Work-from-home necessities for optimum efficiency

New to telecommuting or an old pro looking to take things to the next level? Here are an IT pro's favorite tools for making working from home a little easier.

Most of my working life has been mobile, whether on airplanes, a "hoteling" space or conference room at one of my firm's offices, or anything from a luxurious enclosed office space to a dark corner of a warehouse at a client site. In between all that moving around, I'd spend time in my home office, which like most of us recently went from an occasional treat to business as usual. I've tweaked my home office setup to something that works well for me and wanted to share a few of my tools that extend beyond the usual recommendations.

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USB docking station

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Image: Amazon

For years we've been promised "one cable to rule them all," and it seems we're slowly getting there with USB-C, a single cable that can provide video, power, and USB connectivity to a variety of devices. Like most technologies, the promises were several months ahead of reality, and early USB-C devices didn't quite live up to the hype, but the technology seems to have finally stabilized.

I use this Plugable USB-C docking station, and it works well with everything from my work-issued MacBook Pro, to my personal iPad Pro, to my wife's Dell laptop. It's a joy to plug in a single cable and have a large screen, ergonomic keyboard and mouse, and charging supplied to the computer. I love it so much that I have two workstations set up in different rooms and can connect and disconnect in a couple seconds versus plugging in a host of different cables.

$129 at Amazon

Laptop stand

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Image: Amazon

This is one of those simple, non-technology items that can make a huge difference in your workspace. If you're using a larger monitor and keyboard, your closed laptop can take up significant desk space that could otherwise be put to better use.

I have this unit, which provides space for two computers (or a laptop and tablet in my case) and allows each "bay" to be adjusted to fit different device thicknesses. There are dozens of varieties with one to several spaces and different design aesthetics, but $30 seems like a fairly low cost to free up valuable desk real estate.

$25 at Amazon

Zoom backgrounds

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Image: CBS

If your company is using video conferencing, there's a good chance you're using Zoom. It's a bit odd to suddenly let dozens, or even hundreds of colleagues and strangers have a view of the inside of your home, but Zoom offers a "virtual background" feature that allows you to avoid sharing your roaming pets or less-than-shipshape office with the world. This is also a way to have a bit of fun with video conferencing and show off your creativity or sense of humor.

To activate a virtual background, click the arrow next to the "Video" option in Zoom and select the virtual background. You can add your own images, and I'll often use things like famous building interiors from the Hearst Castle or Biltmore Estate, or even the Oval Office.

Check out these backgrounds

Amazon Echo

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Image: Amazon

It's nice to have some ambient music in your workspace, and I'll often ask Alexa to "play classical focus music" when I need some concentration time, or request anything from Old School Hip-Hop to Afropop if I need something a little peppier. Smart speakers are also surprisingly useful as you're working. If an idea or item I need to pick up during a grocery store run pops into my head, I can bark out "Alexa, add flour to my to-do list" and moments later the task is on my phone. You can perform quick math calculations, look up conversions, set timers, make phone calls, or even serve as an intercom so the evening's cook can ask Alexa to "Announce dinner's ready" and summon everyone from the various corners of the house.

$79 at Amazon

Conference call fitness

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Image: Amazon

You've probably figured out that a great headset is a must for conference calls, but how about integrating some basic fitness? Aside from the rather obvious technique of taking a walk around the neighborhood while on a long call, I've been known to circle my office. I find a bit of pacing allows me to engage more with the call, perhaps since it eliminates the distraction of alerts popping up while sitting at the screen. I also have a plastic balance board that makes for some light fitness during endless calls; just make sure you don't fall off!

$68 at Amazon