Engineering Your Workspace

Engineering Your Workspace

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 Heaven

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 27" 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!