Moving work to the browser

Taking small steps towards better privacy and work–life balance.

Mikołaj, looking slightly to the right from behind.

Mikołaj Biernat

Jan 26, 2023


7 min read

It’s best to use two separate computers for work and personal stuff. In this setup, it’s feasible to protect your privacy and put work behind when you clock out — especially if you’re remote.

But say that you’re among over half of people who either use their work devices for personal tasks — or the other way around.

That was me, a few months ago. Although fairly deep into the privacy and security rabbit hole, I was using my MacBook for virtually everything. For that, I had two excuses.

My boss doesn’t use any spyware to track me. The most privacy-invasive service on my laptop is … Google Workspace. There’s no VPN or remote disk management pre-installed. Everyone’s free to use whatever tools they’re the most productive with.

When I joined the company, I noticed that folks have both personal and work things opened on their machines. So, without giving it too much thought, I did the same.

Also, as a naive follower of the designers never stop working cult, I believed that I can’t (or shouldn’t) cut short my creative flow just because it’s past 5 p.m. “Inspiration doesn’t care about my work–life balance” — so I must keep my design tools open 24/7, even when binging YouTube on the weekend.

That’s not right

As you might have guessed, that approach was a disaster. My digital spaces were borderless. It was impossible to disconnect from work. Furiously red notification dots were constantly screaming for my attention, and my habits were too strong to ignore them.

My journey towards better privacy was being sabotaged — and I was the one to blame. Even though I was hardening Firefox and setting rules for every network connection with the help from Little Snitch, Zoom was sitting on my disk like it’s never had any issues. In my mind, I was savvy — but in reality, I didn’t practice the basics.

On a related note, my work-related apps didn’t function properly in my privacy-first setup. For instance: because Firefox is a non-Chromium browser, I had to apologize for audio and video glitches every time I joined a meeting via Google Meet (a common bug that’s a part of a bigger problem).

And because I had a preference for desktop apps, I was using Apple’s native clients for email and calendar. And that really worked like garbage. Rescheduling events always resulted in some kind of conflict, and I was missing out on so many objectively great Gmail features.

Moving work to the browser

Time for a change. Ideally, I was looking for an alternative to getting another laptop. And then it hit me — I’m moving my work to the browser.

What I’ve realized is that all the apps I use at work are Electron-based. They’re not built for a particular platform with its respective technology (like Swift for macOS). Instead, they’re developed with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and are rendered with a version of Chromium — the dominant browser project that powers Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Vivaldi, and many more. What it means (and this is an oversimplification) is that these apps work the same in a browser and as a “desktop” app because it’s all Chromium anyway.

An astronaut looking at Figma, Dropbox, Notion and Slack icons asking ”Wait, it’s all Chromium?”. A second astronaut answers “Always has been”, with a gun pointing at them.

So, I can move them all from my desktop to the browser — and therefore create a separate container that’s dedicated just for work. I can open it with a single click, while all the other stuff on my laptop remains personal.

Before we move though

A few quick disclaimers.

  1. This advice is highly subjective. If you’re using desktop-only apps like Adobe After Effects, this isn’t gonna work.

  2. You can’t have absolute privacy. The sweet spot between privacy, security, and convenience is based on your threat model. Mine might be different than yours, thus what works for me might not be enough for you.

  3. If you have to use a company VPN or some kind of bossware, just use a dedicated computer for a piece of mind. It’s also a no-brainer if your contract gives your employer ownership over any IP you produce on the specified devices.

My work browser

All there’s left to do is to choose the browser dedicated for work. For compatibility reasons, I knew I had to go with something Chromium-based.

At first, I chose Brave. I was already familiar with its built-in ad blocker and solid privacy features. Everything worked well, but after test-driving it for about two weeks, I switched.

Arc, the mysterious project from The Browser Company, had been revealed to the world. And it was around the time I was moving my work to the browser that I got access to it. Although hesitant initially, I slowly got the hype — they’re really reinventing the way we think about browsers. Features like Favorite Tabs or Spaces might not sound new — but it’s their execution that sets them apart from their equivalents in the competitor products.

From the privacy standpoint, I can’t say too much about them at this point. In their straightforward Privacy Policy, they claim to respect users’ data. They also seem to have reasonable monetization ideas. But besides the promises, I haven’t found a reliable source that would resolve my doubts.

Arc browser window with apps like Slack, Gmail, Google Calendar, Figma, Notion opened in tabs.

What I enjoy about this setup

Better privacy

Before the switch, I was using the same browser for all Internet activities. It aggregated my whole browsing history and cookies. For the websites I visited, identifying me was an easy task because to all of them I had the same fingerprint.

Now, I use Arc with good enough privacy settings (that don’t break websites) while my personal browser(s) are hardened all the way. I never mix them — so when I’m sharing my screen at a stand-up, nobody peeks at my personal bookmarks.

Also, apps that run in your browser can get less information about you than their desktop versions. Your browser creates an additional layer of protection, making it harder for web apps to create a complete profile about you without permissions.

Any work–life balance

I finally got some kind of separation between my work and personal digital spaces. Previously, all messages, notifications, and projects were floating around my desktop at all times. Now, opening and closing Arc feels like going in and out of the office. When I’m not working, I just ignore its icon idling in the dock.

Sharper focus

When I launch Arc, it means work time. It opens my tabs just like I left them the day before, so I don’t have to rearrange my workspace every morning. Switching between them with Ctrl + Tab is way faster than shuffling through spaces on my desktop. And besides a house playlist in the background, all my personal apps are closed — which makes me less distracted at work.

Improved reliability

No matter how many new clients launch, Gmail and Google Calendar work the best in the browser. You can take the advantage of all the shortcuts, latest features, and integrations, while the delays and sync errors are non-existent. Since switching from Apple’s clients, I haven’t had any technical problems.

Also — though this is anecdotal evidence — some Electron apps seem to be less buggy when running in the browser. Whenever someone has troubles with applying styles in Figma or editing documents in Notion, I suggest they try again in their browser — and it usually helps.

Is this the best setup?

Absolutely not. I’d even call it more of a workaround than an ideal solution, really. While it works for me (for now), if that’s not what you’re looking for, here’s what you can do:

  1. Buy a separate laptop (or other device). It’s the most expensive and time-consuming option, but once you commit, you don’t have to worry about anything.

  2. Set up a separate user account. This is great if you need better separation, and you can’t do all your work in the browser.

  3. Run a Virtual Machine (VM). It’s like you’d open a separate desktop environment inside what looks like another application window. It’s a solid trade-off if you always need an isolated instance opened in the background.

  4. Carry a live USB. This is too inconvenient for the most people — but you can boot an operating system from a USB stick. Just plug it into a compatible machine, and you’re all set.

Update: Recently, I've got a new job and decided to use two separate laptops. I think my suggestion is still valid, but wanted to be open about whether I'm following it. And I'm still loving Arc.