The best tech for working from home

Stay focused and on-task.

With a changing economy, more flexible job roles, and the continued spread of broadband internet, more and more of us are working from home. According to the most recent statistics, more than five percent of the U.S. workforce spends at least part of their office hours at home.

While this habit lets us avoid the stress of commuting and spend all day in sweatpants, the consequences aren’t all positive. With so many distractions at home, and no manager looming nearby, productivity can take a hit. To avoid this, we rounded up some apps and tools to help you stay on task. Include some of these in your home office setup to raise your productivity and motivation levels.

Play background noise

Brain.fm
Brain.fm offers a wide range of engineered sounds that you can run unobtrusively while you work. David Nield

If you work best with a constant murmur in the background, you’ll find plenty of white-noise apps to provide that hum. We’ve selected two reasonably-priced favorites.

Noisli ($2 for Android and iOS, free for the web app) is our top pick. It produces a wide variety of sounds—from morning coffee-shop clatter to a stormy forest to simple white noise—that you can combine and customize. Pick the noises you want to hear, and the relative volumes you’d like them to play at, and Noisli does the rest. For instance, you might choose a loud whoosh of blowing leaves with just a faint hint of rain in the background. The app also offers several preset sounscapes designed to help with relaxation or productivity.

On the more expensive side, we also like Brain.fm ($7 per month or $47 per year for Android, iOS, and the web). Although it’s pricier and less customizable than Noisli, it still offers a decent number of sounds, from nature noises to electro. And Brain.fm claims that its original AI-created tracks can actually optimize your brainwaves to improve your cognitive function, helping you focus, relax, or drift off to sleep. Your mileage may vary, but I found the app to be very effective when I tested it out. If you’re still leery, you get five free sessions to test out Brain.fm before you commit to paying.

Track your time

Toggl app
Keep tabs on your schedule with Toggl. Toggl

Where does all the time go? With no boss around to check when you start work or take a break (or three), your routine can quickly stagnate. That’s why you need an app to help you keep track of how you’re spending your time.

One of the most impressive time-tracking apps we’ve encountered is Toggl (free for Android, iOS, and the web, with premium subscriptions for $7 to $20 per month). It syncs across multiple devices, produces useful reports analyzing your schedule, and lets freelancers see which clients help them make the most money. What really makes Toggl stand out, though, is its ease of use. You can set it up in minutes, tracking your time with just a few taps or clicks. If you forget to note particular tasks when you start them, you can return later to edit this information. Many of these features come free, but for bonuses like advanced reports and automated reminders, you’ll need to pay for a premium subscription.

Although it’s our favorite, Toggl isn’t the only good time-tracking app out there. We also like Hours (free for iOS, $8 per month for web access). Unfortunately, this intuitive and comprehensive time-tracker only has a free version for iOS. Web access requires a premium subscription, which also gives you extra features like more reporting options and syncing across multiple devices.

Cut out distractions

Forest app
Grow a virtual forest to stay on task. Forest

At home, you’re surrounded by temptations like your snack-filled kitchen, potential Netflix binges, and, of course, the ever-present siren song of your smartphone. You need help tuning out these distractions in order to stay on track.

First, we’d like to flag Forest (free with in-app purchases for Android, $2 for iOS), which aims to keep you off your smartphone. It relies on a simple but effective motivation: The longer you avoid your device, the bigger the app’s digital forest grows. As virtual trees multiply, Forest rewards you with coins that you can spend to support the planting of real trees. This not only reduces your phone use, but also helps the planet at the same time.

For a more comprehensive method of avoiding distractions, we like Freedom ($7 per month or $30 per year for Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS). It actively prevents you from accessing pre-selected websites and apps, such as distracting social media or smartphone games. In other words, it locks you out of non-work programs until you’ve finished your tasks. Unfortunately, if you’re determined to do so, you can simply disable Freedom and cheat. But you might find that it creates enough of a barrier to derail your proposed Facebook binge and encourage you to do something productive instead.

Include some break time

Google Podcasts app
Take a break to listen to a podcast. David Nield

All work and no play is a recipe for burnout: If you don’t take the odd breather, your productivity will experience diminishing returns. A simple tool like the free online Pomodoro Tracker builds breaks into your schedule. It reminds you to take five minutes of rest for every 25 minutes of work, and you can also adjust these parameters to split your time differently.

You should use those break minutes to refresh your brain. The highly-rated meditation app Headspace ($8 to $13 per month for Android, iOS, and the web) can help you be more intentional about downtime. It takes you carefully through a host of beginner-friendly guided meditations, from short single sessions to longer courses. You can pick the topics that suit your needs, such as relieving stress or increasing focus, and the time periods that fit into your schedule. You get a limited number of basic meditations for free, and then if those work for you, you can pay for a subscription to unlock the entire Headspace library.

If you’d prefer distraction to meditation, why not rest your eyes while listening to a podcast? Google Podcasts (free for Android) and Apple Podcasts (free for iOS) both give you free access to a wealth of audio content. Learning about completely non-work-related topics—podcasts cover everything from life hacks to television shows—will give you a chance to rest and reset, so you can tackle your tasks afresh when you head back into the home office.

Stay connected

Slack app
Slack keeps team members in touch with each other. Slack

Even when you’re not in the office, you need to stay in touch with your colleagues. So apps that connect you with other members of your team are an essential part of working from home.

For your audio and video calls, we recommend Skype (free for Android, iOS, Windows, and macOS). This classic web caller works efficiently and intuitively, and it also boasts lots of useful features like text chat, group video calls, screen sharing, and file transfers. Because Microsoft owns it, the app integrates neatly with other Microsoft services—for example, you can access Skype directly from the Outlook web portal.

And for more granular communications, you can’t beat the ubiquitous chat app Slack (free or $7 to $13 per month for Android, iOS, the web, Windows, and macOS), which aims to reduce our reliance on email. It has gained widespread popularity for its ease of use, ability to switch seamlessly between private direct messaging and open chat rooms, and integration with other work services like Google Docs and Trello. It can even make audio calls. However, for it to function as your virtual office, you’ll have to convince your organization to sign up the whole team for accounts. Although you can get Slack’s basic chat features for free, you’ll have to pay $7 to $12.50 a month for access to the entire message archive, unlimited searches, and other premium features.

Improve your workspace

SimpleHouseware Metal Desk Monitor Stand
Keep your screen at eye level to reduce neck strain. SimpleHouseware

Besides the apps we’ve mentioned, you can also modify your physical home-office setup. A more comfortable working situation will make you more productive—and less vulnerable to distractions.

For your comfort and your health, you should make sure your chair and desk help you sit without straining your body. For example, keep your screen at eye level to avoid damaging your neck and back. No matter what type of computer you own, a basic stand like the SimpleHouseware Metal Desk Monitor Stand ($21 on Amazon) can help keep everything in alignment. And for a real upgrade, consider building a custom computer desk designed to help you sit ergonomically.

In addition to your computer, you probably have a few other gadgets on that desk. You’ll want to keep them all charged to make sure a dead battery doesn’t make you miss a call from the boss. A multi-port charger like the Anker 60W USB Wall Charger ($26 on Amazon) can help. It lets you juice up to six devices at once using the ubiquitous USB port standard.

Finally, illuminating your workspace is essential for both staying focused and reducing strain on your eyes. You can pick any lamp that fits your tastes and needs, but we like the Lampat LED Desk Lamp ($30 on Amazon) because it’s not too expensive, and it comes with yet another USB charging port.

David Nield

David Nieldis a tech journalist from the UK who has been writing about gadgets and apps since way before the iPhone and Twitter were invented. When he's not busy doing that, he usually takes breaks from all things tech with long walks in the countryside.