How to work from home during the coronavirus: Pro tips from PCWorld's editors

Maximize productivity with the right hardware and work habits, and don't freak out. We're in this together.

Every day more and more Americans are being asked to work from home, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. We can’t tell you where to buy hand sanitizer or toilet paper, but we can give you all the tech tips we’ve learned from years of working from home ourselves.

Sure, nailing down the tech is a large part of it. But we realize, too, that there’s a “softer” side: what hours you keep, how to stay in contact with coworkers and friends, and even what to wear. 

Define your workspace

First things first: As we’re learning, there’s no “normal” with the coronavirus. But that also applies to where you live. “Home workers” now include apartment dwellers, Millennials who share a house, Midwesterners with basements, suburbanites in McMansions, and more. You’ll have to figure out what works for you, within your own unique environment. Still, some rules apply to just about everyone.

Establish a workspace. Our first tip is to claim a physical working space. Maybe it’s a corner of your dining room table. Or the breakfast nook. Or a small desk you picked up at a thrift store. 

Make sure you and anyone else stuck at home knows that when you’re seated at your workspace, you’re on call and can’t be bothered. Likewise, don’t feel compelled to “visit your office” after hours. Defining separate spaces for work and play may seem silly, but it can make a big psychological difference.

WFH home office San Sharma / Flickr

Even the smallest nook can be made into a home office in a pinch.

Whatever you do, don’t swap a crowded office for a crowded coffee shop. (Coronavirus can’t tell the difference!)

Ergonomics is essential. We’re not going to dive too deep into the subtleties of computer chairs. But use some basic guidelines when establishing a workspace, such as what the Mayo Clinic recommends: Keep your monitor at eye height, and your desk at arm’s length. Don’t work on your couch! It’s going to strain your neck and back, and may tempt you to nod off. Get up and walk around periodically, to refresh your mind and body.

wfh mayo clinic ergonomics MayoClinic.org

Sites like the Mayo Clinic can offer good tips about how to organize your workspace to minimize the impact on your health. 

Which PC is right for you?

If you already have a work laptop that’s been assigned to you and you were allowed to take it home, this question is moot. Otherwise, consider these factors as you select a PC for working from home.

First, we recommend a laptop over a desktop. We know we just told you to pick a dedicated workspace; nevertheless, for most people, it’s more convenient (and space-efficient) to use a laptop. Who knows, you may need to move from the dining room to the living room—or to a quarantine facility.

You can find many good choices among the best laptops we’ve reviewed, or check out one of the cheap laptops from Amazon and Best Buy that we think are good deals.

While weight and battery life matter in any laptop, homebound workers don’t have to worry as much about those factors. You’ll be plugged in most or all of the time, and you’re not taking it to a nearby cafe—right?!

If you have space, a great wireless keyboard can offset a laptop whose typing experience is subpar—keys that are too small, or travel that’s short or clackety. This is mostly an issue with thinner or cheaper laptops. Business or workhorse laptops, and thicker laptops, tend to offer better keyboards for prolonged typing.

Logitech G Pro X Keyboard IDG / Hayden Dingman

If you’re working from home, all alone, there’s no one to complain about you using a big, noisy, mechanical keyboard. Pound away!

Note that laptop fan noise, which may melt into the background in an office environment, could be more noticeable in a quiet home office. There’s no easy way to recommend quieter laptops, as the fans are tuned by the vendor; however, if you need a whisper-quiet workplace, look for a fanless laptop (usually a thin-and-light laptop, perhaps with an Intel ‘Y’-class processor), or if nothing else, avoid gaming laptops, whose high-end CPUs and discrete GPUs tend to keep the fans busy. 

Most modern laptops have at least one USB-C port, and if it’s Thunderbolt, congratulations!—you can connect your laptop directly to a Thunderbolt-compatible external display. But maybe your display is an older model with HDMI, DVI, or even VGA connections. Maybe your laptop has just one USB-C port and none of those older ports. For any of these reasons, you’ll probably want a USB-C hub, which gives you more connectivity options. It adds to your desk clutter, though.

thunderbolt 3 intel v2 Intel

Thunderbolt ports and devices offer greater throughput. That’s most significant for docks connecting to multiple monitors or high-resolution displays.

Could you use a Chromebook? I worked for over a year on one, and I was tripped up only when it came to certain pieces of software, such as my workplace’s PC-only VPN software, or some app that requires a full-fledged Windows PC. (Our Chromebook vs. PC explainer can walk you through some other considerations.) The same goes for an ARM-based PC like the Samsung Galaxy Book S, which has some compatibility issues with 64-bit apps. You might want to check with your IT department if you’re interested in either species of laptop.

More monitors means more productivity

At your office, you’ve probably figured out that more screen space means greater productivity, as you can work among multiple applications and keep an eye on emai. Here’s how to accommodate different display scenarios:

Logitech MX Master 2S Logitech Flow Craft Mark Hachman / IDG

Older laptops and laptops can serve as secondary displays without taking up that much room.

Mobile first requires mobile displays. If you’re using a shared space like a kitchen table, you might think you’re stuck with your laptop’s display. You’re not. Here are three easy solutions to expand your screen space:

  • Any old 1080p flat-panel display can be pressed into service, assuming you have the right port on your laptop or hub. You’ll need to stow it somewhere, though. And that monitor could even be a TV!
  • A USB-powered portable monitor like the $175 Asus MB169B+ can live alongside your laptop without the need for a power plug.  Cheaper options under $100 are available, though their lower 768p resolution may be rough on your eyes. They can be folded and tucked away on top of your laptop when not in use.
  • A spare laptop can be used as a secondary display, using the Windows 10 “Project to this PC” function. Go to the Windows 10 Settings > System > Projecting to this PC setting on your older laptop, allow it to be used as a secondary display, then Project to it (Win + P) on your primary laptop. The pricey Logitech Flow-enabled hardware does the same thing, or you can be sneaky and do it for free with Microsoft’s own Mouse without Borders app

Desks are best. If you have a dedicated office or bedroom, hurray! You should have space to spread out and maximize your productivity. Our multi-monitor guide will help you get started, and is especially helpful if you have a desktop PC. Some things to think about in this scenario:

  • Invest in a couple of inexpensive 1080p displays. High-refresh-rate displays such as this $150 144Hz 23.6-inch Asus display may be aimed at gamers, but they mean less eye strain for anyone. Whatever you use, make sure the refresh rate is set at or above 60Hz.
  • USB-C hubs with two HDMI connections for dual monitors are hard to find, but worth the hunt. The problem is that it’s very rare to find a dual-HDMI 4K hub that outputs at 60Hz on both connectors...like this one. Otherwise, you can use dual 1080p HDMI displays with this hub, or something similar. Hate bezels? Asus has a Bezel-free kit for that.
  • Go vertical. No, we’re not talking about VESA mounts to suspend a monitor from a stand, though that’s an option. We’re talking about buying a monitor that swivels into portrait mode, saving horizontaldesk space.
  • An ultrawide curved monitor, which gives you the feel of a secondary monitor with just a single stand. Analyst Paul Teich wrote a love note about his. His colleague, Pat Moorhead, also shares his own WFH tips
  • I prefer a high-resolution (though more expensive) 4K screen, as it’s easier on my eyes than a 1080p display, especially as a primary monitor. Just make sure that it’s 60Hz capable (most are) and ensure that your laptop can output to a secondary 4K screen at 60Hz. A 30Hz display will fatigue your eyes over time.
wfh multiple monitor vertical Mark Hachman / IDG

A candid shot of my home setup. I use a nice rolltop desk that offers tons of cubbies for storing cords and USB keys, but limits me in terms of horizontal space. I test laptops on the desk’s keyboard drawer, with two monitors behind it. Note that both displays can be rotated into portrait mode. A dock hides behind the laptop. Yes, I have cable management issues. 

The single-display scenario. If you’re stuck on a single display (desktop or laptop) don’t despair. Windows 10’s Task View allows you to switch between several different “screens,” or desktops, simply by swiping them back and forth. Here’s how to use Task View effectively

In this case, a stand that elevates your laptop to a comfortable display height may improve your productivity. Examples include this fixed Lamicall stand or this adjustable-height model. Of course, once your laptop is higher, you’ll need to connect a separate keyboard and mouse.

You needn’t work alone if you have a webcam! Keep reading to find out how.

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Coworking via webcam...or not

Social introverts like me enjoy chatting and interviewing, then retreating to the silence of their offices to digest and analyze. Extroverts get anxious when they’re not interacting with others. Slack, Teams, and other apps help both personality types.

You should always have at least one open line of communication, whether it be something as basic as email or chat. Keep a private chat window open with a coworker, or have a group Skype video call open to avoid feeling lonely. And when you’re not speaking, mute your line!

skype screen blur me Michael Simon / IDG

Using screen blurring or even an AI-generated background can put the focus on you... for better or worse.

Know your boundaries, and your technology. A good webcam, mounted at eye level, offers a feeling of intimacy and collaboration. Some laptops offer physical shutters to ensure no one’s looking—or you can tape over the camera for privacy. Your laptop may offer a button to turn off your mic, or use the Settings > Privacy > Microphone control to toggle it off. Remember, apps like Microsoft Teams use AI to blur or obscure what’s behind you in the background—take advantage of it!

Do you need a professional-quality mic or additional lighting to look sharp? If you’re dealing with clients, possibly. You’re still representing your company, and yourself.

Bringing the tech lifestyle home

Working at home requires discipline, even in the best of times. Here are some tips we use ourselves:

Establish work hours. You’ve ditched the commute. But “transitioning” from home to work may be worth a few minutes’ walk outside to clear your head. Likewise, don’t feel compelled to work 24/7 just because your office is in your home.

Working from home can give you flexibility, too: Some PCWorld staffers start early or leave late, and others juggle childcare that may gobble up chunks of time in the middle of the day. 

comcast xfinity data plan wfh coronavirus Mark Hachman / IDG

If you’re working from home on a prolonged basis, pay attention to how your work affects your monthly data cap, if you have one. You don’t want to exceed it and risk additional charges. 

Get comfortable, but not too comfortable. Some coworkers prefer “dressing up” in work clothes. Others prefer casual jeans and a T-shirt. Remember, you might need to jump on a conference call at any time. Oh, and wear pants.

Know where your coworkers are. PCWorld staffers use Slack to stay in touch from wherever we are. Just make sure your coworkers know where you are and whether you’re available. Chime in from time to time, so they know you’re engaged and participating.

Pay attention to your data cap. PCWorld has staffers living in rural areas, using basic broadband. But some of us have data caps. If you’re working from home, all the bandwidth for video calls, streaming, and downloads will now be coming from your home allowance. AT&T has said it will waive data caps for the time being, but other carriers have yet to follow suit. 

Other handy tips

Here are some other things to think about as you work from home:

Expense it. COVID-19 has dramatically altered the way companies look at work-from-home policies. If you need a piece of equipment to do your job, consider asking your employer to pay for it. It’s the price of doing business. And if you do end up buying something, save your receipts! Maybe you can get a tax break.

Keep up with the news, but not all day. The overwhelming flood of cancelled events, stock market crashes, and other coronavirus calamities could distract you from the task at hand. Check for updates once or twice, then get back to your job. 

Find comfort. If you’re stuck at home, use your extra time to read, study, cook, clean, play games, or whatever makes you happy. Discord servers offer a way to chat with friends about your own personal interests outside of work. You can still be as social as you’d like! Just not in person, for right now.