It has been 18 months of working from my home. I don’t really think of work-life balance because work is part of life, something I enjoy, and necessary to pay the bills. But I noticed that a computer screen can only hold so much of my work AND the other parts of my life at any given time. It got me to play around with some functionality in Windows 10, including virtual desktops and browser profiles.
None of these things are new although they were not things I had used in Windows 10. Virtual desktops have been around – and I have used them – for years on Linux. It allows you to open certain applications on your screen and then leave them open while you create a second iteration of your desktop view.
If you have dual monitors, you may never have had a need for that. In the past, I have found that I might only have a single app open (say, Outlook) for work while using a web browser for other activities. One on each monitor, you’re all set.
But add Word, Outlook, Teams, and maybe an RDP window, and now things are starting to get cluttered and overlap. If I add another browser (I usually have 2 or three different browser apps open, depending on what I’m doing and how willing I am to be tracked while doing it), then I start spending time finding it.
Windows 10 Virtual Desktops
The first thing I played around with were the virtual desktops. You can access them by holding down your Windows key and hitting TAB. On my dual monitors, the top left corner now displays the current open apps and, above them, other virtual desktops I’ve created. If I click on one, I can switch to it, open more apps, and then switch back.
One of the nice things about this view – WIN+TAB – is that you can drag and drop an app from one virtual desktop to another. Just mouse over the desktop to switch, then drag the app up to the virtual desktop on which you want it to appear. This is easier than closing an app, switching desktops, and reopening it.
So far, so easy. I ran into a couple of things that were frustrating, though, and so while I continue to use the virtual desktops, I use them less often.
For one thing, they’re, well, virtual. If you have notifications turned on for an app on Virtual Desktop A but you’re on Virtual Desktop B and click it, you will be swapped over to Virtual Desktop A. This can be nice if you’re not looking at work-related apps and something pops up.
Sometimes I found myself swapping desktops without intending or wanting to. The separation of the workspaces was a bit thin. This seemed to happen most often if I clicked on a link in an email and the default browser for opening the link was open in the other virtual desktop. I’d prefer if the browser opened a new iteration in the current desktop.
One thing I wished it had was the ability to visually separate the desktops. For example, have one wallpaper or background for desktop A and another for B so I remember which one I’m on. Sometimes I found myself opening an app on the wrong desktop just because I’d lost track of which one I was on.
What this made clearer to me, though, was that some of the separation I still desired had to happen at the app level. Most Windows apps don’t seem to be able to run in this way. But Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge all have the ability to support multiple profiles. This is what I turned to next.
Browser profiles are another thing that has existed for yonks. I’ve had to recover or migrate profiles in the past for others but it had never really been something I needed. Most commonly, it seemed to be in instances where there were multiple people sharing a device. Think a law student who had a child and they shared a laptop, for example.
I use Microsoft Edge a lot. For many reasons, I’ve gotten away from using Google Chrome – or any Google product really – with regularity. Microsoft Edge allows me to have my cake and eat some of it. Its tight integration with Windows 10 means that, once you have signed in to your Windows PC, you can access a lot of your Microsoft / Office / Live accounts without signing in again.
This is helpful when your company is also invested, as so many law firms and law-related entities are, in Microsoft’s technology. This determined me to focus on how to use Edge to both contain and open up screen space for work. It was surprisingly easy.
Then the question is, how to leverage that to isolate your work activity from other activity?
Microsoft has recently released Tab Groups within Edge, a feature that has been in Google Chrome since mid 2020. Both would allow you to group – and color code – tabs that are related. This might be one way to approach it.
You open the tabs that you want to group. Hold down the CTRL key and click on each tab. Then right-click on one of the tabs to create a tab group.
There doesn’t appear to be a good way to save them. You can’t, for example, pin a tab group. And, when you close the tab group or your browser window, the group is gone.
You can re-open a tab group later by going into your browser history, but the browser doesn’t show your tab group label (like “Work”, on the example above). It just shows “Web page and 3 more tabs” or whatever. So each time you start your browser, you will need to resuscitate those tab groups.
I think using browser profiles is probably more useful if you want a bright line between your work activity and the other things you use your browser for.
Up in the top right corner of Microsoft Edge is the icon for the current user. If you click on it, it will show your profile settings and, at the bottom, the option to add a profile. You can see the option below my 2 profiles, below, as well as the ability to browse in guest or kids mode. If you prefer Google Chrome, the options are pretty much identical.
If you choose to add a profile, you can add it by tying it to a Microsoft account or not. If you do, you will have some of the same integration but not as tightly as with your Windows account. For example, I have both my personal Microsoft account and a Microsoft 365 account as my two profiles. I can access my personal OneDrive without any additional login (single sign-on). But I have to login to Microsoft 365 each time I open that profile.
The profile will be fresh so you can have a different set of extensions on your new profile. In my case, I wanted to use some of the same ones (Privacy Badger, uBlock Origin, Noscript, Stylus). Some of those are still only available in the Google Chrome store, but Microsoft has now built out a much bigger store of its own.
The upside is that you can have different settings – and sync them for your profile between browsers – but the downside is that you may have to repeat a block or customization in different profiles.
If you install the extensions in your new profile, they will install without the settings or information stored in your other profile. In most cases, I was able to export settings (like the sites I’ve blocked in Privacy Badger) from one profile and import them into the other.
The ability to use multiple profiles has meant that I have dropped the individual Microsoft apps in preference for multiple tabs. For me, it makes more sense to have a tab for Microsoft Teams and another for Outlook – which can be aggregated most of the time or separated into different windows when I need them to be. I occasionally need to open the dedicated Outlook or Teams app for the added functionality but it’s rare.
Teams web client does not support virtual backgrounds as far as I can tell. Otherwise, I find the web client better than the app. The Outlook web app is also as good or better than the dedicated app for most things. I like having the Task view open beside my email reading pane. The only downside for me so far with the Outlook web app is that the editor isn’t as rich as the dedicated app.
Browser profiles and virtual desktops have allowed me to use my screen space more carefully. Since I don’t see a time in the future where I won’t be having increased overlap between my work spaces and my spaces from other parts of my life, it’s nice to have this added flexibility. Separate profiles mean not having to see email or Teams notifications after hours. Virtual desktops allow me to put work, literally out of sight and out of mind. It’s good to be able to use technology to truly segment out work from the other things that I like to do on my computer.