Change Can Be Good…

….Or, how I spent time during the pandemic figuring out my home office….

Disclaimer: I may mention products, but this wasn’t/isn’t sponsored. Nowhere near that kinda traffic! If you want to know the exact item, let me know I can share a link to it.

It is a safe bet that anyone who reads this is, or was, working from home thanks in large part to the stay-at-home plans that were put in place thanks to the COVID pandemic.

For me, that started in March of 2020 (this is going live in the fall of 2020, but who knows when you actually found this..).

Now, as someone in IT, I’ve almost always been able to enjoy some measure of WFH. From my first job out of college, where I actually was the lucky one who got to deploy our VPNs and RSA setup, up till now…there’s always been that benefit. Of course, that is usually a perk of working whenever the phone rings, or handling cutovers at all hours of the day and night. But I digress…

So, in early March, we were told to stay home. For me, that meant I’d be spending a lot more time in a home office area that worked…but had only previously worked in small doses.

Some background: I live in New York City (Staten Island, officially). We live in a multi-family dwelling, not an uncommon thing here. There are 9 of us plus a dog under one roof. Three floors. Out of that space, I have 2475 square inches, approximately, for my home office area.

In fairness, I am in the basement apartment, which is also our bedroom. So, I am in a corner of the bedroom. I have space to walk around and stretch, and I have storage around the apartment for tools and test devices and whatnot. But that square inch measurement is where I sit/stand/have my desk. It may not be much, but it is mine and I like it (doesn’t mean I don’t envy you out there with larger home offices….but I like what I have).

So, now that the table is set…

Back in like, 2010, I worked as a project manager for Morgan Stanley. At MS, the policy was we work from home regularly. While I’d been WFH a day or two sporadically anywhere I’d been, this was my first gig where several days a week was basically mandated. Up until then, my home office desk had been a folding table or the kitchen table. As the kids were getting bigger and my work requirements more consistent, I needed a desk again.

So, back then, I didn’t bother to do much research. I honestly barely remember measuring my area…we just went to IKEA and picked out a desk. It was a Micke, a corner desk, because of where I’d be getting situated. My area, you see, is between my armoire and a tiled/finished ceiling support beam. It’s a finite space for the most part…I’ve maybe nudged the surrounding furniture an inch or two to get some wiggle room…but not much.

My old desk…pardon the mess…..

The desk was fine, It gave me a permanent space and life was good. My chair was a hand-me-down, it worked, I didn’t care. I did eventually “splurge” on a couple budget Asus monitors, because we got MS to get us dual monitors in the office, as it helped us juggle multiple site cutovers at once. It was, I’d say, a very budget minded, no frills desk.

It stayed that way for a long time.

Over the years, the computers have changed. I replaced the monitors with a single bigger Dell screen, but as I did that a few years ago, I wished for something different. That was when the ultra-wide monitors were coming out. We had just gotten some at work, 34 inches of curved goodness…but I knew my current desk was maxed out, so I was good with what I had. Plus, I was maybe working from home a day a week if I was lucky…hard to justify the funds for something I’d only use a few days a month.

Here’s when I also mention, while it’s my home office, because it is where it is, I only use it Monday-Friday from 8am to 8pm, give or take. I don’t tend to work down here on weekends unless I absolutely need to…and when I work at night, it’s a kitchen table spot with just the laptop. It’s fine.

All this time, I was also debating a new chair. Remember, even back in 2010, my chair had been 2nd or 3rd hand. Handed down, given away, and I couldn’t tell you the provenance of it if my life depended on it. The pneumatics were long since shot, and with most of my time on it being when I was too north of 300 pounds, I did it no favors. I had looked from time to time, but there weren’t many nice and budget minded chairs for a fat guy, so I always gave up.

Now that the history is out there and no one wanted it…let’s get back to March.

Told we were staying home, and now I am down to a healthier weight, I figure I will allow myself to get a new chair. A modest expenditure, but I figure if we are home for a few weeks or maybe a month or two, my rear will thank me. I found a few in a decent price range, but then the corner desk bit me. It had a rather narrow opening for me and the chair, and of course the ones I finally liked…were just too big. I did eventually settle on one from Target, and beyond remembering where I got it from…that’s all I could tell you. It works, and it’s here.

Beyond the chair, I added a monitor stand under my existing monitor, and some LED lights to improve things-bias lighting because why not, and swapped an old bulb for an LED one in a lamp I was fond of. Otherwise, I was focused on cleaning up stuff…because having had the desk for a decade, I had a lot of stuff that had been sitting around, but that I no longer needed.

Then the summer rolled around, and a few things changed my thinking.

For one thing, by the time we were hitting summer, we all knew we weren’t going back to the office any time soon. What began as a few weeks was stretching off into a lot longer. For another…I got to take part in the virtual Mobility Field Day 5. As I prepped for that event, I knew I needed to clean up my area to be presentable…something it needed to be for other stuff, but not to the level I needed for MFD5. So, I searched and asked…and found a ton of desk/office videos on YouTube. Seriously, that’s a rabbit hole I never expected to get sucked into…you’ve been warned!

So, for MFD, I opted to move my stuff to a different area, for one big reason: my background. If I used my desk as it was, there was a lot going on in my background. There’s the bed, the closet, other furniture and stuff, and a door to our back yard. In the summer, that means traffic to and from the pool. Things and people I didn’t want on camera for anything. So, I set up in our kitchen area and set up a muslin backdrop, hung off of some cabinets. Also ended up making a blackout blind, since the natural light coming in directly behind me was too much. MacGuyver for the win!

With MFD over, I was motivated. I wanted to up my office setup so that I didn’t have to move around if I didn’t want to. And to do that…I knew I had to finally retire my old corner desk. What actually did it in for me, as in the true last straw? I mean, I missed standing (we had standing desks at work for a couple years now), but it was my desk surface area. I measured my actual usable area of the corner desk, versus say, just a flat desktop. The way my corner desk was, once I had my laptop, keyboard and mouse, I had trouble finding a spot for the iPad or a notebook. Forget any testing devices (I had actually gotten a TV tray for that…yikes).

So, I did what I do now…I research and analyze and debate. But I honed in on a standing desk early on. My main issue? That space I was dealing with. I had a very specific set of dimensions to work within, and some desks that I loved were just too big. I needed something that was 42 wide by 24 deep. In fairness, I could have done a 30 inch depth, but then there’s zero room for my chair at all.

So…..

Maybe there are now, or were even then, other desks that fit that size without requiring a custom (read: $$$) order. I didn’t find them…but I did find one from Uplift Desk. Downside was, long lead times, because apparently if it’s home office related (desks, chairs, webcams, microphones and such), everyone is buying them.

So after weeks of back and forth, I figured out a way to swing it. I placed my order in early August, with an expected ship date of early November. Not great, but it was a timeframe I could work with, because I still had plenty of cleaning up to do…plus I was finishing off a home network re-do, before the kids were back in school (fully remote for 4 kids meant no outages during the weekdays anymore).

What did I get? Well, the standard frame, plus the 42 inch wide, 24 inch deep walnut looking laminate. For my two grommets, I went with a wire management and a cup holder option. I added one of their 2 monitor arms, along with their drawer. I also added an acoustic back panel, mostly to make sure my stuff stayed on the desk. I also added the magnetic cable guide and a cable management tray.

When I bought, the desk came with some “free” stuff too. I got a wire management/modesty panel. There was also an LED lamp…but that was donated to my daughter.

here’s the old desk, getting taken apart. that’s the jist of my 2400 square inches..

So, yes, it’s not even November, which means they beat the estimated delivery. The desk has been here and set up for about a month, and considering how much I did to come to this, I figured I should share, for at least a couple reasons. Those being, most of the reviews I saw were for people with desks and spaces much more substantial than mine.  Knowing I have a small space and went with a small desk, this might give someone else something to consider, too.

And the new desk is in…furniture not back yet…

So, when I got this process moving, I did have a grand plan…and it ended up constantly shifting, as I expected. I figured once I got the desk here and put stuff on it, I’d get additional ideas…and I did.

So, the desk I already laid out. Of the things I got with it, I have some things to say about each…

  • That acoustic panel was pricy, but it works well for my needs. I have a dresser behind my desk, but when I am standing (which so far has been about 99% of the time), the dresser wouldn’t block my sound. The panel keeps the sound where it needs to be, plus it keeps my stuff on my desk…and not my stuff off my desk.
  • The plastic wire management tray? If you are like me, you probably have a decent surge protector. That won’t fit in the tray, not even close. I have my Anker USB power bank and a few other smaller power bricks sitting in there. Not useless, but not quite what I had hoped for.
  • That free wire management/modesty panel? Well, it was actually too small for my desk (perhaps why it was free…the proper size was supposed to hang off the clamps from the acoustic panel, thus negating drilling). I didn’t want to drill…so I got creative with cable ties.

It works OK, but I actually went from my APC surge protector with 3 rows, to an Amazon one with 2 (and a 2nd one). I don’t really love that setup, because the APC one had a couple USB outlets I did use…but the way the wire management hammock thing works, the 3 row APC unit was just too wide to close it.

Coming together, waiting for my Mac to be back…

I did organize the strips though. One Is a surge protector, so it’s got all the good stuff. The other is just a power strip, so that has my lights and clock and non-essential stuff.

  • The drawer…I like it, though I wish it was either taller or wider or both. That said, there’s an important caveat if you are replicating my setup…because of how deep the drawer is, I had to use hangers (supplied) to mount it, because otherwise it was hitting the brace on the back of the underside of the desk. At the time, I was kind of annoyed-the drawer wouldn’t be flush mounted.

Now, however? I like it, because it ended up providing me with an extra shelf, so I can leave some things there that I use often, but don’t need to be in a drawer or on the desk. Win!

  • That magnetic wire management bit?I think it was like 20 bucks…it’s only OK. I end up knocking mine loose more than I would like.
  • One thing that they do sell, but that I never considered until it was here? Casters. See, with how I was putting my desk, I could position it facing the dresser or the wall…but once it was in one spot, sans wheels, it wasn’t going anywhere. Uplift sells wheels for a few price points, but I didn’t like any enough to spend that much. Amazon had a set that fit well (and really well after I chopped some excess stem off), and now I have casters. Haven’t moved the desk since, but it’s nice knowing I could.
the wheels on the desk go round and round…

  • Monitor-wise, I liked my old Dell. It was fine, I had no need to replace it…I just wanted more real estate. I was not, however, going to buy a second of the same unit, because this one is already 3+ years old. I wanted a curved…what I really wanted was an ultrawide, USB-C, all in one, single cable solution…but most of those were either a-out of my budget or b-too big for my available space or c-all of the above. Plus, at times I do like the idea of having actually physically separate monitors. For now, at least.

So, I wound up finding a 27 inch Samsung curved from Walmart. Out the door, 200 bucks. Probably didn’t need the curve at that size, but I like it overall. Not 4k, but I don’t need it to be.

Still no Mac…old lamp…but all monitors are here now:)

I went that route because I figured if I wasn’t going to get an exact match for what I had, I had some freedom…I am OCD enough that I either needed exact matches lined up in symmetry…or not at all.

So, I have the curved set up as my main monitor, typical landscape orientation. That old Dell is now to my right in landscape, and I move back and forth as needed. One is the “work” focus, with the other usually having email, my reminders and things up to be seen at a glance…but I am quite certain this will change as I want it to.

  • I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time on lighting, because that was a big motivating factor back when I did MFD5. Plus on other calls, I always looked like I was in a dungeon (close enough, it’s a basement). I had 3 LED desk lamps, but that was too many, taking up too much space, and didn’t really help with the video quality. So, I did a few things…

First, I took my old IKEA lamp and I found a desk c-clamp on Amazon that it fit into. I went from a base that was I think about 6 or 8 inches in diameter, to something that was tucked behind a monitor and off to the side of my desk…more desk space!

Mac is back, IKEA lamp is in the back left, on it’s clamp, and my other LED clamped lamp is over the middle of the desk. Webcam between monitors, key light behind it but off at that time.

Second, I went in search of another lamp that would clamp on. I had 2 other lamps already, but neither could be converted. I gave them to the kids for school and reading, and picked up a 40 dollar gooseneck one from Amazon. (I had seen a couple in that range from IKEA, but when we went, they were all sold out). This lamp went on the other side of my desk, so I can use one, both or neither (because honestly, there are times with 2 monitors going that I really don’t need them).

Third, the video lighting…everyone and their brother’s former college roommate is pushing the Elgato key lights. I get it, they are nice…but they are also not cheap, and hard to find. Through some searching, via some suggestions on both YouTube and Reddit, I settled on a pair of LED light panels from Neewer. I have one mounted behind my webcam, to the top of my acoustic panel, with a 10 dollar clamp (also amazon). It works nicely, and while I’d bet I could set up the 2nd and really get things dialed in…I am happy with things as they are and don’t want to tinker too much more yet.

And yes, I did add LED bias lighting to the new monitor too…sometimes you just need to have some color!

  • My webcam is nothing special. Logitech c920 I believe, not 4k or anything super deluxe…but as Eddie told me, fix the lighting and even a so-so webcam will look a lot better.

What I did do with this one, however, was I spent some time futzing around with how to mount it. I tried clamping it with an extension tube, either off my back panel or even off one of my monitor arms…but hated it’s lack of adjustability. If I nudged it the wrong way, it was toast. So I went and found another item that clamps to the desk! A gooseneck one too…also Amazon. Only minor note with this one is that the thing is incredibly stiff…maybe too stiff. Downside is, it takes a lot to adjust it…but it does not budge.

  • My mic is also nothing special, and it was existing. I believe the arm and filter are Knox, and the mic itself is the 50-ish dollar Blue snowball. Boom arm clips to the side of the desk, and I have it sitting behind my one monitor. I can move it to the front when I need to, though I’ve had several calls where I left it hiding behind the monitor (forgot to move it) and it was doing fine as it was…so that was a nice thing to find out. I do intend to upgrade both the arm and mic very soon,  but that was a want, not a need.
  • For my computer, work has given me a MacBook. I got one of those stands so it’s tucked away to the side. Both of my monitors are not USB-C. One connects to a USB-C dock I have, the other connects via a DP-to-USB-C cable. That was partly because the dock couldn’t support extended monitors both through the dock, and partly because if I ever want to use my personal machine too…or let one of my kids use my desk, it offers some flexibility without massively reconfiguring things.
  • For storage, since you can see the old desk had a couple file drawers and shelves that the new one does not…well, at first I wanted to add another IKEA file cabinet. Once I got things here, I realized that I wasn’t going to fit a second file cabinet…so there wasn’t much point in getting one. I did clean out the one I had, however…basically went through and if I hadn’t used it in a while, I moved it to long term storage, recycling or trash. Got myself a couple free drawers too. Also added a cheap IKEA rolling cart thing, we got these for the kids for their school supplies, and I liked it. It fits in the space I do have, and it rolls away easily.
  • One random thing? I got magnetic hooks. Seems like an odd thing to mention, but for less than ten bucks I got a bunch of these, and it’s been useful. I wanted a stand for my headset, but somehow or other stumbled upon these (yes, amazon). I have them on both sides of my desk, on the braces. They are big enough to hold the headset, or some miscellaneous cables, or plenty of other things. Cheap and easy.
  • Last but not least…the backdrop. Now, remember one of my big issues with how my old desk was situated was what you could see in the background. With my new desk, it’s in the same corner…but it’s not a corner desk. Now, my back is against my armoire. In a pinch, I can open up my armoire door and it serves as a really cheesy background. I had tried a backdrop stand, but the bases were too big and I wasn’t happy with it. I previously had tried a cheap curtain rod…but it was 3 dollars, so it was bad and is now trash. But, I realized that I just needed a way to hang a backdrop off the top of my armoire, and extend a bit further out than my door goes…and in doing so, you’d ONLY see my backdrop. No bed, no kids, no rest of the basement. So, I got a faux wood backdrop (the green screen is still around, but this looks better). I got an L bracket and a 48 inch long metal bar, and am fashioning a backdrop support. The idea is, the backdrop will slip onto the bar, and the end of the bar has the L bracket. I can put the L bracket between the back of the armoire and my wall, and it looks pretty nice (I am biased, but check some pictures out if you wish). It may not win any prizes, but it’s a 15 dollar fix for what I had considered spending a lot more on. When done, I roll up the backdrop and stash it away. Not something I need every day, but not hard to set up either (in a pinch, there’s always the door trick!).
Side view of the re-done space, with the MacGuyver v.1 backdrop. This was done in a pinch to tinker, and for a call. Version 2 is in progress.

So, that’s basically my long-winded explanation of how I got here. Of course, I have a few personal effects (but a lot less than I ever did before). I have a wireless 3 in 1 charger for my watch/phone/airpods, to keep cords down to a minimum on the desktop. I added a nice faux leather large desk mat, to replace some old XL mouse pads. There are a pair of cheap Creative speakers too, for when I don’t want to wear my headphones.

I am still growing into the space, in part because I’ve had some family stuff going on, so I haven’t always been at the desk for like a true 8 hour day. I still have some cleanup and organization I am working through. It’s the little fine tuning that any setup goes through.

One other minor thing that did precede this all: I had to do a network closet makeover for myself. I mentioned it earlier, but it was a must. I had my old Netgear router on top of my old desk, along with my test AP and my Ubiquiti gear. It took up space, which I needed more of. I went and got some ClosetMaid shelving (the wire ones) and put two shelves in a closet, which is just on the other side of the wall next to my desk. I have a 3 port wall plate that feeds my desk, and the rest of the networking goes up through a couple pulls in that closet, to the garage and points north.

It’s little. It’s not pristine…but it’s mine and I enjoy it. I like working from this setup more than my old desk, and really don’t know that I’d say I regret much about the change…other than I wish I had done it sooner.

So, yep..lots of words. I can see why folks do videos instead of a blog!


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