Engineering Your Workspace

Engineering Your Workspace

[See updates at end of article for 30+ day experience report...]

I've worked fully remote for over a decade, and partially remote for several years before that to avoid a multi-hour commute in a major metro (hello Bay Area). Often, when striking up conversations about remote work with friends or colleagues, I get questions about my workspace. To be honest, it has varied a lot over the years... from bedroom nooks with poor lighting to coffee houses with questionable WiFi and everything in between.

My job over the last couple years involved a lot of travel, so rather than being "remote" in the purest sense my workspace was really dictated by an assortment of customers – usually an overly-chilly corporate office with headache-inducing florescent lighting and bad (if any) coffee. As part of moving to a new remote-first employer, I decided to do some research and upgrade my remote office. It was part Christmas present, part new-hire gift, and ultimately justified as an investment in my future self... Follow along as I share some of my choices. The hopeful takeaway is that a few thoughtful investments can significantly boost both health and productivity (not to mention making workspace conversations much more interesting)!

The Space

First, a picture of my current setup:

My DevOps Dream Iteration 1

My main leap was getting away from what seems like a lifetime of sitting too much and moving to a standing desk. Standing all the time isn't good either, so I wanted something easily adjustable to maximize movement. The Uplift Bamboo Stand Up Desk has been talked about by many, and received The Wirecutter's top rating so it was an easy choice. It can get pricey depending on options, so I kept it simple in terms of controls and customization. Even then it's not cheap, but this was the foundation for everything else and part of a goal to be healthier overall so I took the plunge!

Size-wise, the next obvious item is the Dell U3818DW UltraSharp 38-inch Curved USB-C Monitor. Years ago I had two 24" Studio Displays, and loved the extra real-estate. What I didn't enjoy was the big bezel gap in the middle. I've been eyeing ultra-wide displays since they became a fad. They are the perfect way to have the real-estate without the gap. I honestly wasn't sure about the curvature after reading naysayers (especially some citing reduced text clarity). After personal experience with the setup, I haven't seen any distortion or other ill effects from the curvature. I also haven't seen mind-blowing productivity boosts beyond what's usually enjoyed with space for more windows. In daily use, it just feels like a very big monitor and I hardly notice the curve at all. I suppose this means naysayers and advertising hype are often equally wrong.

While I try to avoid analysis paralysis in my day job (make an educated guess, fail, learn, iterate), I make up for it by spending way too much time reading reviews of everything from techno gadgets to dishwashers. Beyond a source of entertainment for my wife ("You are such a geek!"), it helps me avoid buyer's remorse. Even though you can find the U3818DW for several hundred below Dell's sticker price, it's still a significant purchase. Context is important, the "right" monitor for a gamer won't necessarily be the same as for office work. For this purchase, I found the following reviews helpful:

While not tops in every category, the size/price ratio was right and technical specs paired well with my intended use case. YMMV.

When going ultra-wide, one problem you might have is finding the right monitor stand. In my quest for ergonomics, I knew I wanted to get the monitor higher than the included stand allows (I'm 6'3"). Not wanting to resort to stacking reams of printer paper on a work-of-art desk (been there, done that, not in college anymore), I spent a lot of time agonizing over deficient options. Many you find will look good but not support enough weight, or have clearly-documented size restrictions. Others will have good specs, but receive poor reviews from owners of larger monitors (read: sag, instability). The VIVO Ultra Wide Screen TV and Monitor Desk Mount is surprisingly affordable, able to support screens up to 42", and consistently well-reviewed.

One thing I really enjoy about the U3818DW more than my previous monitor is USB-C support. With the right cable (read: may not be the one which comes with your laptop), you can deliver video, power and USB connectivity over a single connection. This provides all the goodness of a docking station without feeling like you are stuck in a 90's corporate cubicle (when it comes to bulk on my desk, I'm a visual minimalist). Realizing I could obtain all required connectivity with a single (small) cable flashed me back to the days when HDMI became a standard and I no longer needed component and optical cables just to achieve my A/V dreams. It is a small thing, but given the price of the monitor it's welcome icing on the cake.

I've been all-in on the Apple ecosystem for a while now (a personal choice after they adopted bits of BSD to create Darwin, and because they are generally easier to support when playing family IT), and due to my allergic reaction to visual clutter I prefer a charging station for my iPhone and Apple Watch. While it's received mixed reviews and I'm generally not a fan of Belkin (some past nightmares), I've found the Belkin Boost Up Wireless Charging Dock to be a solid performer. Me and my wife have both used one for a couple years now, and haven't had any problems. There's also an extra USB connection. Not a necessity with all the monitor ports, but it's a slightly more direct way to charge accessories.

While not required, with the large monitor I wanted to operate my MacBook in clamshell mode. With my previous monitor (27"), I had a stand allowing me to use my laptop as a second display without breaking my neck. That served me well for many years, but gave my desk a messy look (messy desk, messy mind!), and left a lot to be desired in terms of ergonomics due to the difference in resolution and size. The ultra-wide monitor alleviated those concerns, but to get the closed laptop out of the way I needed a new type of stand. There are a lot of options here, but the OMOTON Desktop Aluminum MacBook Stand has great build quality, hefty weight (your laptop will be stable and secure), is fully adjustable (it fits fine with your favorite case) and won't break the bank.

The last way I avoid desktop clutter is the combination of wireless accessories (namely, Apple's Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad) and keeping anything I can off the desk entirely. If you opt for Apple's accessories, be sure to grab the updated v2 editions... They boast rechargeable batteries (no more feeling like you should invest in Duracell!), improved feel, and familiar features (if you are used to the latest generation laptop trackpads). To keep my headphones tucked out of the way, I've found The Anchor by Elevation Lab affordable and functional.

Ergonomics

One of my early objections to the standing desk craze, and perhaps why I resisted the move for so long, was the marketing hype which seemed to position them as a panacea of health. In reality, it doesn't matter whether you are always sitting or standing... if you aren't moving, it's bad. While there are studies which show health benefits of standing desks, there isn't a lot of clear research about how to use your new investment to it's fullest. Here are some guidelines I've gleaned to help maximize the benefits and minimize negative effects (like straining your ligaments and fatiguing muscles).

First, you really don't want to stand all the time. The secret to health is movement. This comes in at least three forms... While standing, alternating your stance throughout the day helps avoid strain and discomfort. Having an adjustable desk will enable you to sit when needed, though investing in a good chair is important! Last, don't forget to leave the desk entirely for several hours each day (read: take breaks and exercise). Current research suggests alternating standing and sitting every one to two hours.

Don't forget the good ergonomic advice built up over the years with traditional desks. Having your keyboard and monitor at the right height is essential. Adjust your standing desk to elbow height, maintaining a 90 degree angle when typing. Your monitor needs to be high enough so you aren't craning your neck all day, and should be 20-28" away from your eyes. Some suggest a 20 degree monitor tilt. I have found a slight tilt comfortable, but you might need to adjust this based on location (glare from overhead lighting sucks).

When standing, you will most definitely want an anti-fatigue mat. Better options will provide a variety of shapes encouraging you to change position and stretch your muscles throughout the day. While working from home often involves socks (hopefully clean), wearing supportive shoes is good advice – especially if you opt for longer standing periods like I do.

Like any change, finding the right rhythm takes time. I'm happy knowing my workspace choices support a healthier range of motion throughout the day. Spend some time researching options to find what works for you! When getting used to my new office setup, I found the following resources helpful:

What's Next?

Like most things in life, my workspace continues to evolve as I learn. I'm currently using the Uplift Desk Mat (a free add-on when I purchased). While cushy enough, it lacks features of better mats. This is an area where the "best" will boil down to personal preferences. Competition is also heating up! I've got an eye on the Ergodriven Topo (another Wirecutter top pick) due to it's unique shape, but be sure to check out some of the newer alternatives!

I'm still hunting for the perfect chair. Currently, I'm riding the wave and standing most of the time. I balance this with healthy use of the Pomodoro Technique (25-minute work sessions delimited by purposeful breaks). However, there are definitely times when I'd like to sit for a specific task or just to have a break for tired legs. I've read a lot of positive reviews about Steelcase chairs, so might end up with one of those in the future. What would you choose?

Last but not least, I intend to liven up the space with more personal artwork on the walls. It's a little thing, but brightening up your space can elevate mood – especially on long or stressful days which we all have from time to time! Well-positioned pieces also serve as conversation starters when video conferencing with remote colleagues ("Where'd you get that crazy monkey in headphones on your wall?!"). I've also considered adding a couple (small) desk plants, though the key is something useful (read: not fake plants that just add more things to dust!) to help clean the air while being easy enough to care for that they don't become another source of stress (kind of defeats the point of greenery). Bamboo is an easy choice, succulents and air plants are also nice – though they can require more care and feeding.

A workspace is a highly personal thing. No one size fits all, since we all have our hard-earned and well-deserved preferences. This is just one more reason remote work makes sense. I'm sure my space will continue to evolve, and I'm sure yours will look a bit different. Hopefully some piece of advice above or research I've done will inspire you to invest in yourself and create your own space to boost productivity while promoting healthier practices!

Update 1

The first 30-40 days with my new setup involved a lot of learning... Mostly adjusting to the standing routine (remembering to sit once in awhile). For that, I found it useful to simply walk to other rooms in the house with my laptop between meetings (sitting on the couch, in the sunroom, etc). Another thing that worked well for me (beside setting timers), was simply standing for meetings and sitting for focussed work. Depending on your meeting schedule, this may or may not provide adequate sitting time for you!

The other big battle I had was with the new monitor. Resolution was adequate for my needs, but over time I found the ultra-wide format felt "short". With three "columns" of windows I found myself looking left/right more often. It's also a bit unnatural coming from a typical laptop or desktop monitor setup which is square – four usefully-sized window quadrants feels more useful to me.

I knew from prior research that I would have to give up native MacOS volume control for the monitor's internal speakers and loose Night Shift support. I didn't find the prior too bad since you can install various apps that will help map key combos to audio device controls, but I did find myself missing Night Shift as I tend to work late into the evening and was a loyal f.lux user for years before MacOS integrated that functionality. I was willing to give these two up in exchange for one large display, but combined with the "short" feeling of the monitor I started to feel buyer's remorse.

The straw that broke the camel's back was USB-C support. The primary reason I chose the more expensive Dell U3818DW over similar options that were cheaper was USB-C (one cable to rule them all, but there are many USB-C monitors) with adequate power delivery (most options only do ~60W which won't support newer 15-16" MBPs). When I first unboxed and plugged everything in, all seemed well. The devilish details reared their heads after extended use and routine plugging/unplugging throughout the day as I moved around the house.

I hit a number of issues including failure to properly sync the correct resolution, timeouts (monitor goes to sleep) in the middle of work sessions that could only be resolved by turning the monitor on/off (often several times), and all of this got worse any time the laptop was not fully charged. After several weeks on Dell and Apple support forums, I found I was not alone. Many have similar issues. Dell's support response is horrendous – typically just "reproduce on Windows or we don't care". This mirrors APM support experiences I had with their Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition. Sadly, even when customers reproduce the issues with an approved operating system no real solution is provided.

I tried a number of suggestions from the support forums including alternative cables, monitor BIOS updates, ensuring I had all of the latest OS updates, and various tweaks including running the Mac from my power brick (which defeats the purpose of supposedly having adequate power delivery). Nothing resolved the issue satisfactorily for me. When combined with the other issues above, higher price and lackluster support experience I returned the monitor.

Update 2

I've finally found a setup that works for me. Since the Dell Ultrawide didn't work reliably with my 15" or 16" Macbook Pros in clamshell mode, I tried the LG 43UN700-B which has a lot of positive reviews. After experiencing both setups first-hand, I find having a massive (43") screen size with more traditional UHD/4K resolution (3840 x 2160) to be a lot more comfortable.

I also gave up on the USB-C "one cable to rule them all" dream for now. Since I need a dongle to support a USB webcam (the Logitech C920S for face-time with remote colleagues), I went back to DisplayPort and using my power brick. This combination has been working well (no more resolution sync issues, reliably wakes up, doesn't go to sleep when it shouldn't) and provides an amazing amount of real-estate when coding (browser and IDE). For typical work days, using a 4-panel layout is amazingly productive (very little screen swapping).

For my use case (mostly staring at and editing text), the monitor has a more useful resolution than the U3818DW. The taller screen feels more balanced, and while I am not a photographer or graphic designer, for the price it has amazing color and brightness (with minor calibration, mostly changing gamma mode and taking the blues down a bit). Even better, it works with Night Shift making the display feel like more of a first-class citizen in the Apple world. Speakers also have more depth than the Dell, and provide enough power for focus playlists on Spotify. Native volume control still doesn't work, but it comes with a remote which I find useful for quick adjustments without having to hunt for for hidden buttons under or behind the display.

The other minor update was going for the Topo Comfort Mat. It is hard to describe how much of an improvement this makes when standing a lot. The cheaper version which came with my standing desk was not nearly stiff enough for adequate support and caused me to tire quickly. With the Topo I can easily put in long hours without fatigue. The unique shape also makes it easy to stretch and vary position throughout the day. Be warned, because of it's extended size and shape it can present more of a trip hazard than your usual flat mat!

My DevOps Dream Iteration 2
Four monitors in one!
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