If I’ve learned anything from a decade of working remotely, it’s that my “office” typically sucks. Cafe tables weren’t designed to be workspaces, and kitchen chairs aren’t intended to be sat on all day.
The ergonomics of hunching over a laptop for hours are frankly awful. I’ve regularly ended up with pain in my neck, back, or wrists after a long typing session.
Wi-Fi signal in hotel rooms and elsewhere is often terrible, while street and cafe noise is a massive distraction. On the rare occasion I do find the ideal workspace, I only get to enjoy it for a few days or weeks before moving on to the next place. When it comes to work environments, the “digital nomad dream” is usually anything but.
While there have been many times I’d happily swap a wobbly coffee shop table for the fancy desk of my old corporate jobs, nothing else attracts me back to the cubicle. Instead, after putting up with it for far too long, I finally got so sick of crappy workspaces that I invested some time and money in solving the problem.
I’ve been using my new setup for a few years now, honing and refining the gear list as I go. It’s made a huge difference, and I’m far more productive, with better focus, faster typing speeds, and less joint pain even after a full day’s work.
The extra gear all fits in my existing day pack and adds about three pounds of extra weight, making it easy enough to justify carrying. Here’s what I’ve used to create my perfect portable office, no matter where I’m working today.
The Laptop Stand
I started with what I considered the most important piece of equipment: a laptop stand. These lift the screen up to eye level, which has eliminated my neck strain and the “digital nomad hunch” you’ll spot in cafes the world over.
I checked out a bunch of them, but most weren’t designed for travel and were too big and heavy to carry all the time. In the end I went with a recommendation from a friend, and ordered the Roost Laptop Stand.
It weighs 170g (under 6oz), and slides down the side of my daypack when folded into its soft carry-case. It expands into one of three height positions, which is useful given I never know how high my table or chair will be from one place to the next, and when I’ve experimented with stand-up working.
The Roost is surprisingly sturdy for such a lightweight device, and I’ve never been worried about it slipping or collapsing, or my laptop falling out of it. My 14″ Lenovo fits perfectly, and it can handle all but the thickest of machines, which you’re not likely to be carrying on the road anyway.Buy on Amazon
Of course, with my laptop sitting up on a stand, I can’t use the inbuilt keyboard. An external keyboard gives a better working position anyway, and if you choose the right one, a better typing experience as well.
As my laptop only has a single USB-A port, I decided to go for a Bluetooth keyboard rather than one that required a wireless USB dongle. There are hundreds of models out there, but most of them are awful. You really do seem to get what you pay for. After reading far too many reviews, I settled on the Logitech K810.
The keys are slightly narrower than those on my laptop, but it hasn’t made a difference in daily use. They have just the right amount of firmness and travel for me, and don’t clatter like those on cheaper keyboards.
I’ve actually noticed my typing speed increase with it: a quick speed test just now showed 70wpm, which is faster than on my laptop. If only my brain could keep up with my fingers. Unlike most other Bluetooth keyboards, it’s Windows-specific rather than universal: handy, given how often I use the dedicated Windows key.
There are a few other useful features too. The keyboard remembers three device pairings, and you can switch between them with a button press. I’ve used it with my (Android) phone and tablet and it works well, with no lag or missed keystrokes.
The backlighting is adjustable through several steps from off to bright. There’s also a proximity feature that turns the light on when your hands get close to the keys, and off after they move away. Volume, playback, and other controls sit along the top row, and all work as you’d expect.
Battery life is very good, with a charge lasting several weeks if I have the backlight turned off. I particularly appreciate being able to recharge via a standard micro-USB cable rather than having to carry a special charger or find batteries.
I wouldn’t want the keyboard to be any smaller than it is, but it does mean having to find space for a one-pound, foot-long gadget in my bag. I was concerned about it getting damaged while traveling, but it’s still going strong four years later, so I guess that wasn’t an issue.
Logitech unfortunately seems to have discontinued both the K810 and equivalent K811 model for Mac, although you can still sometimes find both available at a marked-up price on Amazon. As an alternative, I’d probably now go for this Satechi model and just remap the keys for Windows. Mac owners could also consider Apple’s Magic keyboard.Buy on Amazon
I’ve never really liked touchpads: blame it on using desktop computers for much of my life, I guess. As a result, I’ve had a wireless mouse since starting this journey, although the model has changed over the years.
I started out with a travel-sized Microsoft mouse that used a wireless dongle, but later switched to a Bluetooth version for the same reason I bought a Bluetooth keyboard. I’d also found the size of the mouse was great for fitting in my bag, but a little cramped for extended use.
I tried a few different models, and settled on the Logitech MX Master. Mine is the original model, and although it’s now up to the third version, it hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s bigger than a “travel mouse” for sure, but the small size and weight tradeoff has been well worth it for me.
It’s much more comfortable, very reliable, works on pretty much any surface including glass, and has extra buttons for scrolling and gestures that I’ve used far more than I expected. Despite bouncing around in my bag for much of the last two years, it’s still going strong.
The battery lasts for weeks, and it only takes two or three hours to charge back up again from a micro-USB cable. The latest model uses USB-C and gets three hours of use from one minute of charge: mine isn’t quite that fast, but it’s definitely still quick enough.Buy on Amazon
The Wi-Fi Booster
Awful Wi-Fi is a fact of life on the road. It’s one of the reasons I started using Airbnb and other apartment rental services instead of staying in hotels. Even so, I’m in guesthouses, cafes, and hotels often enough to get regularly frustrated when I can’t get a signal or it’s too poor to get any real work done.
A vital part of my remote working setup, then, is a Wi-Fi range extender, and I’ve been using one for several years. They turn one or two bars of unusable Wi-Fi signal into a solid four or five, and regularly show networks I can’t see at all with the wireless card that’s built into my laptop.
On many, many occasions, it’s been the difference between a productive few hours and a day spent swearing at websites that won’t load. I used this ancient Alfa model for many years, but although it still works, it doesn’t support any of the recent Wi-Fi network standards.
As a result, I recently swapped it out for this Techkey model that plugs directly into the laptop USB port. It doesn’t seem to have quite the same range as my previous one, but it’s smaller, lighter, and has support for 5Ghz wireless networks and faster speeds, so overall it’s a wash.
If I was looking for something with even greater range and happy with the extra size and cost, the latest version of my old ALFA would be where I’d start. If it has anything like the reliability and performance of the earlier model, it’d be a no-brainer.Buy on Amazon
Everyone has different views on music and noise when they’re working. I have friends who much prefer to work in coffee shops because they love the ambient sounds. Others insist on absolute silence if they’re going to get anything done.
My own preference is an instrumental soundtrack, ideally one designed to increase focus. I’ve used Focus At Will for years, and most of my larger projects simply wouldn’t have got done without it. If you don’t want to spend the money, Spotify has several Focus playlists that are pretty good as well.
When I’m heading to a cafe, co-working, or other shared space, I won’t set out without my noise-canceling headphones. I splashed out and bought a pair of Sony WH-1000XM2‘s a couple of years ago, and it’s no exaggeration to say they’ve changed my life.
I’d put off buying headphones of any sort due to the extra size and weight, but while they take up far more space in my bag than my old earbuds, I wouldn’t go back. From noisy plane and bus rides to drowning out the din in a cafe or from the bar down the street, they let me withdraw from the world whenever I need to.
Battery life is great. I got 30 hours or more between charges when they were new, and that’s barely changed even now, two years later. Music sounds warm and inviting, and when I don’t feel like listening to anything in particular, I’ll often just wear the headphones with nothing playing at all.
I also regularly use them for phone and video calls as well, and have had no complaints about the sound quality from anyone I’ve talked to.
Sony’s released an updated model, the WH-1000XM4, which improved the noise cancelation even more and switched out the micro-USB socket for USB C, but otherwise didn’t mess too much with a successful design.
There’s also now an earbud-based version, the WF-1000XM4. The noise cancelation isn’t quite as good, but is still surprisingly effective. If you really can’t justify the space that headphones take up in your bag, these are a worthy alternative.
I think long and hard about every addition I make to my packing list, and I’m happy with what I’ve ended up with here. It all fits easily in a day bag, doesn’t weigh much, and lets me easily handle everything from bad ergonomics to noisy environments and crappy Wi-Fi.
I put off setting myself up properly for far too long, and wish I hadn’t. The end result has been getting more work done more quickly, which in turn has increased my income, reduced my frustration, and given me extra time to enjoy the fun parts of being in a new city.
This little portable office setup now comes with me everywhere I go, whether I’m headed to the coffee shop down the road or a beachside bar thousands of miles away. My neck, wrists, ears, and bank balance would all get very upset if it didn’t.
Do you have a portable office setup you’re happy with? Tell us about it in the comments!
Main image via Austin Distel, product images via Amazon