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Maximizing productivity and sanity in a work-at-home environment

Keeping productive and meeting deadlines amidst all the chaos of an active household can be a little easier, with the right equipment.

Welcome to the newish normal. About half of the working population (at least in America) is fully vaccinated. Some of us are working from home, some of us are going back to offices, and some of us are splitting our work time between office and home while our companies grapple with a not-quite-post-pandemic-but-maybe-close-enough model.

In this article, I'm going to focus on one simple thing: How to make working from home (whether full-time or occasionally) more productive, while keeping stress down as much as possible. I'm bringing more than 20 years of personal experience working from home, and while I wouldn't have it any other way, it took me a while to make it all work smoothly.

We can divide the process into three categories: boundaries, comfort, and gear. 

Where you work

Many people think choice of gear is the most important factor when setting up a home working environment, but it's really creating the space where you work. That can be a spare room with a door, a corner of the kitchen or a bedroom, or even on the couch with the dog on your lap. Another trick is to segment off office space with a bookcase or cabinet acting as a divider. Be creative.

The key is to have a space where you can focus. In our more video-connected era, it's also a space where you can communicate clearly, without noise, interruptions, or background distractions.

It is essential that whatever space you choose, you make it your own. You need to be able to trust that if you put a work document down, it won't be moved. If you set up your camera, it won't be moved. And, of course, if you have confidential work that you must bring home, you need a way to secure those materials.

Part of this involves working with your family on boundaries. Older co-residents (and this might be roommates as well as family) need to understand and agree that when you're in your office space, it's as if you're away at work and not available for chores or errands. Help them understand the difference between emergency interruptions and can-wait interruptions. That doesn't always work with younger kids or the dog, but take your best shot with the people in your home who should be able to understand.

Finally, I'm going to suggest one piece of gear here, because it's a life-saver in a noisy home: I use ear protection to create a 'cone of silence.' This set of ear muffs costs under $30, but I can't tell you how many times they've saved my deadline when the dog was barking, people were mowing the lawn outside, or the TV sound reached my office.

Comfort while working

There's a big difference between sitting at the kitchen table with your laptop for an hour on Saturdays and working at home for a full day, every day.

Here, you want to pay attention to your back, your neck, your butt, your eyes, and your wrists. Discomfort in any of these areas can not only nerf your productivity, but could force you to step away from working to recover.

Getting a good work chair is critical. You want one that's rated for your weight and has arm support. I recommend that you find one with a tall enough back to give good neck support, as well. Being able to rest your head for a minute or two while thinking can enable you to push through those longer stretches.

It doesn't matter so much whether you use a desk or a table, but you need to use a work surface that's at the right height for your arms and wrists. This guide from the Mayo Clinic will help you understand how all the elements relate for optimal ergonomics.

Gear

That leads us to gear. Let's do a lightning round of gear choices, using the Dell Store for recommendations. We'll assume your work machine is a laptop, but most of these suggestions apply for desktop PCs, as well.

Dock: Using a dock means you don't have to be tethered to your desk. I'd recommend the Dell Universal Dock because it supports HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3 and USB C, and it can charge your laptop. That means you unplug just one cable to go mobile.

Monitor: I find I'm most productive having two full pages side-by-side, so my recommendation is the Dell 34 Curved Gaming Monitor. Even if you don't game, the higher refresh rates are better on your eyes and the curve makes viewability more comfortable.

Keyboard and mouse: The Dell Premier keyboard and mouse make a good combination. They have multi-device capability -- you can tap a button to switch devices, like among multiple computers or to a tablet. If you want a slightly more ergonomic mouse, consider the Logitech MX Master 3 Laser Mouse, which also supports three devices.

Webcam upgrade: There are a couple of ways you can upgrade your video beyond the camera and mic inside your laptop. A quick and easy approach is the Logitech C925e webcam, which has dual mics. It's HD, while the Logitech Brio and Dell's own UltraSharp webcam  will get you 4K. Most home networks won't be able to handle feeding 4K up to the cloud, though, so check your internet capability first.

Audio upgrade: For audio, you might want to consider the Dell Premier Wireless ANC Headset. Any time you can get noise-cancelling, it's good in the home environment. Just be aware that sharp noises, like a dog barking and a TV, aren't usually blocked by noise-cancelling tech. You might also consider an inexpensive pair of Logitech Z207 speakers. And, if you want great voice quality, consider getting a Blue Yeti mic. It's what I use for all my daily Zoom calls.

Printer: There's always a bit of pushback about the need for printers, but if you're working with legal or real estate documents, for example, a printer is necessary. An all-in-one like the Epson ET-2750 is usually the best way to go, and we're big fans of printers that don't need cartridge replacements constantly.

Scanner: When I set up my latest home office, I didn't want a scanner. I reasoned our all-in-one would do the job well enough. But my wife (who is waaay smarter than I) insisted I invest in a document scanner -- and she was right. If you're buying a home or dealing with legal or health documents, there are so many scans you need to do. Plus, we scan all our appliance manuals, so we can always find them. Two choices are the Epson ES-300W mobile scanner and the ES-865 bulk scanner. The latter can scan entire books in a few minutes.

Final thoughts

I'm recommending a lot of purchases here, and that can add up fast. Remember: You don't have to upgrade everything at once. I've been upgrading and optimizing my various home offices for about 20 years. 

Not sure where to start? Just find one annoyance or something that you've been tolerating, and fix that. When you have another block of time or a few bucks to invest, do it again. After a while, you'll realize your productivity has jumped, your stress has dropped, and your sense of satisfaction has increased considerably. It really is worth it.