Work Afar

thoughts on career, travel, remote work, and productivity

Work Afar

The $20 Convertible Standing Desk for Remote Workers and Freelancers

We all know that you should be working from a standing desk. To be fair, there are numerous health benefits to doing so: it prevents cancer, improves your posture, alleviates back pain, and generally just make you feel like less of a bum.

But like many things that are good for you, standing desks are hellaciously expensive. The number-one pick from Wirecutter is the $685 “Jarvis” standing desk. While this isn’t all that terrible a price for an entire desk, especially for one that stands, it is quite likely that, as a remote worker, you already have a desk you sit at. Or at least I hope you do.

That leaves us with convertible standing desks, which start at around $400. For a freelancer, that’s a small fortune, even with the tax deduction. And for a remote employee, it’s an expense that is not always easy to swing by the boss. But if you’re cheap like me, don’t mind a low-rent aesthetic, and have a lot of faith in the power of cardboard, the Ergodriven Spark is the standing desk for you.

The Basics of Spark

The Spark is a $20–$25 standing desk that is built completely out of cardboard. You can choose from three sizes: small, medium, and large. Each size correlates with how tall you are, with Ergodriven giving guidelines on its product description page. It also weighs just short of nothing.

And that’s about it. It’s literally what it is: a cardboard standing desk that’s cheap in the way cardboard tends to be.

Assembling the Spark

Of course, the Spark is not put together with nuts and bolts like other standing desks. It is put together in various folds, bends, and the appropriate nudge or two. The directions, romantically, come in paper form, although the AutoCAD-rendered directions were not particularly easy to follow for people who were never a big fan of geometry. (Is the square a rectangle, or is the rectangle a square? Who knows, lovelies.)

But thankfully, there are also video directions. And although the video quality was YouTube B-star quality, it did the job. And in general, the process was simple. My one real complaint about the assembling process was only some of the parts were pre-bent. To resolve this issue, I laid a book against the line where the bend was supposed to be. You can see the cuts of the line in the cardboard, no free-hand folding necessary. (Note: The book thing was probably overkill. But the satisfaction from creating a good crease was needed, especially since it is supporting some expensive equipment.)

The directions also recommend building the Spark in an open area; I agree. That all said, overall, the process of building the Spark was quite pleasant. And in a weird origami-like way, the build process could even be considered peaceful. Or in the words of New Girl’s Nick Miller:

Using the Spark as Your Standing Desk

If you are worried that cardboard won’t support your super-awesome equipment, you can be assured it will. The Spark supports up to 25lbs safely, but it has been tested to hold up to 100lbs.

And because I’m a wild man who believes in random people on the Internet, I put these stats to the test. Upon assembling my Spark, I put my 27″ iMac Retina, which weighs in at 22lbs, on top of my ErgoSpark. And it, sort of shockingly, held perfectly. I completed most my work for a day with the below setup:

The books weren’t there for support in any way; I just needed a place to put my books for this subpar photo.

The Spark did not appear to give in any way to the weight or size of the iMac, and it was more stable than some other standing desks I’ve used with similarly weighted monitors or all-in-one computers. To get the Spark to shake in any way, I had to either strike the keyboard very aggressively (imagine Paul Bunyan typing) or physically shake the Spark myself.

Although the Spark held the iMac just fine, I eventually moved on from this setup. Staring at that huge screen while standing proved to be overbearing on my eyes. Instead, I cleared way for my laptop, which turned out like this:

This system proved to be much more manageable, and it is now my day-to-day setup. I can also pick up the Spark and move it under my desk to access my larger computer sitting behind the Spark.

In general, I have been content with the height and general proportions of the desk. The keyboard tray is quite roomy, and on the far left-hand side there is enough room for a moderately sized coffee cup. The open space under the Spark is also useful to compartmentalize other computer accessories.

Importantly, the Spark has stayed rigid, and I don’t anticipate it will break down any time soon. The surface on which your laptop or monitor sits on is very flat and stable. And both my magic mouse and my cheap Logitech mouse work on the cardboard surface without any issues. In short: I feel safe putting my expensive money maker on nothing but cardboard, which is a big mental hurdle for Spark to have overcome.

Notably, I do not have a dual monitor setup. While the Spark team has plans to make such a thing, it’s currently not for sale. There is a bit of a hack for the lack of dual-screen support in the meantime, though: buy two Sparks for a total of $40-$50. While it takes up room, Matt Baumann, who works at Rolf Prima, has made it work:

“All I care about is Mega-Desk. That is all I care about. Getting. More. Mega-Desk.” —Dwight Schrute

On whether Baumann keeps this setup going or not, we’ll keep you posted.

Buy the Damn Thing

If you work from home, you need a standing desk. Hell, if you work in an office, you need a standing desk. Slowly dying in a chair is just so silly and avoidable.

And with the Spark, you have no reason to not try a standing desk situation. If you hate it, the worst that has happened is that you have parted with $20. I mean, it’s not nothing, but it sort of is in conjunction with the potential benefits you may experience.

Full disclosure: I use Amazon affiliate ads, so if you buy the Spark from this post, I get like… two pennies. #sellout

lead remote team

Six Keys To Success When Leading A Remote Team

We all know that working as a remote employee has some great advantages — like working in your pajamas, and having a more flexible schedule. But being a remote employee also has the potential to be very alienating, which can lead to a big decrease in productivity.

As a leader of remote employees, I have found those who feel like they are an integral part of a team tend to be happier, more productive, and have more ownership of their positions.  It is vital as a remote manager to give your team the tools they need to be successful and to lead by example.

Over the years, I have tried many different ways to keep remote employees engaged.  Below are the top six tactics I have found that create a successful and enthusiastic virtual team.

1. Monday Morning Wake-up Call

Just like you want to start every day with a good breakfast — energized and ready to go — you should start each week with a Monday Morning Wake-up Call. Depending on your team size, this call will last anywhere from one to two hours.  In this conversation each team member will review:

  • Previous week successes. This is a chance for each person to share what they’ve done, what worked for them, and what didn’t. This gives you the opportunity to hear about the rest of the team’s work, understand what they’ve done, and get ideas from them.
  • Upcoming week goals. Each team member will share what their plans are for the upcoming week. This not only creates a sense of accountability (“I said I would do it; now I have to do it”), it also gives people the opportunity to chime in if they have ideas on ways to help.
  • Challenges/needs. This is probably the most important topic. Having each person explain their challenges and specific needs gives the group a chance to problem-solve together. This encourages comradery rather than individual people in individual places, working on their own projects.

2. Clear Expectations of Work

I currently lead a team that has members in California, Maryland, Honduras, Brazil, and Chile. With all the different time zones, it is important to have clear working hours so that team members are available to each other at least a few hours each day. For some, that will mean starting work at 6:00 am and ending at 3:00 pm. For others, that will mean working from 10:00 am until 7:00 pm.

As you know, working remotely gives you great flexibility in schedule. Depending on your position, you do not necessarily need to be chained to a desk in a home office. However, the team must be available to each other during specific hours. Setting that expectation up-front is important to make sure projects move forward.

3. Use Technology for Your Communication Needs

Find a way to quickly and easily communicate with each other. My team uses Skype instant messaging if we have a simple question that needs answering or for fast “water-cooler” conversations. The great thing about Skype is that it’s available as an app on your smartphone. If you aren’t sitting at your desk, you can still respond to a question right away. Some other tried and true instant message technology that can be used is WhatsApp (for your phones), Yahoo! Messenger, Google+ Hangouts, or Slack.

For bigger conversations (e.g. the Monday Morning Wakeup Call), a video conference system is crucial in setting your remote team up for success. First, it keeps people focused on the conversation. There is no multitasking when you know people can see you. Second, seeing everyone’s shiny faces each week helps to enforce the feeling of team. Make sure to use a platform that provides easy screen/document sharing and allows you to see all faces at once (not just the person talking). We use Zoom, but there are a lot of options out there!
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4. Project Management Software

Remote employees work best when they feel like they are all in it together

Invest in an online project management software licenses for every person on your team (we use EasyProjects). This allows team members to log in and see at-a-glance what their teammates are doing.  Rather than being voyeuristic, this is meant to inspire collaboration and teamwork. For example, one of your employees might be working on an initiative that another employee completed a year ago. Once he sees that, he can contact the team member and share his experience, documents and ideas based on past work.

Remote employees work best when they feel like they are all in it together — and this gives each member a chance to share his or her expertise.

5. Team Time

No matter how well you work together as a remote team, it is extremely important to find time to get together in person at least once a year.

Take time to celebrate the accomplishments of the previous year, and then get down to some serious planning for the upcoming year. Allow each team member to present their ideas and make sure to define success metrics that will hold you all accountable.

If possible, make time for some team-building activities. It can be something as simple as an evening at a bowling alley or a scavenger hunt in the town you’re meeting. Try to do something active, team dinners are nice, but getting people up and moving — with a challenge — creates great bonding time!

6. Trust

… let them go do the great work you hired them to do.

I saved the best and most important for last. The quickest way to demoralize a team is to micromanage because you don’t trust that they’re doing their work.  With remote employees, a lot of people are concerned that they might take advantage of the situation and spend their day eating bonbons and watching Netflix.

Don’t fall into this trap. Give your employees the tools to do their job, create an atmosphere of teamwork and collaboration, with clear expectations of what constitutes success. Then let them go do the great work you hired them to do.

remotebiopic

Like you, International Marketing Leader Stephanie Calcott understands that through technology, the world is shrinking. People no longer need to be chained to their desks in an office to be productive and effective. But exactly how do you keep your virtual team engaged? How do you foster teamwork when each member is in a different part of the world? Stephanie has spent the last decade leading remote teams. Through trial and error and a lot of video conference calls, she has learned the necessary tools and best-practices to create successful virtual employees.

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