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The Sterner Stuff Work-From-Home Starter Kit

My at-home setup

The tattered chair is in line to be replaced

Working from home is brand new for a lot of folks, and it’s full of quirks and challenges. Even for someone who’s worked from home or a flex office for a while, COVID-19 has caused me to re-evaluate my setup.

To maximize your productivity, here are a few products you shouldn’t live without.

But First…

This is not your average work from home situation. We’re under a pseudo-quarantine, and that takes a toll on everyone’s mental health. So if you aren’t as productive as you feel like you should be, don’t worry about it. Take care of your family and yourself. For many of us, the work will be here when we get back.

Prefer a video version? I’ve got you.

High-Resolution Video Calls

The first work-from-home office upgrade I recommend to folks is a better webcam. If you’re using whatever is built into your laptop, this is the easiest and most valuable upgrade you can make for the sake of everyone on calls with you.

Grab the Logitech C920s. This thing has barely changed in 8 years because it doesn’t need to. It’s 720p or 1080p resolution depending on the application, gives you a nice little microphone quality boost as well, and comes in at a totally palatable $69.99. The difference between this and your laptop’s webcam is astounding, and your clients or coworkers will thank you for the hi-res look into your converted spare bedroom.

Unfortunately, with the influx of work-from-home activity, it appears to be sold out practically everywhere. Much like pretty much every other webcam. Good luck.

The Logitech C920s webcam

Sound Like You Run a Podcast

The microphone on a webcam like the above is an improvement over pretty much any built-in laptop microphone. Even on my ThinkPad, I’ve had to call into meetings with my phone because the laptop microphone can be so intermittent.

I would encourage you to take it one step further and get a dedicated microphone for your home office. The brand to look for is Blue. They offer great microphones at reasonable price points. For most folks, the Snowball or Snowball iCE are great upgrade picks at $70 and $50 respectively. Here at Sterner Stuff, I use a Yeti Nano that I found on sale by happenstance one day, but for most people, it probably isn’t worth the extra $30 to upgrade over the Snowball.

A Blue Snowball microphone

If you’ve ever listened to yourself, perhaps via a recording, talking through your laptop’s microphone, you’ve probably cringed. Grab one of these and give it another listen. Your immediate thought will probably be somewhere along the lines of “Wow, it sounds like I’m on a podcast!” You’ll sound incredibly professional for your clients or coworkers compared to the usual I’m-driving-on-the-highway-sorry-about-the-background-noise quality.

Ergonomic Office Furniture

Next up, do your body a favor and look into some upgraded office furniture.

Personally, I love having a standing desk, especially when working from home. In my downtown coworking space, I’m known to walk several blocks to clients’ offices or to grab lunch, but at home, that isn’t an option. While I try to get in dedicated exercise, a standing desk is a great way to break up the monotony.

Jarvis bamboo-top standing desk from Fully

I just picked up a Jarvis from Fully. It’s got a bamboo top, so it’s eco-friendly, and can be customized with wire grommets, monitor arms, and a couple different sizes and shapes. The one pictured is the contoured 60×30 size. I’m 6-foot-1, and the mid-range adjuster’s heights are plenty for me. I’m sure the memory controller is nice, but I didn’t spring for it. I would skip the powered grommets – they have to be plugged in individually rather than draw power from the desk itself, so you end up with a lot of wires. Grab the mounted power strip instead.

After purchasing, my Facebook was subsequently filled with ads from office furniture purists who swear this desk is too wobbly and the electronics too cheap to be worth buying. I can say with almost certainty that you won’t ever notice it wobbling unless you’re doing not-safe-for-work activities while working from home (can’t blame you). As for the electronics, time will tell.

It was easy to put together, and this desk starts at $450. My configuration cost closer to $750. Standing is a great alternative to sitting all day—invest in your health.

Speaking of sitting…

An Ergonomic Chair

Do as I say, not as I do. Which is to say I’m seated in a cheap office chair with flaking not-even-pleather that certainly isn’t doing my body any favors. My chair is next on my list of things to upgrade. The go-to brands for ergonomic office chairs are Steelcase and Herman Miller.

There’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all answer here, so I encourage you, if possible, to try out several chairs at (or borrowed from) a local office furniture dealer. They’ll probably have both the above brands and more. Find something you think is comfortable. Many of these dealers will have a robust return policy, which makes sense when you realize these chairs run anywhere from $500-$1500.

Crank Up Your Monitors

For whatever reason, the stands that come with your monitors are almost certainly not as high as they should be. You should be facing directly forward at your desk, head not tilted at all, rather than slightly downward. The degree to which this is a problem for you depends somewhat on the height of your desk (which is why adjustable height desks are so nice), but with your keyboard at the proper height, your monitors are almost certainly too low.

If you don’t mind a bit of clutter, you can use any household item to prop up your monitors, and that height should work well both sitting and standing if your desk does both. Find a box, a stack of books, whatever.

If you want something more versatile and sharper-looking, grab a monitor arm or two. These arms generally attach to the back of your desk and you can attach your monitor to them, removing the stand entirely. This also provides you lots of extra desk space!

The same company that makes the desk above also makes the Jarvis Monitor Arm. These come at a discount if you get them with your desk (which I did), but are also available stand-alone if you have a desk you like. They come in single and dual variations. They’re highly adjustable, both for positioning and tension, so they’ll handle monitors of various weights without any issues. I’m just a couple weeks in with them, but highly recommend.

It’s possible your monitor doesn’t have VESA mounting hardware on the back, like my Acer. Had to buy an adapter that screws in where the stand normally goes. You might need the same. Look for four squarely-positioned screws on the back of your monitor (might have to pop off your stand to find them). If they’re missing, you’ll need an adapter that fits your monitor brand and model.

Laptop Stands

The Roost laptop stand

If you’re working off a laptop, you want to prop it up, too. I ended up purchasing a Roost, a durable, super-portable, made-in-the-USA stand (Denver, to be specific). At $74.95, it’s probably a bit spendier than required to get the job done, especially if light and portable aren’t deal-breakers for you like they are for me.

Once you’ve got your laptop in the air, your keyboard won’t be very accessible. But really, you should probably get a better quality keyboard anyway.

Upgrading Your Keyboard

There are two big upgrade camps for keyboards – ergonomic keyboards and mechanical keyboards.

In the ergonomic keyboard world, the idea is to mitigate damage done to your wrists over a lifetime of typing. Some folks will tell you that you should work on your posture and fix the problem rather than buy a keyboard-band-aid.

Mechanical keyboards, on the other hand, are less about the layout of the keyboard but about the typing experience. The keys work using what are called “switches” versus what are called “membrane” keyboards. Mechanical keyboard advocates will tell you that they’re better for accurate typing and are more durable than their membrane keyboard counterparts. You can read more about the differences here.

I don’t consider myself well-versed enough to make a recommendation on these, so I’ll point you to The Wirecutter, where you’ll find both ergonomic and mechanical recommendations. This New York Times publication is my go-to for recommendations for anything from standing desks to windshield wipers to ice cube trays.

Finally, A Beer

I mentioned this at the beginning, but so long as you’re working from home as a result of quarantine, keep in mind that this is not a normal situation. Usually, people from home are simply working. You’re not only working, you’re navigating economic instability and the spread of disease. You might have kids at home from school.

So if you want to crack a beer on your next call (or between calls), or take other steps to maintain your mental health, then do so! Don’t stress out about being as productive as possible. Stay safe and healthy. Cheers!


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