How to Work Outside When you Work From Home

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We’ve all seen the photos.

Those aspirational shots of remote workers and freelancers curled up with a laptop (almost always a MacBook Pro), on a beanbag on the beach.

I’ll address the photos in a moment (TL;DR: I’m calling BS). But first I’ll explain what this article is all about: Giving you some realistic strategies around how to work outside when you work from home.

There’s nothing worse than watching a glorious day drift away while you’re stuck inside huddled over a keyboard. With that in mind, we’re going to look at some ways to get out into the good weather and still be productive – as well as how feasible it really is.

But first – those photos.

Working on a laptop on the beach

How to Work Outside: My Early Experiences

Those laptop on the beach pictures? Sorry, but I don’t buy it.

I say that as somebody who’s allowed sand to get near the keyboard of a MacBook Pro – and has the repair bills to prove it. And while the gorgeous (and very bright) screens on MacBooks are one of the reasons I list them among my best laptops for freelancers, they’re very hard to see on a bright day, let alone in direct sunlight.

I have a lot of experience of this. Back in 2009 I moved to Portugal. I’d read The Four Hour Work Week, and I was all set to take my freelance career to the next level from the comfort of my lovely, bright new balcony.

I quickly realised it doesn’t really work. While you can get some work done, it’s not possible to be truly productive when you’re squinting at the screen.

An example: I’m typing this very article sitting outside in my garden – how’s that for authentic?! While the actual typing part is just-about-OK, everything gets much harder when I want to search for a link or flick to another window.

While I can see the text – just about – as soon as I need the mouse pointer, I have to raise my sunglasses and squint to find it. Now I appreciate I probably couldn’t get more “first world problems” if I tried, but in reality this makes my workflow stuttery and frustrating – and much slower than normal.

These are the lessons I learned in Portugal. I searched online for a solution at the time, and the only thing that really works is a rather unwieldy tent contraption called a LapDome.

Now these tents do seem popular (especially right now, based on the delivery lead time on Amazon), but to me they don’t quite point to the kind of comfortable freelance freedom I yearned for on my balcony.

I researched other options. I actually bought one of the very first Paperwhite-style Kindles which, at the time, had a rudimentary keyboard at the bottom. Sadly my hopes of doing any kind of writing on them were quickly dashed – just too slow and too unintuitive.

So that was about it for me. I never really cracked the mystery of how to work outside while I was in Portugal. I generally ended up racing to get finished (indoors) so I could enjoy the last couple of hours of sun.

But recently – for various reasons – I decided it was time to give it another go.

Working Outside in 2021

A lot has happened in the past few years, not least a (still ongoing) global pandemic. Obviously this has resulted in a huge increase in the number of people working from home (and, I would assume, a corresponding increase in the number of people looking for advice on how to work outside!)

On a personal level, the pandemic has curtailed my ability to travel – and it was something I used to take plenty of advantage of. I’ve been stuck here in the UK for over a year, and we’ve had a very long and wet winter. My yearning to be outside has reached a whole new level – hence my renewed interest in making it work on a work day (and hence me writing this article).

Thankfully, there have been more positive changes too. Technology has moved on, in terms of both hardware and software. Back in Portugal I’d never have been able to see my laptop screen at all, but they have many more “nits” of brightness nowadays, so at least it’s possible to use them in the sun – if not that comfortable.

Software is a big thing too – and having the right apps can mean there are quite a lot of tasks you can perform with just your phone – more on that in a moment.

Tips for Working from Home Outside

Let’s move on to what you can do to make that working outside dream come true.

Sort Out Your Screen

If you want to get real work done outside then – let’s be honest – you need your laptop, AND you need to be able to see if properly.

The right laptop is the place to start. Unfortunately, the brightest screens tend to be on the most expensive laptops. When you look at specifications, be sure to look for that nits figure.

As an example, the current MacBook Pro’s screen has 500 nits, while the MacBook Air has 400. That makes the Pro’s screen 25% brighter – a possible reason to splash on the more expensive model if working outside is important to you.

To put this into even more perspective, I looked up the screen nits of a “budget” Acer Aspire laptop: 258. Suddenly my tired old point that “you get what you pay for” with laptops has fresh new relevance!

It’s not only about the screens themselves. If you like the whole tent concept, maybe it’s worth giving the LapDome a go. I may buy one myself, and would love to hear from anybody who’s tried one.

There’s also a much more lo-fi way to deal with this: Think about where you sit. Since starting to write this article, I’ve relocated from my garden table to a beanbag in the shade and – thanks to my bright screen – I’m now working pretty comfortably. I’ve sacrificed the suntan for the ability to see my mouse cursor but – hey – I’m still working outside, which beats looking yearningly out of the window.

Make Sure You’ve “Got The Power”

Another area where you get what you pay for with laptops is in battery life. It’s not much use getting settled outside if you’ll have to run in and charge up after an hour.

Depending on where you’re working, you may be lucky enough to have an outdoor power source, or the ability to run a cable out of the window. But it’s not an elegant solution.

I’ve personally invested in a power bank with a BIG capacity.

The best modern laptops use a universal USB-C connection, rather than something proprietary. This means you can power and charge them from a suitable power bank. You can also use it to charge your phone, and any other devices.

My power bank has come in very handy whilst travelling, allowing me to work in a park or a coffeeshop, knowing that my day won’t be ruined by a low battery warning. It’s just as useful in a garden situation. Just make sure you buy one with a huge capacity. A little pocket-sized one won’t do much more than give you a 20% power boost, if it’s up to powering your machine at all.

Experiment with Dictation

I was rather blown away when I tried out the text-to-speech capabilities that are baked into my iPhone. It was incredibly accurate, and I think it may prove practical to draft (if not completely write) articles whilst outside. Better than that, I can do it on the move, getting exercise at the same time.

It’s not entirely simple. You need to consider the following:

  • In order to dictate, you need to know what you’re going to say. This means you need a clear outline of what you want to “write” before you start.
  • You need to learn the intricacies of your phone’s dictation app – i.e. how to input new lines, punctuation etc.
  • You will have to move the text from the phone to where you want it. For me, this is very simple, as I can dictate straight into Apple’s Notes app, and it’s instantly available on my laptop thanks to the wonders of iCloud.

There are many different ways to handle dictation, and plenty of apps dedicated to it. However, there is a learning curve, both in terms of the apps themselves, and in your own workflow around dictating your text and converting it to usable output.

I intend to put a lot of effort into this over the coming summer months, and will report back on how I get on. I just need to get over two things: feeling like a tit whilst doing it in public, and regulating my volume so that I don’t feel that I’m reading my articles to the neighbour over the fence!

Take your Training and Learning Outside

One type of working outside that’s really easy is training and learning.

Yesterday, I spent several hours reading a book about social media strategy, and drew up a plan using an old fashioned pen and paper system! Not only is this just as easy to do outside, it’s arguably better than doing it in front of your computer where you’re distracted by emails and notifications.

Learning outside on a beanbag

There’s also a huge amount of learning you can do from podcasts (like mine!), audiobooks and YouTube videos. Best of all, you can do this not just whilst outside, but whilst exercising too.

I’d urge you to do two things – especially as both have a free trial:

Up Your App Game

Mobile devices, especially smartphones, are way more practical for outdoor use than fully-fledged laptops.

They’re certainly not the same, especially for somebody “old school” like me who would always rather use a laptop where possible. However, one of the things I’m doing in my quest to learn how to work outside more effectively is thinking what I can do with mobile apps.

Examples:

  • Managing social media (arguably just as easy on a mobile device, as many social media platforms are designed with mobile consumption in mind).
  • Outlining articles in notes files.
  • Banking tasks (my bank’s mobile app is now more intuitive than its website).
  • Creating graphics and videos for social media using Adobe Spark.

Obviously what exactly you can do will depend on your job. But it’s well worth thinking what you could do on your phone or tablet – so long as you’re honest with yourself about whether it’s really as fast or faster, or is actually a clunky experience.

Get Great Headphones

For many years I refused to spend much on headphones, not believing they were worth the expense.

However, they come in useful in so many ways. A good Bluetooth set can be used for both listening and speaking – and that can mean anything from meetings to dictations to phone calls.

Noise cancelling is also good if you’re trying to work outside. As I type this, the sounds from the children playing in the next garden are endearing, but not helping me work – especially as these are the golden hours before my own children return home!

I do have a recommendation from Sennheiser – these are the new model of the ones I have myself, which have served me well for years.

What I particularly like about these (other than great sound quality and battery life) is that that are wireless, but have a neck strap setup, so they stay attached to you if you take them out of your ears! I know that Apple AirPods are extremely popular, but I always think that people wearing them look like they have cigarette ends hanging out of their ears. More importantly, I just know that I’d leave one of them on the counter of the very first shop I visited whilst using them…

Conclusion

My whole “how to work outside experiment” is still ongoing – but I’m determined to give it a good go this time around.

Remote working and freelancing is all about having extra freedom. During a time where travel is much rarer, I’m not willing to “waste” too many sunny days wishing I wasn’t confined to my home office (lovely though it is).

So on that note, I shall sign off, and see if I can work out a way to have my legs in the sun but my screen in the shade. If you have any tips for working outside, be sure to let me know in the comments.

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