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Improve Your Work-at-Home Computer Setup

Lugging your laptop around for 8 hours a day may not be the best solution

spinner image Man sat on bed surrounded by computers
Find yourself a proper workspace instead of your bed. Your body will thank you.
Getty Images

Chances are good that you’re one of tens of millions of Americans who work from home or mix at-home and in-office work.

Nearly 13 percent of American workers now work completely from home while 30 percent are trendy “hybrids,” according to an October 2023 study from the Working From Home Research Project, also known as WFH Research and primarily financed by the University of Chicago. Even though the federal government declared the COVID-19 emergency officially over this year, the future of remote work continues to look promising.

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In addition to the full-time work, nearly 2 in 5 jobholders, about 60 million people, did some freelancing in 2022, generally remotely, according to San Francisco-based UpWork, which matches companies and freelancers online and surveyed nearly 3,000 professionals. Whether you work full time, part time or occasionally, you can improve your remote office setup.

Make your space count

Dedicate a space to work instead of lugging a laptop to the kitchen table or typing on an iPad while propped up in bed. Your back and neck will thank you

The best solution is your own area with a door that closes, which should help keep you free from everyday distractions. If that’s not possible, try to find a quiet, comfortable spot. And maybe invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

Atmosphere and good lighting are key. If you’ll be on camera during most meetings, place your computer in front of a window to brighten your face and avoid shadows during a video call.

spinner image a woman in a white shirt sits at a monitor talking to colleagues remotely
If you decide to buy a big monitor, a webcam separate from the one built into your laptop can help you put your best face forward in meetings.
Morsa Images/Getty Images

Get video, audio up to snuff

You can probably make do with the technology you have. Most basic applications — email, web browsing, word processing — don’t require a lot of computing power.

Webcam. If your laptop doesn’t have a built-in webcam, buy an inexpensive external one that plugs into an available USB port. Position it on top of your screen or monitor and disconnect it after every use to avoid unintentionally showing up on camera.

Another option for videoconferencing is to use your smartphone camera. Consider propping it up during long meetings. Lean it against a small stack of books, or if you have a vertical charging dock, even for another phone model, it also may hold your phone upright.

Microphone. If you do a lot of talking, a hands-free microphone headset is recommended for comfort and sound quality. Even better is a set of earbuds with a microphone that connects wirelessly or through Bluetooth to your device.

Test the setup before your first meeting to make sure you can hear and be heard. Most computers can sense when a new device is plugged in. If not:

  • For Windows 11, type Sound in the Search area of the taskbar, often found at the bottom middle of your screen, and choose Sound settings. Or tap the Windows key on your keyboard, the gear symbol ⚙️ for Windows Settings | System | Sound.
  • For Macs, find audio information under the Apple symbol | System Preferences | Sound.
  • For Chromebooks, click on the system tray, generally found in the lower right corner of the screen. You’ll see a small headphone icon that appears beside the volume slider when the system has multiple choices for output. Click on it for options.

Upgrade your computer

Should you need a new computer, you’ll have to decide whether you want a WindowsMac or Chrome operating system; a laptop or desktop; and the brand. Many employers provide equipment for you for security reasons.

If not, check about preferred equipment before you make a purchase. The software you need for work may dictate what operating system you require.

laptop is portable, so you can easily move it around your home. A desktop will need to sit on a surface large enough to accommodate a monitor and keyboard, which aren’t a huge investment. Over time, you can upgrade to a better video card or more storage.

spinner image a white and brown jack russell terrier holds a usb in his mouth
A USB-C hub, minus the tooth marks, is just the ticket to expand the number of ports so you can use more peripherals with your computer.
Mikhail Reshetnikov, Alamy Stock Photo

Add on to your laptop

Separate keyboard. If your tried-and-true laptop still does the trick, turn it into a full workstation easily by adding a more comfortable, stand-alone keyboard. Laptop keyboards tend to be small to fit the width of the screen. Freestanding keyboards can have larger keys and a numeric keypad and allow you to position them farther from the monitor.

Some keyboards have ergonomic styles that angle the keys for each hand or split the board in two. Wireless varieties hold a charge for long periods and cut down on a tangle of cords.

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Wireless mouse. You’ll find an external mouse easier to use than your laptop’s built-in trackpad. Some mice are wireless with a small tab called a dongle that plugs into your computer’s USB port. Wired mice are tethered to your computer’s USB port.

USB hub. Running out of USB ports? Buy a small hub that lets you plug several devices into one USB port on your computer. Think of it like a power strip for your laptop.

The key is to know whether your computer has a USB-A port, the older and larger port on the side or back of a laptop, or if you need a USB-C hub. That’s the smaller oval port on newer laptops, sometimes referred to as a Thunderbolt port.

Bigger monitor. Don’t squint into a 13- to 15-inch monitor. Add an external monitor to the laptop’s HDMI port or, on older PCs, the VGA port. If your laptop doesn’t have the right port to attach your new monitor’s cable, you may need an adapter, such as HDMI to USB-C.

Set up a dual monitor

Falling monitor prices have spurred business and home users to look at dual monitors, especially if you have the room on your desk.

Graphic designers, video editors and animators have long used two monitors, one for their “palette” and the other for their “canvas.” But others who used to spread papers across their desks like two monitors to accomplish the same thing digitally.

If you’ve never had two monitors, you can you swipe your mouse across one screen toward the second and the cursor will continue onto the second monitor after it reaches the edge of the first.

To do this, make sure your computer supports dual monitors, then hook up the second monitor. Also, to avoid having the new screen mirror your laptop screen, fine-tune your display settings:

  • On Windows, type Display in the search window of the system. Or hit the Windows key on your keyboard | Windows settings | System | Display.
  • Under Select and rearrange displays, drag each display to arrange them; click Apply. If your display is plugged in but not showing, click the Detect button to locate it. Then scroll down to Multiple displays | Extend these displays.
  • On Macs, click on the Apple logo | System Preferences | Displays | Arrangements if you don’t already see pictures of your screens. You’ll see images of your two screens. Click and drag them to the way they’re arranged on your desk. Make sure the Mirror Displays box is unchecked.
  • On Chromebooks, click on the time in the system tray at the bottom right of your screen | Settings | then the name of your external screen. Choose Extended Desktop and click and drag each monitor’s position until it suits you.
spinner image a man in a pink shirt in an office looks at spreadsheets
An ultrawide monitor lets you spread out your files without using two big screens.
Andriy Popov, Alamy Stock Photo

Other monitor options

Instead of two monitors, some folks opt for an ultrawide screen, almost like having two monitors in one, super-long screen.

You can replicate the idea at home by using a spare television as a second monitor, but it needs to be a 4K TV, meaning having a 4K resolution. If the TV is older, it might not render motion smoothly and can wreak havoc on your eyes

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Or you can use your tablet as an extension of your screen. Apps like Duet Display, starting at $3 a month, and Air Display ($14.99) can turn your iPad into a second monitor. A free tool called Splashtop Wired XDisplay for Windows and Macs works with Android devices. 

If your laptop or desktop has an HDMI port, you can connect it to a TV via an HDMI cable, which you can find at a dollar store. You’ll likely have to play around with the display settings to find what makes you most comfortable. 

spinner image a close-up of yellow ethernet connectors
If you want to speed up your internet, move closer to your router and connect your computer to the router with an ethernet cable.
B Christopher, Alamy Stock

Make Wi-Fi more efficient; be cybersafe

Strong, reliable Wi-Fi is a must. You might need to move closer to the router or install a mesh system to broaden the range of wireless internet in your home, especially for larger or older homes with masonry walls.

If you’re working near your router, a wired connection is ideal for better speed and reliability. For that, you’ll need to plug an Ethernet cable into your laptop or desktop.

If you don’t have a virtual private network (VPN) through your employer to remain anonymous from hackers and trackers, consider a subscription to a VPN service.

Be sure to run good virus protection to combat malicious software and never click on suspicious links or attachments in email. Your home setup may not be as secure as what’s at the office, so remember to take extra precautions.

When not video chatting, use a webcam lens cover, which also may be available at your dollar store. For a camera built flush to the screen, you can use a couple layers of tape to block the lens, but don’t leave it on forever. Old adhesive could leave a residue and ruin the lens.

Back it all up

Be proactive about backing up your important files regularly to minimize damage if you’re hit with a cyberattack, hard drive malfunction, power surge or other threat. It doesn’t matter where you want to back up your work — a free cloud service, external hard drive, USB thumb drive or your office network.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This especially applies to the important information on our computers. Keep a regular schedule to back up documents, home movies, irreplaceable photos, valuable correspondence and other communications.

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