So I just landed in Colorado, and while working from my laptop on a TV tray worked in a pinch, getting a home office set up quickly and cheaply has been a top priority of mine. I’ve come up with some tips that have helped me now and in the past when it comes to making a functional workspace at home.
You won’t find suggestions for desks and chairs in this list, not only because there are so many options out there, but also everyone’s work area and preferences will be different. My suggestion for getting a desk or other office peripherals would be to check local college or university property dispositions. I’ve had great luck in getting office chairs, filing cabinets, and even old computers for a very cheap price.
So moving forward, if you’ve got at least a basic desk, (a fold out table works too) below is a list that can help make your workspace more comfortable and more efficient, while not needing deep pockets.
Desk placement: If you’re lucky enough to have a room all to yourself for an office, consider where the windows are. You don’t want glare to get all over your screen, (I’m looking at you, glossy MacBook Pros!) so consider placing your work area on the same wall or adjacent to windows.
Subtracting light: If the above isn’t an option, know that basic blinds won’t be enough. The no-cost option is to take some sheets or other linens you have lying around and use it to cover the window. If you have just a little bit in your budget though, consider blackout roller shades, which are about $20 at IKEA. These will help darken your room when you want them to, so you can feel like you have your own personal Batcave during the day. Bonus tip: get shades that are a touch wider than you need, and use them as a makeshift backdrop for quick and dirty headshots. You can find white, grey, black, etc. I've needed to take simple headshots for people on several occasions, and having this in place would be one way to multipurpose what you buy.
Adding light: You might need to have a lamp or some other source of artificial light. Consider a flea market, resale store, or maybe even a local yard sale to find some low cost lighting fixtures. Soft, daylight balanced bulbs would be my suggestion. Floor lamps work great, and remember you can always bounce harsh sources off the ceiling or wall to spread and soften their light.
ON YOUR DESK
You’ve seen an image like this before right?
Desk ergonomics: This is from the website Ergotron, and it has an online tool that will help you build a comfortable workstation. If you’re working on a basic table, chances are the monitor is much lower than what it should be at. Use those thick Photoshop or After Effects books to raise it up to eye level. You could use a phonebook too, but if you use software guides, people will think you’ve actually read them! If you have just a laptop, try raising the laptop on books while plugging in an old keyboard and mouse to type on at the normal table height.
Smartphone stand: There are many different tricks for setting up a no-cost smart phone stand, but since I'm a video guy, my favorite is to use an old miniDV tape box.
Keeping your laptop mobile: Laptop docking stations are a great way to keep your desk free of clutter and make use of a full keyboard, mouse, monitors, and more. These can get expensive, but with some cable management and creativity, you might not need one!
By using a simple USB hub, you can route all of your USB peripherals (printer, card reader, mouse, keyboard, rocket launcher) to one place, and then send just one line to your laptop. This makes it convenient to grab and go, and eliminates a mess of cords on the side of your laptop. USB hubs are cheap, less than $5 on B&H.
To manage your power cable, speakers, and other cords, use the binder clip method. Super cheap and works great.
Multiple monitors: If you’ve got an external monitor or two, you should definitely set them up. Doing a single monitor can be done for pretty cheap, but powering two external monitors (for a total of three independent displays) usually requires some money. For the former, all you might need is a cable adapter. I’d suggest checking out Monoprice for some cheap adapters. For my MacBook Pro, I got a Thunderbolt to DVI adapter for about $14 shipped. If you want to power two external displays, something like the Matrox DualHead2Go would work well. Matrox makes several different items for this, so follow their guide to see what would work best for you.
Move your printer off your desk. While you’re making a Monoprice order, grab a long USB cable. Get that printer off your desk and put it somewhere out of the way.
Work space: This will be your home office, and having worked from home for a number of years, I've found that it is important to keep the area comfortable, but keep it separate from the rest of your home. Being at home comes with many distractions, so having a door or some kind of barrier is helpful. Be careful to not associate your home with your work too much, because you need to walk away from time to time and think about other things. It's a tricky balance, but try not to let work stresses spill into your personal life and affect you and your family.
Some great advice from our own Zach Sutton suggested actually using a time clock to track your time spent working. His article demonstrates how having one can keep you in check and on task so you put in as much work as you need to. Since you'll be working a solid day, don't forget to use old mouse pads as coasters for your beer or coffee.
These are just some recommendations to get started. Once you’ve got a working setup going, consider adding creative touches to keep your juices running on those long days. This could be anything from hanging photos, to growing plants, or even installing business hammocks. Don’t underestimate the need to spend some time to creatively touch up your new space. Feel free to share your own input and photos of your workspace in the comments.