A one-hour video of our WFH Workshop recorded March 22, 2020 on Zoom.
Hosted by Shelly Palmer
Work From Home tech is commonplace. What’s hard is learning to work from home. In this video, Shelly talks about the basic requirements for setting up your WFH workspace, along with information about tools, tips, and techniques you can use to be awesome! We’ve also added some helpful information and links below. Please feel free to email your questions to [email protected].
Setting up your workspace
This may sound obvious, but a defined workspace is critical to remote work. It can be a desk, a shelf, a counter, a chair, a corner on the floor near a power outlet, or the cupboard under the stairs, but you must set up a defined workspace. In it you will have power, light, your computer (or smartphone or tablet), a seat, some kind of desk space, and Internet access (if required, and it is not always required). Importantly, it must be yours, and if it can’t be physically separated from the rest of your environment, it must be psychologically separated from it.
Table of Contents
- Broadband (internet)
- Computers – Specifications
- Random Access Memory (RAM)
- Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
- Central Processing Unit (CPU)
- External Monitor(s), Keyboard, Mouse
- Software and Apps
- File storage (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud, etc.)
- Collaborative Tools (Google Suite, Office 365, Office, Quip, etc.)
- Messaging Tools (Slack, Teams, Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc.)
- Video Conferencing Tools (Zoom, Skype, Hangouts, BlueJeans, Join.me, etc.)
- Project Management and Workflow Tools (Airtable, Trello, Jira, Clubhouse, etc.)
- Scheduling Apps (Calendly, etc.)
- Virtual Presentations and Audio & Video Production
- The World’s Simplest Setups
- Webcam vs. External Video Camera
- Camera Position
- Background and Costumes
- PowerPoint vs. PDF
- Bottom Line
If you are buying a computer to WFH, you need to connect it to the internet. This requires the best broadband connection you can afford (from your phone or cable company, or from another internet service provider). If there are lots of people in the house trying to WFH, consider 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps) service. If it’s just you, you can probably get away with 300 Mbps service.
The bigger the pipe, the easier and faster you can get stuff done. All the major carriers are offering 1 Gbps connectivity. You probably don’t need that much bandwidth. 300 Mbps will do nicely in most cases. Check your upstream capacity. Many services are asymmetrical. If you have a lot of files to upload every day, you’re going to want the fastest upload times you can afford. Back to Table of Contents.
The current spec is 802.11ac (aka WiFi 5). You’ll be fine with 802.11n (aka WiFi 4). Back to Table of Contents.
While you are ordering your new device, be sure that it has an Ethernet port; if it does not, order an Ethernet dongle. WiFi is great for goofing around. It’s wonderful for watching a movie on the couch or for playing a video game. If you need to do serious video conferencing or hardcore work with files in the cloud, connect your computer to the internet via old school Ethernet. Order an Ethernet cable (Cat6) while you’re at it.
- Cat5 isn’t fast enough.
- Cat 5e (up to 1 Gbps @ 100 Mhz) probably fast enough.
- Cat6 (up to 10 Gbps @ 250 Mhz) is best for the world we live in today.
- Cat 7 (up to 10 Gbps @ 600 Mhz) is what your IoT custom installer will use in your smart home.
- Cat 8 (up to 40 Gbps @ 2,000 Mhz) is worth it (but only if you know you need it).
VPNs (internet security)
You need your broadband connection to be secure. If your company does not use a VPN, that’s their problem. You need to use one. I’m a fan of encrypt.me, but there are dozens of others such as NordVPN, and CyberGhost. Ask your CTO or the IT peeps at your company first. If they don’t have a favorite solution, find one you like. A VPN is absolutely necessary (no matter where you are working from). Back to Table of Contents.
Random Access Memory (RAM)
The more RAM you have, the faster your computer will appear to work. The rule of thumb is 2GB per CPU core. (A six core i7 CPU would need a minimum of 12GB of RAM.) However… this is not a great rule of thumb. First, it’s not actually true, and second, it’s not actually true. Instead, get as much RAM as you can afford. Get 16GB minimum for current Windows and MacOS devices, and 32GB if you can afford it. In practice, RAM your device up to the hilt if possible. More is better. Back to Table of Contents.
Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
Your computer’s GPU is one of the two features of your computer that makes you think it’s “fast.” The better the GPU, the faster your screens will paint. Get the fastest GPU you can afford. Back to Table of Contents.
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
Intel i5, i7, i9… whatever. The higher the number, the more expensive. Unless you know exactly why you need a super-fast CPU, don’t worry about it. That said, in the world of video everything — while it is not necessary — an i9 will serve you best. Back to Table of Contents.
External Monitor(s), Keyboard, Mouse
Bigger is better. Higher resolution is better. Sadly, more expensive is better. If you’re buying a laptop for your WFH installation, consider a full-size monitor, full-size keyboard with keypad, and a mouse. You will need dongles. Beware HDMI monitors: check the resolution of your computer and decide if you will be able to live with its different screen resolutions. This is non-trivial. (Check. Please.) I had some old Apple monitors here in my loft, along with a Samsung TV we got from Costco about five years ago. It’s not as awesome as the rig I have in my office in NYC, but it’s working perfectly for me up here in Vermont. Back to Table of Contents.
In a perfect world, you will have a separate business phone with its own phone number. Voice is an app; calls are super inexpensive. A separate phone number is critical if you are going to turn it off at quitting time. Again, that’s what voicemail is for. For modern answering services that can combine forwarded landline calls and cell phone calls, I’m a fan of talkroute.com. It’s relatively inexpensive, and it gives you all kinds of flexibility routing voice calls. Back to Table of Contents.
File storage (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud, etc.)
Backing up your files is one of the most important routines you can practice. If you’re using a Mac, iCloud is the easiest. (It’s not the best, but it’s the easiest.) There are many great options for your backups/cloud storage; you can test out free tiers of Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc., then upgrade if you need more storage. I like having all my files from the past six months to a year on my computer, but they’re all also backed up in three or four places. Find the storage solution that works for you, and get into a habit of making sure you use it. Back to Table of Contents.
Collaborative Tools (Google Suite, Office 365, Office, Quip, etc.)
I don’t mean to pick on Microsoft, but Office is not a collaborative toolset. Neither is Office365 (although Microsoft claims it is). Google offers an industrial version of its G-Suite. That’s our go-to suite of apps. We routinely have three or four people working on a single document, slide deck, or spreadsheet. It is this collaborative online environment that enables us to be as productive as we are. While a toolset like this is critical for remote work, I would argue that a truly collaborative online workspace would increase the productivity of any team. Back to Table of Contents.
Messaging Tools (Slack, Teams, Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc.)
There are so many messaging tools, I don’t think I can list them all. Slack, Google Hangouts, Teams, FB Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber, Skype, Discord. Most of them have some combination of voice, text, and screen sharing. How many times has someone FaceTimed me while shooting their computer screen? Too many times to mention.
The danger with messaging apps is that they can be extremely interruptive when you are working remotely. We use very specific protocols for messaging in our organization. There are specific channels for specific things and a set of rules for each. Messaging is an artform and, depending on the culture of your organization, it can be either an enabling technology or the destroyer of worlds. And yes, sadly, email is still the killer app. Don’t get me started. Back to Table of Contents.
Video Conferencing Tools (Zoom, Skype, Hangouts, BlueJeans, Join.me, etc.)
Our team uses a combination of a few video conferencing tools on a regular basis. We often open a video chat in Slack or Google Hangouts and leave it open while they are problem solving. Once you learn to do this, it is significantly more productive than in-office meetings and work sessions. Find the solution that works best for you and your team.
Zoom is the highest-quality video chat and webinar software we’ve seen. It integrates nicely with PayPal and is reasonably priced for up to about 10,000 participants. Skype is good (though we’ve experienced inconsistent video quality on the platform lately), especially if you’re baked into the Microsoft ecosystem; Google Hangouts is a slight step up, and works well for those in the world of Google. Join.me is an old friend, like Webex. It’s just OK — but not for events bigger than 100 people – the interface is too clunky and the video quality is also only OK. We occasionally use it to share side decks in pitch meetings because we have a vanity URL.
One more for the road: WebinarJam, which we’ve used for several years. They just upgraded their system, but unfortunately, the video quality is still far behind that of Zoom. WebinarJam is OK for internal use and online educational courses, but because of its lower-quality video we don’t use it for big, public-facing online presentations. Back to Table of Contents.
Project Management and Workflow Tools (Airtable, Trello, Jira, Clubhouse, etc.)
Is your company still doing waterfall project management, or is it doing agile project management, or something in the middle? Yep, there’s an app for that. Clubhouse, Trello, Zoho, Basecamp – the list is practically endless. Then there are CRM and pipeline tools, Salesforce, HubSpot, Microsoft Dynamics, Monday, etc. This list is endless, too. Whatever you use, you need to dig in deeper when you work remotely. Back to Table of Contents.
Scheduling Apps (Calendly, etc.)
Is your admin less available than they were? Apps like Calendly will help you ease the loss. Take the time up front to set up your schedule how you want it — no calls during lunch hours, or when you want to step away to get in a quick yoga session for a mental health boost — and your efforts will be rewarded ten-fold. All you have to do is send a link to the person you’re scheduling with, and Calendly will help with the rest.
By the way… make sure you schedule phone calls as though they were meetings. You may already do this, but if you don’t, you should. When you work remotely, everything gets scheduled as if it were a meeting: phone calls, screen shares, live chats – everything. You already know how to use a calendar invite. Working remotely changes nothing with regard to calendar management. Back to Table of Contents.
The World’s Simplest Setups
Your smartphone is a video studio, and so is your laptop. Right out of the box. Go stand facing a window (during the day) and point your phone or your laptop at your face. Answer the video call and start conferencing. If you want to take it up a notch, wear wired earphones (that have a microphone, of course). Next level up: wear wireless earbuds. It doesn’t get simpler than this. It will work as long as you have broadband connectivity – which means it will basically always work. Back to Table of Contents.
Webcam vs. External Video Camera
The webcam in your laptop and your rear-facing smartphone camera have a relatively wide-angle lens. In general, these are low-resolution cameras (fuzzy-ish images). You will notice that your webcam doesn’t capture all the colors your smartphone camera captures (even with relatively good lighting). This is because webcams are built for low-resolution video chatting. If you’re just going to do a series of video chats and you have limited bandwidth at home, your webcam or smartphone rear-facing camera is probably well suited to the task.
However, if you want to look great, consider an external camera. If you have an old handheld video camera (Handicam) with an HDMI output in the closet, you’re in luck. You will also need a video capture device, a tripod, or some kind of shelf or clamp to get it right over your monitor.
Here’s my temporary rig in VT. It’s a Sony 4K PWX-X70 camera with an SDI output. Its output goes to the input of a Blackmagic Design UltraStudio Mini Recorder, which outputs (via Thunderbolt 2) to a Thunderbolt 3 to USB-C dongle, which outputs to my MacBook Pro.
The MacBook’s MacOS sees the Mini Recorder as a camera, so it becomes a selectable option for all audio and video software. Back to Table of Contents.
If you decide to use an external camera, you may have the option to use an external microphone as well. In my case (Sony PWX-X70) the camera can handle two professional microphones. The audio would then be incorporated into the camera’s SDI or HDMI output. I do not do this.
I use a separate audio system to give me additional flexibility. In my case, I use a CEntrance MixerFace R4 audio input device with various microphones for various purposes. I’m not recommending this for the “keep it simple” crowd. But it is required if you really want control of your audio.
For video – I use a wired Sennheiser lavalier (“lav,” or “lapel mic”) similar to the microphones I use on television. You can find them on Amazon or at B&H Photo. (You don’t need to spend a fortune on this; $40-$60 is fine.) Be sure (check twice) that your camera or audio input device or computer or smartphone is compatible with the microphone you purchase. This has everything to do with the connecting cables and the required power for the mic. There is a remarkable variety of microphones and potential connections, so just ask about the options. Then, ask again. Be sure that the mic you purchase will work with your setup.
For audio (podcasting) – I use an Electro-Voice RE20. There are many far less expensive choices. The only reason I’m bringing this up is that you will need an external audio interface only if you are going to use a variety of microphones. If you’re setting up a video conferencing studio for yourself, you can just use a lavalier mic with your video camera and call it a day. Back to Table of Contents.
Where you put the camera matters. If you are going to use your monitor as a teleprompter (with or without special software), you want the camera lens right at the top of your monitor. If you position the external camera lens right over your webcam, you’re probably good. Importantly, you will be looking up at the lens. That is exactly what you want to be doing. You will look better if you are looking slightly up (no one wants to look up your nose when you’re speaking to them on camera). Back to Table of Contents.
If your desk looks out the window, you already have the best lighting possible, especially on cloudy days or at sunrise or sunset (depending upon which way your window is facing). If not, my lighting hack is to mount a light in the accessory shoe on top of the video camera – just one pointing right at me.
There are a few good reasons for this. (Even if you share my hairstyle.) First, there will be no shadow visible to the camera. It will either fall on the floor or fall behind you (assuming you are not sitting too close to a wall). This is a giant plus. Second, your face will be illuminated to the point where people watching can actually see you.
If you are using a green screen, a single light source directly in front and slightly above you (right on top of the camera) is the quickest, most foolproof way (assuming that your shadow does fall on the floor and not on the green screen) to guarantee your software will be able to cut a usable key (properly separate you from the background so you can be superimposed on the virtual background of your choice).
If you have time, money, and space, consider a key light, fill light, and back light. Just Google this classic lighting technique. It is the “best practices” – but only if you have time, money, space, and quiet air conditioning! Don’t do this unless you really want to get into serious daily video production. It’s a money pit. Back to Table of Contents.
Background and Costumes
The aforementioned green screen is easy to purchase. You can even get some “Ultamatte Green” or “Chromakey Blue” paint and paint the wall behind you. It is not necessary. Do your best to create the illusion of depth. Try not to have columns or molding coming out of the top of your head. The illusion of depth goes for you, too. If you can wear layers, you will look way better than you will in just a t-shirt. Also, avoid pure white clothing or herringbone patterns. White flares and herringbone tears. Back to Table of Contents.
You’ve got three ways to go with headsets. Earbuds with a built-in microphone, an over-the-ear video game headset with a built-in microphone, or separate over-the-ear headphones with a separate microphone. This is a personal preference. The video game headsets with built-in mics are great for WFH webcam setups. They give you privacy and good audio and let you walk around the house. They come in USB or Bluetooth or 3.5mm jack versions. Just be sure that your computer or smartphone is compatible (cable-wise) with the headset you purchase. Back to Table of Contents.
PowerPoint vs. PDF
Many people will suggest that, for simplicity’s sake, you export your PowerPoint presentations to PDFs for online presentation. Simplicity is always a good idea. But if you like to animate your presentations, you are going to want to present the animated versions in your video conference. Here’s the reality: there’s a better than 50/50 chance that your animations will not play smoothly for your audience. Bandwidth is an issue right now (it may be for quite some time). Do yourself a favor: rebuild your presentations to use 40-point type and no more than three bullets per slide – that’s about what video conferencing software can handle. You can play videos through any video conferencing software, but your results will vary (greatly). Back to Table of Contents.
It’s vital to maintain normal (regular) business hours. If you are supposed to work from 9 to 5, then work from 9 to 5. Don’t start before 9 am, and don’t stop before 5 pm. Take the same breaks you’d take if you were in the office, including – and this is important – lunch! Regular hours increase productivity. I promise.
To take it one step further, if your workday ends at 5 pm, shut off your devices and walk away from your workspace. Otherwise, you are very likely to sit there forever. When you work remotely, you’re never late for work, but you can never leave the office, either. Force yourself to stop working. When your scheduled workday ends, it’s time to switch gears! Back to Table of Contents.
I have a morning ritual. I perform it ritualistically. I do it every day. It is a dynamic, evolving ritual that has adapted to my age and stage over the years. You need your own. Create one. Back to Table of Contents.
Rules & Boundaries
I cannot tell you how easy it is for your significant other to enter your workspace to just say “Hi.” This is the biggest productivity killer imaginable. Don’t let it happen. You will have scheduled breaks. That’s the perfect time to chat. Otherwise – just say no! Back to Table of Contents.
If you have kids, they’re likely “WFH,” just like you. We all understand that this is the “new normal” (for now, anyway), and the people you’re on calls and in meetings with will likely cut you some slack. That said, use the tools you have at you advantage to minimize distractions and interruptions. As mentioned above, establish a workspace, “normal” business hours, and do the best you can. Utilize the volume and video toggles for calls and meetings. They’re there to help you! Back to Table of Contents.
Do not let yourself be interrupted by your phone (that’s what voicemail is for), your messaging apps (unless it’s your boss or a work emergency), poorly scheduled meetings (we’ll go over that in a minute), the urge to walk into the kitchen, or the desire to organize your sock drawer in the middle of the day. Back to Table of Contents.
Virtual Office Actions
You’re not in the office, but you can act like you are. Figure out how you and your direct reports will communicate. Are you going to use email (heaven forbid) or a messenger app? Will you screenshare a few times a day? As mentioned above, our teams often open a video chat in Slack or Google Hangouts and leave it open while they are problem solving, making things significantly more productive than in-office meetings and work sessions because everyone is in their personal workspace and has 100 percent of their productivity tools at their disposal for the entire meeting. You just need to wrap your head around the idea that you are in two places at once. Back to Table of Contents.
Reports and Reporting
Your boss wants to know what you’re doing all day long. Awesome. Keep a log of what you are working on. Build a short report during the day that can be sent in the evening. You may already have tools that automatically generate these management reports, but if you don’t, then get in the habit of demonstrating your productivity. This has two benefits. One, your boss will love you. Two, you will be much more productive because you have a clear understanding of your own workflow and your output. Back to Table of Contents.
As mentioned above, make sure you schedule phone calls as though they were meetings. You may already do this, but if you don’t, you should. When you work remotely, everything gets scheduled as if it were a meeting: phone calls, screen shares, live chats – everything. You already know how to use a calendar invite. Working remotely changes nothing with regard to calendar management.
Also, schedule check-ins (via voice or messaging apps). People new to remote working often forget to network with their colleagues. Most of the communications tools that are commonly used are one-sided, meaning that they are optimized to connect to a specific thing and stay connected to it. It’s great that you interface with your team all day long. You need to “walk down the hall” and bump into someone you don’t work with on a day-to-day basis. Remote workers accomplish this by building tickler files to remind them to reach out to coworkers regularly. Seasoned pros automate this, you can too.
We hold all-hands and staff meetings using Google Hangouts or Zoom or BlueJeans. Smaller video meetings are held on Slack. Personally, I like Facebook’s Messenger for quick video chats. There are about a zillion ways to do this. Pick some tools and schedule and hold meetings as if you were working in the same office building. Back to Table of Contents.
If your experience is anything like mine, these past few days have been filled with feeble attempts to predict the future. How bad will it get? What is the impact of what has happened already? What is the worst-case scenario? Are we thinking broadly enough? It has been exhausting and, I would argue, counterproductive.
The thesis of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection is usually expressed as “survival of the fittest.” I’m pretty sure that’s not what Darwin meant, and it is clearly not the hypothesis behind the Theory of Evolution. In our world, all evidence points to a slightly different synopsis: “survival of the most adaptable.” Species that are most able to adapt to ever-changing external forces survive to pass on their genes, and that’s where we are today. We should be doing our best to adapt to ever-changing external forces.
How? I am reminded of my favorite line from the movie The Martian. Stranded astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) says, “So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” Back to Table of Contents.
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Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it. Our affiliate link disclosure is can be found here.