Because of COVID-19, millions of people are now working from home, and even though many offices are now open, there are many who continue to do so for at least part of the week.
I’ve always had a home office, and for the past several decades, it’s been my only office. Long before COVID hit, my nonprofit, ConnectSafely, decided to forgo a central office and have everyone work from home. Among other things, it enabled us to create a team of people from different parts of the country.
For me, the only drawback of working from home is the lack of comradery. For 20 years, I worked part-time for CBS News . When I visited their offices and studios in New York, I felt much more plugged in than when I was at home. Eventually, I got on CBS’s Slack digital conferencing system. It made me feel a lot more connected, although I’m sure there was some office gossip that never made it onto that digital communications platform.
Some people like commuting to an office for other reasons, including getting away from the distractions of home and family. For me, the opposite was true. My office and my compulsion to squeeze in a little work at night sometimes distracted me from family life
Beating the heat
I’m writing this column from home where the outside temperature is over 100 degrees. If it weren’t for my concern over being around people without masks for an extended period of time, I’d be tempted to write this column from an air-conditioned coffee shop or library, because my home office isn’t air conditioned. Instead, I made a “do it yourself” air conditioner by propping a basket of ice packs in front of a fan. It’s not as powerful as a good portable air conditioner, but it does the job, especially in a small room. If you don’t have ice packs, you can freeze bottles or milk cartons of water or put a bucket of ice water in front of the fan. You can find other ideas by searching “Build your own AC” including an article from Popular Mechanics with lots of suggestions.
A DIY air conditioner using ice packs propped in front of a fan
Furniture and equipment
Most of my office furniture came from IKEA. My main concern when I set up the office years ago was to make sure my desk was the right height. If you search for “ideal desk height” you’ll get all sorts of advice but are likely to discover that your dining room table is too high for maximum comfort when hunched over a computer. The other important piece of furniture is your office chair. Searching “how to pick a good office chair” will yield plenty of advice.
Good lighting is important. I like overhead lighting, but there are plenty of other options, including floor lamps. I set up my office so that the window is to my left. I didn’t want to be staring at it nor did I want sunlight to reflect on my monitor. Still, I usually keep the curtains closed. I love natural light but not while I’m working.
In addition to my overhead lights, I have lights on the side that I installed to add additional light during video conferences. If you use Zoom or any other video conferencing system, lighting can make a huge difference.
Having a good webcam and microphone can also help on video conferences. In many cases, the equipment built into your PC or Mac may be sufficient. If not, you can add a webcam and a USB microphone. There are plenty of good USB microphones on the market, and in most cases, you won’t get interference if you use an external microphone with your computer’s speakers. If you don’t mind being seen wearing a headset, I recommend the Sennheiser Consumer Audio Sennheiser PC 8 USB – Stereo USB Headset. It’s only $20 on Amazon and the sound quality is good enough that I wound up using it to record my CBS News radio segments when I was away from my home studio.
Printer and scanner
I know some people who don’t own a printer, but I consider it an essential. For some reason, I am better able to proof read my work on paper then on screen. Even though the documents I create go out with email, there are still times when I need to print out letters. There are lots of choices out there, but know that the cheaper printers often cost more for ink. That’s fine if you don’t use them much, but if you’re a prolific printer, you’ll save a lot in the long run by focusing on the cost of consumables. I really like HP PageWide printers because the print quality is excellent, they’re very fast, print on both sides in a single pass, and the ink costs less per page than most ink jets or laser printers. Also consider Epson’s line of EcoTank printers, which are more expensive to buy than most other ink jets, but much less expensive to use.
I opted for a multifunction printer/scanner and am surprised at how often I use the scanner. Having said that, you can also use your smart phone to scan documents.
If you live with other people, you need to think about how they impact you and how your working at home impacts them. Again, having a separate room is ideal, but if that’s not possible, you may need to negotiate when you can work and when they can watch TV, sleep or do other things that make work harder for you.
I worked at home when my kids were young, but I quickly learned that I couldn’t work and take care of kids at the same time. Fortunately, I had a spouse who was able to watch the kids while I worked. If you’re not so lucky, consider other options, but know that working at home is not always compatible with child care.
Working at home can also put pressure on your adult relationships, so if you’re living with a partner, it’s important to set up rules or at least general policies about when you are at work and when you are there for your partner. It doesn’t necessarily have to be traditional business hours. Some people work better at night. There were times when I got my best work done after everyone else was asleep. But whatever you do, make sure you’re in sync with the people who may be affected by your presence or absence.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.
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