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Although I am hopeful that this article finds you, your family and friends safe and healthy…I am guessing that life has been far from ‘normal’ lately. If you are like me, you were forced to shift your mode of operation abruptly with the COVID-19 outbreak. You were suddenly expected to perform similar work functions in a less-than-ideal work environment…your home. For some, this is an easy transition…but for others, this requires a major change in operations. And, unfortunately for many…the need to work from home may not subside anytime soon (if at all).

Although working from home can be a challenge, there are some strategies you can employ to make the transition more efficient. Here are 5 steps that I have personally employed in my transition to working from home.  Hopefully some of them will help make your own transition more effective…or at least a little less painful!

5 Technology Tips for Improving Your Home Working Environment

  1. Comfort/Posture: Although this may not initially sound like a technology tip, there are a number of technology variables that will affect your ability to work comfortably. You may have not noticed how uncomfortable your home working environment is until you were forced to use it for 8+ hours a day…but this doesn’t have to be the case. There are some steps you can (and should) take to lessen the pain and strain of working from home:

    • Second screen/monitor: Many of us work from laptops when we are away from the office…but that device may not be ideal for long-term use. As great as the convenience & portability of a laptop can be, the compact form factor can lead to poor posture and eye strain over time. Rather than purchasing a whole new computer…try hooking up an external monitor to your laptop (be sure to check for compatibility of connection wires/ports). Not only will the larger screen potentially help lower the eye strain, but I find that the larger real estate (dual screens) can actually provide a boost to productivity!

    • External keyboard/mouse: Similar to the first point, laptops tend to force us into a hunched position that may not be conducive to long hours of work. Try connecting an external keyboard and/or mouse in order to create a more comfortable posture. **NOTE: If you prefer using a trackpad over a mouse (or have limited space to make use of a mouse), you might look into an external trackpad.

    • External webcam. Well, if you are anything like me, you have probably been spending way too much time on video meetings lately. If you are using a laptop for those meetings, you might find yourself having a hard time looking ‘professional’ when using the built-in webcam at the top of your screen. Looking down, hunched over, poorly lit, etc. You might try an external webcam that could be placed in a more natural location. Most can rest on your external monitor or mount to a small tripod, and some even have a built-in light ring that can improve the quality of your video. **NOTE: Due to the recent demand, a number of retailers have severely increased the prices of webcams (as much as 20x), which is sad. You should not have to pay more than $20-30 for a nice webcam, so if you don’t have one already…you might need to wait a bit until the prices come down (and send a couple of negative emails to those companies doing the gouging!).

      **Bonus Tip: Many computers are limited in the number of ports you have available to plug in external devices like those mentioned above…but don’t panic! USB hubs are a great (and typically inexpensive) way to split one USB port into multiple (similar to a power strip) to expand your computer’s capability.

  2. Headphones: This one sounds obvious, but if you are now working in a space that was not designed to be a quiet, private environment, you might want to invest in a set of noise isolation (blocks out noise) or noise cancellation (actively removes noise) headphones. There are a number of good options (over the ear or in-ear, wired or wireless) spanning a range of prices…so be sure to do your research to find the set that appropriately fits your needs.

  3. Internet Service: There are very few things more frustrating than a choppy video call or waiting forever to download an important file. Although your home internet service may have been adequate in the “old days”, with more people at home utilizing your bandwidth (e.g., spouse, kids, roommate), limitations will become much more evident. Here’s some tips for improving your connection:

    • Check your speed: Although truly diagnosing and troubleshooting your internet woes can get pretty technical, I suggest at a minimum that you check your internet speed(s) every so often to assure that you are getting what you are paying for. There are a number of decent speed test options out there, but I tend to use www.speedtest.net, which is simple and seems to be fairly valid. If you are using wi-fi with a laptop or phone, try testing your speed in different locations in the house to determine where you will have the most reliable signal in which to work. If the space is not appealing, you might think about moving your router to a more central location in your home. Just keep in mind, distance and walls can be a killer for the strength (and speed) of your wi-fi. NOTE: Although most services will simply promote the download speed (how fast you can get information from the internet), be sure to pay close attention to the upload speed (how fast you can send information to the internet), as this is often the culprit for choppy video calls.

    • Wires > Wireless: If you are going to be performing internet-intensive tasks (e.g., web conference), it may be worthwhile to hardwire your internet connection in order to ensure a more stable signal. Just grab an ethernet cable and plug into your router (it should have a few ports you can access) and turn off your wi-fi antenna on your computer to confirm that the connection is active. **I always have a cable plugged in to the router in case I need to quickly plug-in to stabilize my connection.

    • Assess the ‘competition’: If you are using wi-fi as your internet source, you may find that your signal suffers in certain locations (or situations) around your house. It is possible that you have other devices that are either competing for your internet signal, or interfering with it all together. For example, microwaves and cordless phones are notorious for interfering with certain frequencies of wi-fi (e.g., 2.4ghz), while many of our internet-enabled devices (e.g., TV, printer) may be fighting for the same internet signal. While working from home, you might try turning off some of these devices to assure your work isn’t taking a backseat. **If you have a fairly new wi-fi router, you may be able to disable other devices temporarily through a mobile app.

    • Contact the internet company for options/deals: If it has been a while since you have inquired about your internet service, it might be a good time to give them a call and see whether there are products that might work better for your new needs. The speed options have probably increased, and in order to keep you as a customer they may upgrade you without a huge increase in costs. I did this shortly after the transition to working from home, and not only increased my speed…but lowered my monthly bill!

  4. Explore new ways of communicating: Ok, so you may have set-up a perfect working environment at home…but social distancing has removed an often-overlooked benefit of your ‘normal’ normal working environment. You can’t simply walk over to your colleague’s office, interact with them in the hallway, or chat with them in the breakroom. Our interactions from home tend to be ultra-formal (email) or informal (text)…neither of which may be a good substitute for your workplace collaboration. If you haven’t done so already, check out Slack as an option for group communication/work. A combination of the formal and informal, Slack allows team members to communicate with each other about work projects in a free and fluid way (similar to group chats, with file share and collaboration), and helps to retain some of those valuable ‘hallway discussions’. NOTE: If you interested in stretching a bit further from the norm, check out Notion, an innovative project management tool for organization, communication, and project management. It may not be intuitive initially (which is kind-of the point, as it is a new way of thinking!), but really slick once you get the hang of it.

  5. Forced breaks: What has been one of the greatest challenges to working from home is the amount of time that I am now sitting behind a computer. At the office, my day was broken up by walking to meetings and classes…but now, those same events are occurring right here on the same computer, in the same seat. So, it is easy to find yourself staring at your screen for extended periods of time. My advice? Set a timer to remind you to get up and take a break. Personally (being the techie that I am), I downloaded an app (Time Out, Mac only) that will actually grey out my screen after a predetermined amount of time (e.g., 1 hour), and forces me to take a break (or request an extension). Of course, you still have to agree to take the break…but it is nice to get the reminder! NOTE: A kitchen timer can be a nice low-tech reminder option…and if that noise doesn’t make you get out of your seat, I am not sure what will.

BONUS: Although I am hopeful these 5 tips can help your work productivity from home…it may be equally (if not more) important to try and add some fun to your new home working experience. Maybe try bringing some levity to your next video meeting by adding a creative background to your video (e.g., Virtual Backgrounds in Zoom).  I mean, what better way of earning your colleagues’ respect than attending the meeting from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon or sitting on the Iron Throne?

Want some more tips and tricks for working from home? Check out the weekly Brothers in Tech podcast where my brother and I discuss a variety of home technology solutions. We have episodes specifically focusing on working from home, internet troubleshooting, and much more!

Stay safe, and embrace the opportunity!

-Brian Jackson, PhD
Professor and Technology Enthusiast