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Keyboards at work: A rationale for returning mechanical keyboards to the office environment.

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As I walk down the hall to my office each morning, I hear the discordant clattering of keys coming from my coworker’s office. In the hall… several doors down… I hear them. Like the loose teeth in my grandma’s poodle, barely hanging on, they rattle and heave. If anyone’s ever told you that mechanical keyboards are too loud, it’s simply because that person has become completely desensitized to the garbage-bomb that is the standard office computer keyboard. In the 1980’s and 90’s, it was common to hear the sound of unmitigated excellence when you walked into an office building. The rapid gunfire-like precision of a room full of high-quality computer keyboards firing in unison. Even in the early 2000’s when I worked in a south-side Chicago newspaper newsroom, it was still filled with such keyboards. Ten to fifteen years into their professional daily use, they were still magnificent in sound and feel. Punctual, clean, decisive. In those days, professional keyboards didn’t come cheap and they were built to last. 
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But somewhere, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, as computers began their race to the bottom, one of the first casualties of price chasing was keyboard construction. By 2010, if a replacement keyboard ran an office more than $30, someone in accounting would question the purchase. How did a premium tool that we use constantly become such an afterthought, and where did we lose sight of the impact on daily tasks that cheap tools have? Have you ever used a bargain bin screwdriver? One where the metal tip bends the first time you try it on a screw? So many times in life cheap tools are worse than no tool at all. In the case of computer keyboards, it’s not quite that dramatic, but the premise holds. If you use a tool that doesn’t hold up to the task, you will get mediocre results. Information overload And that’s what we have if we’re honest. Poor results. Poor typing. Poor grammar. Poor craftsmanship. Most office communication is an uninspired mess, but before I get all high and mighty about keyboards fixing the world, we need to address the elephant in the room. The average person takes in and is compelled to respond to an absolute mountain of information each day compared to previous generations. In an article by FastCompany back in 2015, they note that “In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986—the equivalent of 174 newspapers. During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes, or 100,000 words, every day. The world’s 21,274 television stations produce 85,000 hours of original programming every day as we watch an average of five hours of television daily, the equivalent of 20 gigabytes of audio-video images. That’s not counting YouTube, which uploads 6,000 hours of video every hour. And computer gaming? It consumes more bytes than all other media put together, including DVDs, TV, books, magazines, and the Internet.” That’s bonkers. If we were that overloaded in 2011 can you imagine what those numbers look like now? For context, In March 2011 I was working at Apple using an iPhone 4, the iPad 2 had just launched, Twitter was gaining popularity and Netflix was on the verge of bankruptcy. 13 years later, we’ve seen some things. Mountains of misinformation/factual information/AI generated who-knows-anymoreformation, all dumped in our proverbial front yards every few minutes. 
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It’s completely understandable that awash in words, today’s office workers would be oversaturated to a point where communicating clearly with each other is difficult if not unlikely. After all, who has time to carefully craft the 67th reply to emails you’ve received this hour alone? Instead, you shoot back “Sounds good. Thx” and hit enter on your standard Dell keyboard so hard the crumbs fly out. The thing is this. We are expected to process and respond to all that data. It’s not a choice. It’s reality now and unless you can find a way to push back against the full weight of societal expectations, you will need every edge you can get to set yourself up for success. That’s where proper tools come in. Sarcasm Alert: In our enlightened community of keyboard building, deskscape creating, ambiance and aesthetic minded thespians, we soar above the common peasants on wings of eagles. We debate about spring weights in switches that cost $50-80. We mount those switches on premium 65% custom keyboards that set us back more than a high end gaming system. We note the subtle differences in “bump” between the last set of tactile switches we used and our most recent set… all painstakingly disassembled, lubed and reassembled by hand. We push and push for peak excellence in personal preference, and we do this for one reason. Because we have discovered that navigating today’s insane world of data processing on a custom mechanical keyboard is INFINITELY better than doing so on rickety, cut-rate junk. Tell me it’s not painful to use a normal keyboard now.

Quality verses not-quality Even the well-thought-out chicklet-style keys on my high end macbook pro annoy me. They’re not painful, but they’re not great. I would rather type on my cheapest custom keyboard, with my least favorite switches, and most basic keycaps, than on my fancy laptop. And the reason is, it’s better. It’s just better. The punchy, clean response of mechanical keyboards frees my mind of the grating, persistently obnoxious chintzy-ness of standard keyboards and lets me focus on my thoughts. I think and my fingers fly. I’m not a fast typist, but you should hear me when my brain gets going. The response of the keys calls back to me, encouraging me to push on and keep going. It’s a pleasure to type on a keyboard that is built for excellence rather than frugality, just like driving a performance sports car is different than driving a base model economy coupe. Tools built for performance produce performance. So how do we swing the pendulum back? How do we bring what we’ve experienced to those we know? I’ve been discussing this subject with coworkers, c-level officers, accounting professionals and leaders in different industries for a while now, and one thing has become apparent. If mechanical keyboards are to make a resurgence in the office environment, it’s going to require a perfect storm of circumstances, beginning with how mechanical keyboards are marketed/perceived.
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The threat: Why we need new entry points to the hobby. If you are reading this article, you are using mechanical keyboards professionally, and you know that you are in the vast minority. That brings a certain level of exclusivity to the hobby. No matter how affordably a good keyboard can be made and sold for, this isn’t a cheap hobby and getting into keyboards requires a base price. Nobody gets in for free. That means that the hobby must be sought out, and that places us at risk. If the ASMR keyboard videos on TikTok cease to attract viewers/new customers, the algorithms will move on and if that happens, we’re looking at a hobby that will start shrinking. We can’t expect new keyboards, keycaps and switches to be designed, constructed and sold if there isn’t a market to absorb them. And that means that we need an entry point other than novelty, for new members of the community to find us. To me, the obvious choice is business.  Business priorities align with keyboard enthusiasts’ priorities in several key ways.
  1. Performance.
  2. If a product helps produce better results, it has a return-on-investment that justifies purchasing it.
  3. Aesthetics.
  4. Successful businesses understand how their brand is perceived, and being seen as intelligent users of premium tech promotes an “industry leading” image.
  5. Work life balance, just like successful office design increases productivity, so does using quality tools. It can be assumed that employees that enjoy using their tech use it more effectively.
  6. Personalization.
  7. We all know that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” keyboard. Different roles, styles and functions require different tools. The business that understands this distinction can optimize their roles, and their workers in ways that their competitors do not.

Gamers aren’t the answer Some argue that gaming is untapped territory for the enthusiast keyboard market, in that gamers are already using mechanical keyboards, albeit ones that focus exclusively on speed-related performance and longevity/sturdiness. I don’t think personally that the gamer keyboard market has much if anything to offer us in terms of growth, in that it’s already saturated with mech keeb owners, and their users are much more likely to buy another gaming keeb for their home office setup than to seek out an enthusiast build. They aren’t coming from a place of deficit like the standard office worker is, their keyboards do the job well, and there’s almost no reason to abandon their setup for a custom build. A small note: I do not believe that computer manufacturers like IBM or Apple will ever return to the world of mechanical keyboards as it would require admitting that their current offerings are awful. (That said, I would love to see an Apple designed mechanical keyboard. Just because.) Business users on the other hand, are coming from a place of complete deficit. The keyboards they’re provided with barely get the job done, and are often in a state of disrepair. It’s not a hard argument to make that the tools they’re using are poor, the hard part is convincing them to spend 10 times as much on the same tool.
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Size matters In my mind, one mechanical keyboard company openly cares about business users. Fujitsu’s Happy Hacking Keyboard, or HHKB. PFU, who exclusively sells HHKB in the US, has a website that is a love-letter to business culture and they’ve created what they believe is the ultimate work keyboard. I personally love HHKBs, but their commitment to their small 60% footprint, while brilliant, is probably a bridge too far for most business owners. Most folks I’ve spoken to over the last few years about keyboards in the workplace come back to the num-pad. It takes a real long time for some folks to finally let go of it, and when they do, they often move into the next largest option, hence the popularity of TKLs and even recently, 80% keyboards like the one I’m typing this article on (KBD Fans Tiger 80 lite, with GMK Redacted and TTC Moon White silent tactiles that feel like topres, I swear). I feel obliged to mention that Fujitsu also offers a topre full size keyboard called RealForce, which has business and gaming applications, and is very nice. Not all heroes wear capes If a broader solution is to be offered to the business community, it’s going to require a combination of things done well, starting with size. A variety of different sized keyboards will need to be offered that businesses can choose from. It also stands to reason that the end user isn’t going to be assembling these by hand. I think that the best positioned companies to accomplish something like this are retailers like Keychron and DROP. Keychron has price-tiered offerings of different sized keyboards, all coming pre-built standard. They even come in a reasonable range of colors for customization. (Not sure if they’re reading this, and it’s certainly not the most efficient way of recommending things to them), but if Keychron were to build an alternate website dedicated to business, they could really open the doors to mechanical keyboards in the workplace. On DROP.com, the CSTM80 is perhaps the most intriguing business keyboard option, with a nicely sized 80% layout and customizable body shells that can match a company’s branding. Also, the SHIFT V2 is an approachable 100% layout, providing a num-pad to those who can’t do without. Let’s make some noise! Or not… If price wasn’t a factor, mechanical keyboards would still face some opposition to making a return to the office, and I think it would primarily come from the discussion around sound. Mechanical keyboards are auditory devices. They make sound. Do we find that sound pleasing? Yes. Does everyone else? No. So if we’re making a case for adding devices to shared environments it’s responsible thinking to consider the effect that switches would have on the office mechanical keyboard. Which leads me to this point. We could be on the edge of a potentially huge market for silent switches. We’ve all settled in to Linear/tactile/clicky as our standard option list, but if we’re to seriously engage the business world, we need to look to the growing list of impressive silent switches.
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As I mentioned before, I am currently using a set of TTC silent tactiles, and when I took them to a recent meetup here in Chicago, I got a dozen or more really positive comments about them. The most prevalent being that they felt like topre switches and that they were a joy to type on. Part of the fun of a nice keyboard is the visceral auditory export of a quality keyboard/switch/keycap combination, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be particularly noisy. We’re due for a fourth primary category of switch, and I think “Silent” is it. Key partners (see what I did there?) Say that we can convince a mechanical keyboard manufacturer to focus on business sales, we would still need partners in the organizations they’re marketing to. In reality, only two key internal groups in a business truly need to be won over. IT and the individual department heads that manage budgets. Chief Information Officers would need to see the benefits of keyboards that would come pre-assembled and can be repaired rather than replaced, giving the project the stamp of approval. Department heads would need to be convinced that mech keebs increase productivity and job satisfaction, and add them to their budget lines. I think that this subject would make for a very interesting study or thesis, especially supported by data and rationales that could be marketed to target companies.  In conclusion So here we are, at the beginning of something old and new. Between the choice to be a niche hobby of hardcore enthusiasts, who live with the possibility of our hobby shrinking in popularity, or a more inclusive option where mechanical keyboard enthusiasts (and gamers) are rejoined by the business community? Personally I’d like to see us grow. I’d like to see us solidify demand, and find new ways to make the community more accessible, affordable and creative. I love showing off my keyboards at work, converting friends to the hobby, and maintaining a certain exclusivity, but I think I’d trade it in for a thoughtful environment where high quality typing tools were the norm.  As always, I’d like to hear from you. Do you think your company would be open to returning to mechanical keyboards? What switches do you think your company would use? Can you imagine a company large enough to commission their own keycap set? I enjoy thinking about this subject and would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for reading, commenting and for this community platform where we can share our thoughts. As always, keep finding stories in everything you do.
(Edited)
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Aristarco
196
Mar 27, 2024
I work at a State Government office and as such, budget is everything. They started cutting on everything, from toilet paper to ball-point pens. Making them change their minds to include mech keebs in the budget is unthinkable but when I did bring the first mk I had bought, a Keychron K2, my workmates started asking where to get one and if they could try it. Most of them are not buying one because of the price and so I started making keebs to see if I can make an affordable one with all the features they like while making them smaller in layout. I'm still trying, showing prototypes and asking for feedback. Maybe they'll never buy one but I'll keep trying. One thing I love as much as using a mechanical keyboard is designing one. From KiCAD layouts to soldering components to finding keycaps and burning firmware, it feels like the handcraft of a middle-ages artisan. I'd love to see enough acceptance so as to order customized keycaps with the organization image. But I'm also realist and I know that may never happen. But one can always try. And have fun in the process. Fun fact: When I got Kailh Box Jades, some of the loudest clickies I've ever heard, my goal was to annoy everyone. Instead, a flock of analysts came to my desk asking where to get a keyb that sounded like that because they loved it. Go figure!
AristarcoBox Jades for the win! I love those, and they have such a typewriter/office sound. I'm telling you, people miss that vibe.
Clique
14
Mar 27, 2024
Thank you for this insightful and interesting article. I have been into custom keyboards before there was such a thing. As I writer, I loved the well-built peripherals before rubber domes cheaped out the boards. With zero regard for anyone else, I have brought in to the office the clickiest builds I could find. In my quest, I discovered a keyboard company out of Canada that produced keyboards with White Alps switches. Expensive and fantastic. The problem is that the hard-wired switches would go bad after a year or two. For awhile, my daily driver at the office was a Razer. I got custom keycaps for it (SA profile, I think). It only did green LEDs, and I wanted RGB, so I sold it to a guy who sat next to me and I got a Black Widow x Chroma. Tricked it out with purple Pudding keycaps. Suddenly it wasn't good enough for me so I got a CoolerMaster. Now I have a Womier K87 and a K21 (numpad!) with ceramic keycaps and AKKO V3 Crystal switches. However, because of my Razer, three other people went out and bought them, and I selected a CoolerMaster for one of the owners of the company. I like where this is going...
TaylorD
384
Mar 27, 2024
I'm currently using a Keychron V5 at work with Durock Silent Linears, and assembled my wife a V6 w/ Durock Silent Tactiles for work. Both feel quite nice and sound quiet enough to use in the office. At home, I use a Razer Blackwidow V4 75%, that I really thought I'd change the switches, but it's actually quite well-built and pleasant sounding to type on. Razer did a good with that one. I've always wanted hot-swap with Chroma 😅 I really think you're onto something here though. I work in IT and I detest using the flat rubber dome keyboards they have, to the point that I have to edit myself down because it's too pleasant to type on my mechs. Also, arguably we need a keyboard that's certified for secure use. It doesn't always matter, but some agencies refuse anything that's not OE from a major manufacturer...
(Edited)
Chibigodzilla
3
Mar 26, 2024
When I went back into the office after working from home during COVID, it took me about 15 minutes before I was like "This shitty, free with purchase, membrane nonsense is not going to cut it anymore."
MonetsChemist
72
Mar 26, 2024
Your article is bang on. Thanks for writing it! Personally, I'm a happy Tokyo60 user and I have a number + arrow keypad on the side for days when I'm bashing more than a few numbers. I really like this layout because my mouse is right next to the Tokyo60 and the separate number keypad is on the other side of the mouse, which really works for my needs. The nice mechanical keys, board, frame, caps make a huge positive impact on my daily work life. When I have to use some mediocre to sh*tty membrane keyboard or the Thing that is on my otherwise quite fine System76 laptop, I groan.
SuperKrog
18
Mar 25, 2024
worked for a while with a simple dz65rgb with cheap plastic case, SA ABS keycaps and sakurios switches... it was really pleasant. Now I work from home with same keyboard and a metal case added :-)
FOENME
6
Mar 22, 2024
I work for an airline in the cargo department, I am happy to report that more individuals are curating their workstations. (DHL) would be my first pick for early adopters of custom designed switches. DHL is all about the brand coloring system. If it is a shared workspace silent keys are perfect, I picked up the (Silent shrimps) not too long ago and they are impressive! However. Also (clicky) switches should be allowed, anyone one who has been held hostage through mandatory overtime has earned the right to bang their cup against the bars of their confinement. I am also an advocate for earbuds/headset in the workplace. I had a supervisor complain what if it is an emergency, you can’t hear me (My reply - I’m not blind and I can smell fire…) we have Microsoft teams and if you need to speak to me that urgently you can either walk 10ft or call my phone. If you on the other hand are worried about your personal safety, why not sit where we can see you hiding behind a cubicle doesn’t make you invisible, I know you’re slacking off because I can’t hear you typing…#OfficeSpace "What would you say it is you say you do here?"
(Edited)
FOENME"anyone one who has been held hostage through mandatory overtime has earned the right to bang their cup against the bars of their confinement." amazing line. Thank you for your thoughts! I agree that brand specific keycaps or switches would be SO fun.
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