Balancing Work from Wherever

Photo by Djurdjica Boskovic on Unsplash

As I self-isolate after having returned to the U.S. from Switzerland more than a week ago, I’m reminded that it doesn’t matter where we set up our “offices” — it’s a privilege to have work at all when so many are being displaced from their jobs. In the U.S., the newest ground zero for the pandemic, unemployment sites are crashing, unable to handle the increased demand for benefits.

The millions of us working in improvised spaces are also keenly aware that there are countless workers who have no choice but to go into their usual workplaces. The first responders — doctors, nurses, EMTs, firefighters, and police officers, among others — and all those who work in manufacturing environments or in essential retail (think grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations) are keeping our communities going during this near-global shutdown. I (wistfully) imagine campaigns that salute all these heroes, whenever this thing winds down, and also those researchers who are in their labs and data sets looking for new solutions: vaccines, medicines, predictive models. I salute the work I am already seeing, including the messages from Marriott’s CEO, the Mucinex work via McCann in New York, the Anheuser-Busch InBev ad from David, and, of course, the amazing message from Nike.

Those of us lucky enough to be able to pick up our work lives and transport them to our guest rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, or bedrooms have every reason to be grateful. If you’re like me, though, you’ll have found yourself a bit discombobulated, trying to piece together some semblance of a new routine while trying to come to grips with all that’s happening.

I’m a near-lifelong news junkie, but even I find myself overdosing on COVID-19 coverage. Toggling between news websites, email, and video conference calls — with CNN a constant presence in the background — I can’t stop myself from consuming more even as I’m finding it more challenging to process. I can only imagine how those with young children are struggling to cope.

I have long considered work the place for socialization and meetings, and home the site where real work gets done. And I’m not alone. Recent data show that Europeans are working on average two hours more each day, while Americans working at home are edging closer to three extra hours a day. Hard to say whether we’re all being more productive or simply filling the hours with work to keep our minds occupied. It may also be that, especially for those with children at home, it takes us 10 hours to accomplish what we used to in eight.

It’s been fascinating to see the creativity people in shared or tiny living spaces are deploying as they attempt to claim some “land” for their new work spaces. From ironing boards and ladders as standing desks to bathrooms and cramped closets as the new conference rooms, the world’s workforce is making do in ingenious ways. There’s plenty of inspiration out there: Pinterest reports that searches for “work from home setup” increased 1,114 percent in the two weeks prior to March 20. Kudos to West Elm and others for their digital video-call backgrounds — giving those in cluttered or otherwise visually imperfect spaces one less thing to worry about.

It’s not all about designer touches, of course. There’s no escaping the importance of a decent chair and proper lighting — although I say that while recognizing it’s a first-world ask at a time when even the first world is experiencing shortages of basic supplies for our hospitals and medical workers. According to an email I received from their PR rep, in the last two weeks the proprietary “Edge System” chair has seen sales jump more than 700 percent. Other online retailers report similar growth in sales of ergonomic desk chairs.

As we work to seal our personal borders and stem the spread of COVID-19, I think we’re all learning a few things about the importance of boundaries and their impact on creativity and productivity. (You know who will never understand WFH boundaries? Our pets.) I know several longtime WFH naysayers who have been surprised by the caliber of work their employees have been delivering. Don’t be surprised if this virus results in greater flexibility on the part of employers once we’ve emerged on the other side. I think there may be a long-term benefit, too, from the glimpses we’re all gaining into our co-workers’ lives. There’s intimacy to seeing someone a little more ruffled in a living room painted a color you never would have pegged them for picking. Sometimes household members pop into view, and you get a chance to see your co-workers’ interactions with a child, partner, roommate, or pet. Another bright side: In keeping with the trend of pets as support animals, shelters in New York City are reporting shortages of cats and dogs as people turn to new four-legged friends to calm their nerves. Some are fostering pets for the duration of the crisis, while others intend to add them to their families permanently, saying that this enforced isolation is finally giving them the time required to train a new pet. A nice win amid the chaos.

Our lives have been upturned by COVID-19 in ways big and small. My hope is that we can take advantage of this forced isolation to take a breath and think long and hard about the design flaws in the Old Normal. Once our workplaces are back up and running, what can we change about our approach to achieve a better balance? Perhaps having seen our colleagues in their home environments will serve as a much-needed reminder that we need to protect those home lives with more clearly delineated boundaries. Just a thought from my outpost-for-one in Rhode Island.

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