The freelancer’s ultimate office

— 18 Comments

First of all, I want to thank those of my visitors who have given their time to help turn this article into the article below. You have all contributed to making this content useful for our Transylvania Digest community, and for many others who will be sharing the content through social media. I’m sure many more of you will engage in commenting and sharing tips, now that we have a solid architecture for the office of a translator. So, here we go.

1. Office size

After experimenting in several locations, I arrived at the conclusion that I would need a total of 15 square meters (approx. 160 square feet) to fit everything I would like to have in my office. For me, it would have to be a work-only sanctuary: no TV-watching, no eating, no socializing, and no sleeping!

2. Environment – good-to-keep-in-mind tips

Soundproof: make sure you don’t hear too much of what’s going on outside (or even inside) your building: traffic, rain becoming noisy on certain surfaces, neighbor’s children playing outside etc.

Healthy: Have the windows somewhere in front of you; that way you can avoid light reflecting in your screen and, equally important, you will find yourself taking more healthier, non-Facebook-or-Twitter blitz-breaks while gazing out the window.

Color: We first need to agree that translators need a refreshing but restful and relaxing environment, and some colors can achieve that better than others. After establishing that much, the rest becomes subjective. But hang on, I found a great source to give you an introduction to color psychology (sure there’s such a thing!).

Light: Sure, natural light is probably the best source of light there is. But when it gets dark, it’s good to know which lights to turn on. Experts advise against working in a dark environment, even if you have a backlit keyboard. As a general rule, you should avoid direct light on your screen, and go for fluorescent lighting. As I’m writing this, I can see in the top right corner of my screen a reflection of the ceiling light and it’s really getting on my nerves. So, make sure your surrounding is glare free, whether it’s the computer screen, the desk surface, the walls or other surfaces. For further reading, I recommend this brief article.

3. Furniture

Desk: I would personally go for an L-shaped desk that would allow me to organize my working space more efficiently and have everything I need at hand. For some of you, a U-shaped desk would work better with all the extra space you can make use of (provided you wouldn’t get cabin fever behind it, like I would). The height of the desk doesn’t matter too much if you can adjust the height of your chair. Just keep in mind that your elbows should be able to rest at a 90 degree angle while typing on the keyboard (which should lie on a keyboard tray). Additionally, make sure you can adjust your monitor height and tilt. Confused? I’m sure you’ll be able to figure it out better from the following simulation I made on thehumansolution.com (click here to make your own).

Desk_config

Chair: folks, as you know, building chairs has become rocket science nowadays. I’ll just stick to pointing out for you the features you should look for when buying an ergonomic chair: adjustable seat height and depth, adjustable back height and back angle, tilt movement, adjustable arm rests, adjustable lumber, adjustable headrest. Confused again? Here’s an excellent video review that will certainly shed some light on the technical specs (no advertisement intended).

Library: you should have one, definitely. You will have to decide what size fits your needs best. Many people find it convenient to have some shelves within reach – that’s where they like to have the materials they use most.

Couch: you probably didn’t expect to find a couch on this list, but there are a lot of people (including myself) who find it very relaxing for the times their back gets tired of the same vertical position. Perfect way to rest my back and continue working.

4. Computer Hardware & accessories

Desktop or laptop? I like the idea of working from both a desktop and a laptop, where everything from software to work documents is synced.

Screen: At least 21”, LED, anti-glare, adjustable height and tilt, would love an all-in-one device similar to the iMac to get rid of all the cables that make our lives complicated.

Processing Unit: When buying a computer, it’s generally a good idea to get one with above-average capabilities (top would be preferable) because otherwise in 4+ years’ time you will be looking at a device that can’t keep up with newer software releases.

Keyboard: I’ve found that I like to have the same layout on both desktop and laptop, so both my keyboards lack a dedicated num pad (which might be essential for tech translators that deal with numbers a lot). This helps me preserve my productivity irrespective of which keyboard I am using. Finally, a decent ergonomic keyboard that provides a good posture for your wrists is essential, so you might want to try a split v-shape keyboard designed to match your natural wrist posture and minimize muscle problems.

Mouse: How people can live without a mouse in house escapes my understanding. A mouse will spare unnecessary movements of your wrists and fingers that can increase your risk of RSI (repetitive stress injuries).

Mouse pad: Some time ago I bought a mouse pad with gel wrist support. Apart from the fact that my mouse doesn’t seem to like running on that mouse-pad, the posture of the hand is DEFINITELY comfortable. I’ll either end up changing my mouse or my mouse pad soon.

5. Computer software

OS: Generally, people agree that it’s good to choose a consistent ecosystem environment on your devices. Professionally, I will only go for one OS – and we know to which one most industry software is limited to… So, in order to avoid all kind of bugs and compatibility issues, I would recommend working on the same operating system on all your devices. Sure, you probably won’t work on your smartphone, but if you’re using your tablet for work often enough, I would recommend using the same OS as on your desktop and laptop.

Sync software: Sure, you don’t need it necessarily if both your laptop and desktop are used within the reach of your office network. But a laptop is meant to be portable precisely for those occasions when you have to work outside your office, and that’s when syncing software comes in handy. At the time I am writing this article, I would recommend you go for cx.com where you can get 10GB storage for free and earn an additional 6GB by referring friends. Never worry again about that document you forgot to copy to your laptop.

Word processor: I use Microsoft Office which I find convenient.

Pdf creator: For the times you need to protect the documents you deliver, or just make sure your desired layout is preserved, I recommend a free PDF creator like pdfforge.

CAT tool: This is a rather delicate issue but, as a general guideline, I would suggest to go for the software solution most used out there, since that will also increase your chances to get work, especially in collaboration with agencies. Other than that, I’d say go for any number of software you can afford – the more the merrier! Some of the more popular CAT tools available include SDL Trados, MemoQ and Wordfast. Just remember this much: keep a CAT and mouse in house.

Modern internet browser: I like to believe translators are among the most advanced computer users, especially as regards web browsing. However, I am surprised how many people still use outdated IE versions that can cause all sorts of problems. Here’s my two cents: if you want speed, go for Google Chrome. If you want functionality, go for Mozilla Firefox. To unravel the mystery, I’ve been using Firefox since 2005 and, although I had some attempts to convert to Chrome, I’ve remained faithful. To this date, Chrome has no bookmarks sidebar, and requires too muck clicking around for hardcore web surfers and bookmarkers like myself. There, I got it out now.

Advanced File explorer: If you’ve been working for some years, you probably have thousands of folders and tens of thousands of files. Your native file explorer is probably way too limited to handle the kind of back-and-forth-copy-paste daily chores you’ve learned to accept over time. Not to mention the time it takes to clean up your desktop and to keep your work organized. If time and functionality are important to you, I recommend a more evolved file explorer like Free Commander (I’m using it) or the almost free Total Commander.

Notes, to do lists and more: I’m the kind of guy who knows that the worst sheet of paper is better than the best memory. So I keep writing things down – I started with post-it notes, then agendas, then turned to notepad documents on my computer desktop. Finally, some 2 years ago or so, I switched to Evernote. Whenever I get a fabulous idea for my blog, or an incredible business idea that will someday make me a millionaire, or when I see an interesting book I’d like to read, I just make a note in Evernote and it’s permanent. In addition to that, whatever note I make on my desktop or laptop syncs to my smartphone, and vice versa.

DTP software: Every now and then we all need to do some desktop publishing. If this is not a routine for you, I would recommend downloading a trial version of any specific program you need; since trials are usually based on e-mail addresses, you can work your way around whenever you need a specific product for a limited period of time. I think it is fair use as long as you only rarely need to use it it. Feel free to disagree.

File archiver: Most of us hate attaching more than two files to an email. That’s one of the reasons we use archiving software that allows us to send entire folders by e-mail or transfer services. The other is compression. I use 7Zip which is free and allows me to archive and compress my documents in a .zip format. I highly recommend it!

Antivirus: Skip if you run Mac OS. For the rest of us, virus protection is essential, especially when dealing with sensitive information and online transactions. To keep this article relevant for any number of years to come, I recommend searching Google for the phrase “top 10 antiviruses” to get results relevant for the year you intend to buy one. Right now, BitDefender seems to be the recommendation of most reviews. I’m using it.

FTP client: This is the tool that will help you connect to FTP servers. To make a long story short, some customers prefer you upload your work to their servers, rather than send it via e-mail. This is smoothly done by yet another free software: FileZilla. Use it confidently.

6. Communication

Internet: I have a main fiber connection – the best there is on the market for a ridiculously low price. Apart from that, I have a backup mobile internet stick, and a second backup connection on my smartphone with built-in hotspot functionality. For those wondering whether I’m actually using them, yes, I’m using them often enough, and it’s always reassuring to be backed-up.

Mobile vs. land line: almost no client ever gave me a phone call. The very few phone calls I received were on my mobile, so I only have a mobile phone for work. I do have Skype.

Fax machine: Do you need one? Then get one. :-)

Conclusions

If you got this far, I’m really surprised. I didn’t think many people would read a 2000-word strong article on office decoration. But, hey, keeping it short doesn’t always mean you can keep it useful, and that’s exactly what I’m hoping this article has managed to become. So, hopefully, this has given you some ideas that you will be able to put into practice in the process of optimizing your environment for maximum productivity and well-being. Would you like to have your say and perhaps give our community some more ideas on this topic? Don’t forget to drop a comment and thank you for sharing this article with your friends.

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Cristian Sălăjan

I am a freelance translator and blogger from multicultural Transylvania. Father of one, two three, husband of one, friend to few. Privately, I've also been interested in/fascinated by topics like web design, theology, probability theory, Christian apologetics, cosmology, quantum mechanics, entrepreneurship and parenting.

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18 responses to The freelancer’s ultimate office

  1. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    What a great article, very useful, thank you. I am trying out Evernote and CX.com as we speak.

    • Cristian Sălăjan October 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm

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      Hello, Zoe! What a nice surprise to read you around! Your feedback is greatly appreciated! Let us know how Evernote and CX.com work for you!!

  2. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    Great article! I now have the complete list and should start working on crossing out all pending items!
    Just wanted to add that I fellos translators have recommended counting on software that converts voice to text; in this way, when your hands, arms, back, neck, etc, etc., get tired of being sitting down, you can walk around a bit without losing much time. Maybe that would require a few extra square meters, but just standing by the window might be great. I have that on my list too!

    • Cristian Sălăjan October 1, 2012 at 1:28 pm

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      Welcome Patricia! Voice-to-text converter – that’s well worth including in the list above, and I will! Although few languages will have access to the kind of technical solutions needed for that. Still a great idea! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    Great article with lots of good tips. I am going to try cx.com. I would add some backup system to the list, although cx.com seems to do the job partially, I personally believe that an additional (hard) storage/back-up system is a must for any translator.

    • Cristian Sălăjan October 2, 2012 at 9:34 am

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      Hmm. True. My current work folder size doesn’t require more space than is currently available for free on cx.com (10+ GB). I don’t keep media in my work folder. But surely there are many who exceed that size and, unless they are willing to pay for extra cloud storage, a hard storage would be recommended.

  4. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    I agree, a great article. I find I’m already doing everything you suggest EXCEPT I don’t have a sofa. That’s something that never would have occurred to me. I leave my office to sit on the comfy chaise in my living room and use my laptop to keep working with a change of position. But the change in environment also introduces more distractions. A sofa is going on my wish list for my office.

  5. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    Great article, Cristian! I think the environment we work in as freelancers must offer the most peaceful, pleasing, and productivity-inducing space possible. I think I’ve done that with my office. I have a 400 square foot dedicated space for my office and my husband and I have worked hard to make it wonderful for me, since I spend so much time in there.

    It just needs one tiny little addition. DOORS! With four children running around (three of them wild boys), it can get a bit challenging to concentrate when everyone’s home. We’re planning on installing French doors on the room in a couple of weeks. That ought to help when the little guys are home from school. I just need to work harder on getting all my work done before they arrive home. ;-)

  6. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    This a great article.
    With no intention to criticize, I wanted to say that I slightly disagree with clause 4c “Processing Unit”. The notion that buying a computer with better specification than what you need will result in that specification lasting longer is pretty much a myth. Each generation of hardware is basically the same and will “age” at the same rate.
    For example, most translators don’t need great amount of processing power. To most translators multi-core (more than 2 cores) CPUs are almost useless. Translator will benefit more from the CPU’s frequency and even that not so much. Therefore not need to go overboard and invest in a 4/6 cores CPU and/or Motherboard with features that aren’t needed, etc. Indeed, I’m generalizing here and some do need more, but when one needs more they usually know it and what to look for.
    No amount of money at a certain time point will buy you the next hardware generation (and usually generations). Therefore, my recommendation (and it is valid for all computer users, each by their needs) is to buy the specification that best fits your need and gives the best value for the money. In other words, from a value perceive it is better to spend 1500 USD every 3-4 years than 3000 for a machine that suppose to last 6-8 years.
    Instead of investing in an over-powered CPU, an average translators better invest in enough RAM, UPS (very important if you ask me), reliable backup system, even an SSD. All of those are in my opinion a much better investment than paying for unneeded features and/or theoretical processing capacity.

    Also, when it comes to monitors, I would recommend buying LCD screen based on an IPS (more common these days) or PVA panel and not TN panel. This is mostly for the wider viewing angles that the TN panel lacks. This is even more important with larger screen sizes (23″ and higher) where you cannot always see the entire screen area without moving your head. The IPS/PVA based LCD screens usually comes with full ergonomic features, most importantly height adjustment which is, as Cristian mentioned, very important.

    As to keyboards. Those who like typing (the action) and can appreciate the nuances of the mechanism and the resulted experience, and this is not to say that there is something wrong with the standard rubber dome keyboards, will probably enjoy a Mechanical keyboard. The in and outs of choosing a mechanical keyboard are a topic for a different discussion, but this is something to look into for those who like to type.

  7. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    Hello, great guide !

    i would perhaps only use a laptop and connect it to a mice, keyboard and screen when i’m in the office, it’s only cost effective, and you’re sure to have everything in synced.

    Another tip I can give, about the mice: learn to use your keyboard shortcuts, nearly everything can be done from it, and it does save a lot of time.

    A great addition to internet browser (firefox or chrome) is vimperator, it binds actions to nearly all the keys on your keyboard, making surfing on the web a lot faster.

  8. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    Great article. I even have an all-in-one screen/computer so no cables becoming entangled under the table. By mistake, I was sent a touch-screen computer but I would never have ordered one. By the way, I do have a sofa in the office – not for me but for when the grandchildren come to stay.
    Anyway, thanks again for all the info. Keep going.

  9. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    Great list of (top) tips! I thought my 15 inch laptop screen is big enough but I’m willing to try a 24 inch screen soon.

  10. Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    This was fun! Glad to see that my home office fits almost every item on your list. I completely agree that your work environment is extremely important to your productivity. Thanks for sharing all of the software/equipment suggestions too. There were a few that I was unfamiliar with.

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