a new one to brighten up your workplace.

@sowenjub's lamp doubles as a reminder to stop working. "I use Hue lightbulbs for my desktop lamp, with one automation to turn off the light when I leave the house, and another one to turn it off past 1 am to remind me that it's late (sometimes I get caught in things…)."

Or, go old school, and add a real clock to your desk, as designer Nathan Snelgrove recommended. It could remind you when to stop work—or wake you up in the morning, as a way to not start your day with a screen since you'll be looking at one all day anyhow.

Fans.

desk fan

If your laptop's fans start buzzing, odds are you need a fan, too. Light and airflow together can make your workplace feel much more natural and less boxed in.

Capiche CTO Mohammad Forouzani calls his fan the "most important item for comfort." It doesn't need to be anything fancy—a "clip-on desk fan, $10 from Amazon" did the job for him. I've long kept a larger standing fan near my desk to keep air moving around the room, critical in warmer climates.

"Have fans blow through the room in such a way as to shuffle air toward out-vents or open windows," recommends author Craig Mod in his piece for The Atlantic about home ventilation, where he recommends mid-sized Vornado fans for airflow. "The goal isn’t a wind tunnel, but a gentle sense of active air."

Odds are, you've got a fan around your house, and it's worth dragging it over to you workspace. A bit of fresh air might be just what your office needed.

Soundproofing.

A brighter workplace will help you look better on video calls. So would fake grass—and it just might help you sound better as well.

"I put in a great deal of effort to reduce the echo in my room and to make my background look nice," shared @iCanAutomate. "To reduce echo, I put up faux grass sheets on the walls and that helped a lot!"

You could put soundproofing foam on your walls, and turn your office into a studio—but that may also make it feel dark and oppressive. Or, you could get creative. Fake grass did the trick for @iCanAutomate; thick upholstery foam wrapped in cloth did the trick for another friend's office. Or, for the most echoey offices, you can always put a blanket over your head while recording audio—bad for both airflow and lighting, but a solution in a pinch if you're recording a podcast and need it to sound great.

And while you're at it, plants can also do wonders for a home office. I'm terrible with plants, enough that I've accidentally killed cacti. A fake plant did the trick.

Cameras.

The brightest office and best background can only do so much when your laptop's camera is lower quality than the one your phone had a decade ago. And most monitors don't include a webcam, so you'll have to open your laptop for calls.

That's why webcams are the new hot gadget again. @iCanAutomate recommends Logitech's C920, an $80 webcam that streams HD video and stereo audio, and clips to the top of your screen. That's the webcam both Wirecutter and Wistia recommend as well.

Or, if you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can likely turn it into a webcam with an app—and figure out a way to mount it on your screen (there's software for Fujifilm, Canon, Sony, and Nikon cameras). That'll get your best video quality—complete with a naturally blurred background. You can also turn your iPhone's rear camera into a webcam with apps like EpocCam, which should at least get as good of video quality as the Logitech cameras.

Microphone.

microphone

You look great. Now make sure you sound great, too.

The mic in your headphones will likely sound better than the one in your laptop—at the very least, it'll pick up less keyboard and mouse noise if you take notes on a call. A nicer dedicated webcam may also include a better mic. And an app like Krisp can keep out background noise and make even a basic mic sound a bit better.

Or, you can invest in a dedicated microphone—something that's especially worthwhile if you host a podcast. @iCanAutomate recommends the Samson Meteor Mic; Wistia recommends the Blue Snowball, both of which will vastly improve your audio quality for $70. They're not just for podcasters—they can make your Zoom calls sound less like a phone call.

While you're at it, it's worth upgrading your headphones or speakers, too. Nathan's first recommendation to improve a home office was "Noise cancelling headphones for sure." AirPods and Sony's excellent noise-canceling headphones are great options, but the fit, feel, and style are likely the most important consideration if you're wearing them half the day.

Tying it all together.

All those accessories means cables and adaptors and somewhere to hide them all.

Modern laptops are thin partly because they lost all their ports, with USB-C juggling everything on its own. You could get an adaptor for everything, but those are easy to lose. In your home office, a hub might make more sense. I've used Apple's Digital AV Multiport Adaptor to connect a MacBook to a charger, external hard drive, and monitor with one cable. Austin recommended a larger Thunderbolt dock with 15 ports plus a power adaptor all in one. Or, for a Microsoft Surface, the Surface Travel Hub is worth grabbing even if you're not traveling, with USB, VGA, HDMI, and Ethernet in one.

Then, you'll need to organize those cables so your desk doesn't look like a mess. I've used twist-ties to pull cables together, and almost any hooks or clips you have laying around might work. Or, Capiche developer Sarah Zhang recommends these cable clips which, at less than a dollar a piece, are more than worth it to keep your desk in order.

Another way to make your desk nicer is something you likely haven't thought about since the '90s: a mousepad. Zapier customer champion Paolo Papa suggests to "get a big mousepad, one that covers your whole keyboard and mouse." Your mouse might not need it, but "it provides nice cushioning for your wrist" and can add a fun touch to an aging desk.

The internet.

ethernet cable

Speaking of cables, there's another worth keeping around: Ethernet. Wifi's convenient, but odds are you won't be able to get your best internet speeds over Wifi, especially if your office is far from the router.

Thus wired internet. "I use a good old ethernet cable instead of the wifi," shared @sowenjub. "It was frustrating to have optical fiber cable and be limited by the wifi speed. Now anytime I'm on a call, and the connection is bad, I'm quite certain it's not because of me!"

Austin agrees: "I'd recommend ethernet for anyone who can make that happen in their home office," he shared.

If cables aren't an option, or you'd rather keep things simple, a better router could still be worth the upgrade. "I've had Eero for about 4 years and it's been great," shared Austin about the mesh network setup with multiple small repeaters that keep the Wifi signal strong throughout the house. Or, go for a larger single router, such as Mohammad's Linksys EA9500 router with 8 antennae. "As routers go, the more alien looking the better," he joked.

Something to compute.

Computer

Lights, cameras, they're all accessories, things to make your workplace a bit better. But the must-haves are even more important—they're where the action happens.

The single thing your home office must have may likely not be something you can pick: Your computer. If you're working remotely, odds are you've got a company-issued laptop, or can order and expense one that fits the company's specs. The good news is, almost any modern laptop will likely be great.

If you can pick, get at least 8GB of Ram, a 256GB SSD, an Intel i5 CPU, and a 13" display (retina/4K is ideal). A recent MacBook Air, Microsoft Surface Laptop, or Dell XPS 13 are all great places to start.

Laptops are the default option for their flexibility—but they're not the only option. If you're working from home all the time, a desktop can still be a great option, especially if you need a more powerful computer. "I was tired of hearing my laptop fans spin up anytime I compiled any intensive code, opened Lightroom, or started adding a lot of layers in Photoshop," relayed Snelgrove, as part of why he got an iMac for his home office instead of upgrading his laptop.

and Monitor things.

A desktop—especially an all-in-one like the iMac—solves the larger monitor problem. For everyone else with a laptop, you'll likely want a bit more than a 13" screen to stare at all day.

A 27" 4K display—something somewhat similar to what the iMac includes—seems the ideal size today. Sarah suggests LG's 27" 4K monitor, while 1Password's Jacob Penderworth recommends Dell's counterpart. Another option is an ultrawide monitor—shorter than the standard 27" screens and with lower resolution, but enough wider that you can comfortably fit two to three programs side-by-side.

Or, you could go portable. If you use a MacBook and own an iPad, the built-in Sidecar app can turn your iPad into a second wireless screen (even the basic $329 iPad works). Or, Capiche founder Austin Petersmith recommended the ASUS ZenScreen portable monitor, for an extra 15.6" screen that runs over USB-C. "I used one of these as an external monitor when I was working in coffee shops, and it was great," said Austin. Those might be better options when you're working away from home, but sometimes flexibility is nice.

Raise the (task)bar

While you're at it, grab something to raise your monitor to eye height. "Place your display so your eye level is about two to three inches below the top of the screen and about an arm’s length away," recommends Wirecutter's Melanie Pinola in a New York Times piece about ergonomic workplaces That's a far cry of the standard laptop setup, where the top of our screen is easily half a meter below our eye level.

A full-sized monitor alone may be enough. If not, put it on a monitor arm, such as the Jarvis Monitor Arm that Austin recommends, to put your monitor at eye height and move it around as you want. Another option is a monitor stand, such as this wooden shelf Jacob recommends or a metal organizer that Sarah uses. Even if you don't have a separate monitor, you can raise your laptop with a laptop stand like the Targus Portable Chill Mat that @sowenjub uses, or even IKEA's $7 BRÄDA laptop stand. Or, for a frugal hack, put your monitor on a stack older books (heavy, hardcover textbooks work perfect). That's how I raised my monitor's height for years.

Either way, don't hunch over a laptop screen for days on end. Your neck and back will thank you later.

The Desk + Chair where it happens.

Tech is tiny. Even a 27" monitor is easy enough to move on its own. If you decide to swap out everything on your desk for a better home office, it might not even fill up a shopping cart.

Good luck getting a desk and office chair home and assembled by yourself, though. Which, perhaps, is why it's so easy to put up with sub-optimal setups. Hate your keyboard and it's easy enough to swap; hate your desk and you might just put up with it for a decade.

And here there are no best recommendations. I've used IKEA's $239 manual-crank SKARSTA standing desk for years, and it's worked great if you don't mind taking a few minutes of exercise to raise your desk when you want to move around. Sarah's eyeing a Smartdesk as a popular self-adjusting standing desk, while Mohammad is less enamored of the standing desk fad and prefers a more traditional desk.

Standing desks can be a nice chance from sitting all day; they can also be harder on your knees and feet than you'd expect at first. Wirecutter recommends testing the waters with ironing board as a standing desk; my textbook-powered standing desk works as well. Perhaps try those, and if you think you'll like a standing desk, IKEA's and Smartdesk are great places to start your search (along with the Jarvis and Uplift desks Wirecutter recommends).

If you do get a standing desk, consider getting an anti-fatigue mat to stand on—especially if you don't wear shoes indoors. I've used the Ergodriven Topo mat for years—and Wirecutter recommends it as well—but even a basic gel mat from your local store will be better than standing on the hard floor for hours.

Then chairs. Here, again, there are no best recommendations—and the stakes are even higher than with desks. The default recommendations from Steelcase and Herman Miller cost over $1,000, and even IKEA's options cost several hundred dollars.

Or, you could go basic. "I sit on a wooden chair, all day long," said @sowenjub, and found that it helped their back problems more than high-end chairs they'd tried previously. "It forces me to have a better posture since there's no comfy cushion to compensate for my position, so it strengthened my back." Nathan agrees, recommending using a stool for the same reason: "They force you to have good posture because you have to keep your back straight." Perhaps there's no best, beyond experiment and finding what works for you.

Making remote work.

It's deceptively easy to take most office jobs remote today. A laptop, a wifi connection, and a few new apps, and you're in business.

And honestly, that works. It's entirely possible to work productively from a MacBook Air at a dining room table, to build new products and run your business without buying almost anything.

Or you could do a bit better. Bring a lamp and alarm clock from your bedroom, pull a fan and some fake grass out of the garage, and perhaps splurge on a better screen and camera. It's not like Zoom calls will suddenly feel like you're meeting in person, but at least you'll make your home a bit of a nicer place to work.

Then, for more remote work tips, software pics, and book recommendations, check out our Capiche Community Guide to Remote Work for more tips to make your remote work experience the best possible.

Image Credit: Header photo by Mikey Harris via Unsplash Lamp photo by Ernest Brillo. Fan photo by Siniz Kim. Microphone photo by Ed Rojas. Ethernet photo by Markus Spiske. Laptop photo by Grovemade.

FORMAT WITH MARKDOWN; DRAG AND DROP IMAGES
iCanAutomate's avatar
@iCanAutomate (replying to maguay )
19d

This is awesome, thanks for the multiple mentions! :D

2 points
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @iCanAutomate )
19d

Thanks for sharing your tips!

1 point
sowenjub's avatar
@sowenjub (replying to maguay )
16d

Regarding Fans, https://www.williwaw.eu is an amazing (new) product.
But, you'll have to jump through hoops to get it: translate the site, pay international shipping costs (but they do ship internationally), and make sure you can handle the 220V voltage requirement.
But its silence and design are worth it!

1 point
maguay's avatar
@maguay (replying to @sowenjub )
14d

That is a beautiful fan!

1 point
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