Improving Your Work from Home Setup

For the new year after almost 9+ months of working from home (or WFH), this post is my retrospective on my setup and recommendations for others.

The Short Version

  • Get a fibre home internet connection with a good router.
  • Use a second computer for your video calls.
  • Use a wired headset with a boom microphone.
  • Work in a quiet and evenly well lit room.
  • Place your webcam at eye height, close to the call video display.

If you follow the above five rules you will have a good video conferencing experience.

The longer version follows, with a brief methodology looking at network, audio, video, lighting, then finally what I use.

Step One: Understanding your WFH requirements

In order to understand how you work, analyse your calendar to see how much time you spend on each productive task. In my case, it was 70% video conferencing and about 30% emails. Depending on what you identify here, you should adjust and optimise your setup for your productive time.

Step Two: Building a Productive Video Conference Setup

This guide assumes that you do not have the budget for a dedicated setup.  This article covers my personal experience with Google Meet, but works for most other video conferencing platforms.

Before you start: Establish a good methodology to adjust and improve your setup. You will be making changes and you need to measure what these changes do and whether they work or do not work for you. Some tips:

  • Find a good friendly contact to give you feedback on your setup (audio and video).
  • Understand what “good” is: In my case, I prioritise the following:
    • P1: Clear audio as a listener and for others in the call
    • P2: Clear video for others in the call
    • P3: Optimal video rendering of my face / torso for the call

For P3, google “flattering light photo portrait” for more ideas for lighting. This petapixel site gives you some good ideas of how lighting from a single source can make a huge impact on how you look.

Networking Considerations

Understand the conferencing platform and optimise your workstation and network. Video conferencing heavily taxes compute and network resources on the workstation, so start there.

  • Network recommendations: Your broadband provider may not provide you the best wifi router. Test your internet connection at fast.com using both wired ethernet and wifi. If your internet connection is faster on wired ethernet, then you need to upgrade your wifi router. Now slightly old, I have a Netgear Nighthawk R7800, but any router with MIMO channel bonding and/or separate 2.4 and 5 Ghz channels will do.
    • ISP related checks: If possible, check the route from your computer to the media servers. My traceroute (linux command mtr) will identify the latency and packet loss at each hop. Your ISP may be throttling your connection which may be the cause of your problems.
    • 4G / 5G mobile network: Mobile networks are now fast enough for good quality video calls. Use a mobile network router such as the Netgear Nighthawk M2 to augment your ADSL connection if required. External antennas can also address potential coverage problems. 
  • Compute recommendations: Monitor your CPU load during a call. If it is over 50% sustained, then you should upgrade your computer or offload the call onto a separate computer. I use my personal workstation, based on a Intel i5 6th gen mobile processor to handle my conference calls. Any old computer that is at least from circa 2013 onwards should suffice, especially if you use a lightweight operating system such as Linux.
    • This was a key learning at my employer (Google), where using a separate device to offload the video conferencing unlocked a lot of productivity.
  • NOTE: Linux specific recommendations that do not apply to everyone are at the bottom of my post.

Audio Considerations

Audio optimisations improve your experience listening and how you are heard for the listener. Equipment here is an important consideration.

  • Feedback is a gift: Have a friendly listener and ask if your audio quality is good. If it isn’t then you should make adjustments. Use the built in testing tools to verify that your microphone is being well heard, without being too compressed or distorted
  • Audio Equipment: In general, I prefer wired headphones as a listener. My current headset is a Plantronics RIG 400 gaming headset (now out of production).
    • Low-medium budget headphone: Any wired headphone with a boom microphone will suffice. Gaming headsets are a good choice.
    • Large budget headphone: Bluetooth headsets are a mixed bag, but I prefer listening to Apple Earpods, Jabra Evolve, Bose 700s (and not the QuietComforts).
    • Large budget phone conferencing: Jabra SPEAK USB conferencing speakers work well.
  • Room considerations: Quiet, dampened rooms are good for recording audio.
    • Quiet keyboards: Unless you have good noise cancellation, keyboard noise is an issue for participants. Consider a quieter membrane keyboard — my current choice is a Lenovo Thinkpad wired keyboard.
    • Quieter mechanical keyboard: I do like my clicky mechanical keyboard (a Razer Blackwidow Tournament) and my recommendation there is to use a keyboard silencer kit, with O-ring switch dampeners to reduce the sound generated. You can find them cheap on ebay with a keycap remover. They really do work!
    • Quiet room: Consider drapes, curtains, carpets, any sort of dampening material that can cut echos from walls and/or hard surfaces.
  • Studio-like setups: I considered this, but it takes significant budget (time and money) to implement. There are many posts from others setups, if you go down this route.

Video Considerations

Video improves the way your audience perceives you and helps you convey presence and empathy. 

Camera considerations

  • Video Crop: Choose to crop to your head and shoulders, or perhaps a broader shot for your entire work space if required. If you have more than 3-4 participants in your call, crop closer to see more of your face to have more presence.
    • Move the camera (and computer) closer to crop more, move away to crop less.
    • Select a camera with a wide angle lens to show more (e.g. Logitech c920) or a standard lens to show less (e.g. Logitech c525).
  • Video camera positioning: Put your camera as close to the axis of display of your video call so that you can address your audience directly. Off axis camera positioning means you will look like you are looking elsewhere. Put the camera and display at head height, if possible so it looks like you are facing your audience head on, without looking down or up, which can convey emotions differently.
    • Inbuilt cameras in laptops are more or less on-axis if you put the call on the laptop display.
    • External cameras should be placed as close as possible to the display.
    • A laptop stand will help you raise your laptop display and camera. It will also clear space on your desk. 
  • Facial positioning: Select either a 2/3rds view or head on, depending on which one you prefer
    • A 2/3rds view (with your head slightly turned) will give the impression you are not entirely engaging with your audience, but allows you to work at the same time you are on the call (and automatically tells people that you aren’t directly engaged as a participant, useful for mass calls). It also gives an impression of depth.
    • A heads on view is more engaging, however you cannot work at the same time (as your display is fully engaged with the call).
    • My preference: A bit of both – I position the camera in between my two displays. I have had feedback that I use the 2/3rds view too much, so I have made some adjustments to this: I enlarge the mirror view of my video and only use the right half of my workstation monitor to stay more focused on the video call.

Lighting considerations

  • Lighting is important: Video cameras need light to perform well and before changing your camera, upgrade your lighting setup.
    • Feedback: Look at yourself in a video to analyse the quality of your lighting. Look for shadows and highlights around your facial features and torso. 
      • Make adjustments to your lighting and look at the changes to your video. Turn on and off lights and watch how the shadows change. Auto-exposure on your webcam will also change results, so be aware of this.
      • Make adjustments to the subject: Turn your head to see how evenly the shadows distribute across your features. 
    • Understand lighting sources: Divide your lighting into top-down, fill lighting, and background lighting.
      • Top-down lighting: Lights attached to the ceiling or above you.
      • Fill lighting: Lights near the camera illuminating your face / torso
      • Background lighting: Lights that complete your background. Important to not throw the auto-exposure of your webcam to blow highlights
    • Draw your lighting setup to understand how direct and reflected light is handled. 
      • Direct light is harsh so use a diffuser, softbox (see below), or reflect it off a wall or ceiling to make it softer.
      • Reflected light is softer, but requires a larger amount of power to provide the same amount of light.
    • Consider foreground and background: Foreground being your face and torso, background being what you want to highlight behind you.
  • Quick lighting optimisations shortcuts: I like these cheap, quick, and easy hacks, if available to your workspace
    • Window light: The best cheap lighting available, on a cloudy day (like here in northern Europe), it is well diffused and indirect. In a sunny location (like Australia), this is perhaps not the case, and you may need a diffuser. Move your desk close to a window to see the difference.
    • Use your monitor as a fill-light: If you have enough white background or applications that are predominantly white, this will provide a significant light source itself (particularly at night).
    • Make your own softbox: With an old cardboard box, some foil, and a low voltage / cold running light you can create a cheap softbox that will produce very flattering light.

What works for me

Putting that all together — here’s what works for me. I work under a mezzanine, in a corner away from a window. My primary challenge is lighting.

  • Top-down lighting: provided by an mounted adjustable monitor light from Baseus
  • Fill lighting: provided by a softbox and a LED strip, both adjustable. The softbox has an integrated RGB ring light to adjust colour temperature. Additional fill lighting from the computer monitor.
  • Background lighting: provided by a LED strip.

The adjustability in the top-down and fill lighting allows me to compensate for any background lighting differences (as daylight changes).

I have built a physical set of audio and video mute buttons, which I built from a Pimoroni Keybow Mini. Github code here for a Google Meet configuration.

Equipment recommendations

  • Plantronics PLT RIG 400 Gaming headset (wired with boom microphone, and physical mute switch and volume control)
  • Logitech c920 Pro Full-HD webcam
  • Lighting: Baseus monitor light, Ikea LED light strip, aftermarket Gopro Session USB surround light (for softbox), Goalzero Luna USB light, Adafruit Neopixel Ring x16 WS2812 RGB light, Arduino MKR 1010 Wifi IOT microcontroller (to wirelessly control those USB lights)
  • Video conferencing physical controls: Pimoroni Keybow Mini.
  • Jabra SPEAK 510 USB speakerphone (optional, not used very often)

Linux specific recommendations

  • If you have an older computer, use a lightweight distribution. Crunch Bang Plus Plus is a Debian based lightweight distro which I like. Low on RAM and video requirements, it runs well on any Intel Core based computer since 2009.
  • Scheduler optimisations: Adjust your kernel timeslice to optimise for throughput or reactivity. For my relatively old laptop, I set mine at 50ms.
    • sudo sysctl kernel.sched_rr_timeslice_ms=50
  • Control multiple sound cards: With multiple sound devices, you may have problems with alsamixer, so I now use pavucontrol. This gives you fine grained application by application control.