How to productively work from home – without going bonkers
By David Hugh Smith
Let’s start by saying the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that less than 30 percent of American workers can do their jobs from home. So a lot of people have been “let go” – from the lady who brought you tummy-busting food at a cheesecake restaurant to the dude who sold you tickets to Terminator Ten at the movie theater.
According to Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, almost 139,600 first-time jobless claims were filed in this state just for the week up till April 4. Meanwhile, during the first five weeks of the crisis, 26 million people in the US filed for unemployment. That’s a huge number, and each of these individuals has their own unhappy story to tell.
To put it mildly, working from home is not nearly as bad as being at home and not working. With this in mind, the Professional Development Collaborative and PDC publications will be reaching out to help during the coming months – with programs and information providing encouragement and ideas to boost your ability to earn a living.
In this article we share ideas from people who are still working, but from home. We look at how they are doing this without going bonkers. Of course working from home could include working on finding work. Or signing up for assistance programs to tide oneself over till the economy gets restarted.
We’ll begin with comments from a teacher living in Brookline:
Celebrate small victories
Author Robert Putnam in his much-cited 2000 book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” wrote about social disengagement – of people losing their commitment to participate in organizations that provide social interaction. But one thing is for sure: apart from a small percentage of workers who telecommuted every day, people continued to interact with others at work, including teachers in school classrooms … until the coronavirus started shutting down workplaces and everyplace else where it was possible to connect in person.
For many people, not going in to work has been very rough.
Jennifer Caplan is an example. She teaches 1st Grade in Mansfield. She’s someone who loves being in a classroom filled with children; she’s been a teacher for 29 years. Now, instead, she is perched in her 3rd-floor apartment with her son and her dog, waiting for … waiting for whatever needs to happen in order to return to her very important role.
“I feel a great sense of loss for my students,” Jennifer says. “And for myself. Because 1st grade is an amazing journey. It’s the year children begin to feel their power as learners.”
Jennifer stays in touch with them by email. She makes videos she sends to students. She creates assignments, suggests games, provides other materials to inspire creativity and movement. But she is mindful that not all kids have access to technology. She does her best, but these efforts are not the same as being in class with her students.
“I walk Henry (her dog) a lot. I go to the dog park every day. It gives me great joy to see someone I love have such a good time.” She plays hide and seek with her son and talks and texts with friends. Jennifer’s recommendation for getting through this is to “Not put great expectations on yourself. People think with this time at home they should be [very] productive. That is not realistic for everyone.”
Instead, Jennifer compassionately recommends “Accept where you are and how you feel.” And to “celebrate small victories.” These can include even taking a shower or connecting with a friend by phone.
‘We’ll come out stronger’
Jennifer’s love for being with people, in a classroom, contrasts dramatically with Jeffrey Bonvallat’s love for working solo. He runs his investment-management company from home in Acton. That said, even he needs to take steps to socialize.
Jeff comments “I turn into Howard Hughes after a while if I don’t see anyone.” (Howard Hughes, an extremely wealthy businessman, famously became a recluse with a very peculiar lifestyle toward the end of his life.) So, while practicing social distancing, Jeff has neighbors “I can speak to through the screen door.” He also writes letters to friends and relatives.
Jeff believes pressing a system-wide pause button is “making people reassess their lives and what’s important. [It’s] good to take a step back and reassess.” He adds, “I think we’ll come out stronger … You take a hardship and you deal with it and you are more equipped for the next hardship.”
Keep your thought uplifted
By contrast, North Carolina semi-conductor engineer Vidur Kapoor does miss social interaction at work. He even misses the office atmosphere. But he says it helps that his son is home from college like so many other students. He enjoys taking walks and calling friends on the phone to stay connected.
Speaking from the perspective of someone who has worked from home in the past, and has endured periods needing to find a new job in a profession where jobs can easily come and go, Vidur stresses the importance of “keep[ing] your thought uplifted. And of [using] prayer and meditation or whatever stills your thought. Because once your thought is stilled you can be more effective. More satisfied, more calm, more productive.”
Vidur also deals with the crisis by “not get sucked into the stressful topics – [such as] what’s going on in the health arena. [And by not] dwelling on … loss and financial pressures.”
Instead, he recommends people stuck at home “do good things. That’s why you are here … To improve yourself and the world around you … To use your talents to improve the lives of people and express the qualities you have in order to serve people.”
Specifically, Vidur recommends “keep[ing] a regular schedule. Be dressed and make calls. Learn a skill. Keep a structure. Structure is important . . . . I have a room dedicated to my work. Keep your regular schedule. Feel that you have a purpose. Sleep and eat well. Don’t get lost. Keep your thought on the positive.”
He also mentions that professionals who have lost their jobs are in a better position to be re-hired if they are “calm and positive.”
Remote collaboration works – but not for pizza shops
“Technologies we didn’t have in place 10 years ago will help us get through this more elegantly,” says Stephanie Davis, an IT business analyst/manager for a software company. She realizes she’s one of the fortunate ones because “apart from the lack of physical interaction [work] is no different.” Her 6,000-employee company uses Webex and Zoom and other technologies to hold meetings and facilitate work getting done remotely.
She states that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Her own company is making technology available, free of charge, to enable “remote collaboration.”
But Stephanie misses her pre-crisis life. She lives in Boston and misses seeing co-workers. She also misses the 7-mile round trip commute she makes by bicycle.
Helping her stay connected are her two cats. “One of them glowers at me. One enjoys [having me home all the time].” Her company even encourages holding social events online.
“There is no question this is disastrous [for retail businesses]. You have to restart the economy somehow.” Stephanie is doing her part by providing substantial practical help to a neighbor in great need and is ready to spend money at the neighborhood pizza shop as soon as it fires up it’s ovens.
Stay away from the refrigerator
For Jan “Skip” Paardecamp, who works in the financial services industry in North Carolina, a big issue is getting distracted. And while he tips his hat to technology that enables him to meet remotely, people experiencing technical issues can interrupt meetings – and sometimes it’s hard to hear participants.
Skip also comments “There’s a certain amount of voyeurism … by using the video camera we see the inside of people’s homes” – like into the beach home of one of his co-workers.
Skip also misses the discipline of getting ready and driving to work where there are fewer distractions. “The refrigerator is full of food. It’s (easy) to walk into the kitchen and start eating. Or to take breaks and go sit on my deck.” An up side is that his dog Tater will lie near his feet while he’s working. “It’s comforting knowing that she’s there with me. And I get in a couple hours of gardening at the end of the day because I don’t have to commute.”
Skip’s biggest tip in terms of dealing with distractions is to “focus on your work.”
(Articles in professional publications make a number of recommendations to keep this focus, including, as much as possible, replicating one’s workday at home by getting dressed, following regular work hours, and setting aside space where only work happens.)
Work with the opposite sex
Professionals with young children at home deal with additional issues – additional distractions – particularly families where both spouses work full time.
A strategy Brian Gavaletz and his wife use is “we work with the opposite sex” – Brian with his daughter in kindergarten and his wife with their son in 4th grade. “We have more patience for the opposite sex.” That said, “Some days are a little more hairy than other days.”
Brian and his wife both work in administration for a small, private school in St. Louis. He says his wife’s office is the dining room. “My office is wherever I don’t bother her (she works on Zoom much of the time). I mainly work with a laptop on my knees.”
Brian says “[What’s worked] for us has been understanding what each child needs and plugging ourselves in to meet the need. Figuring out how they work best. Setting them up for success.
“Our kids work very well with a schedule. We wake them up at 7:30 and they make their beds. They have morning chores. Then they’ll have breakfast. There is a PE component. We’ll go outside and get that done. Then they are then ready to hit the ground running with homework.
“The other piece worth mentioning is hanging a carrot out there. Once their work is done the rest of the day is theirs. My son is motivated to get his work done so that he can have free time.”
The Gavaletz family does have a big advantage: “My wife’s parents live across the street, so we can send them over there if we need a little peace and quiet.”
There is no doubt this still is a stressful time no matter how well the Gavaletz family’s structured program is working. To remain calm and positive, they “Try to see the good. Magnify the good.” For example, they celebrate “People doing the right thing, which is the opposite of what we see in the news.
“They say that tragedy is what sells. It’s more eye catching. We’re looking for examples [with our children of people doing good for others].
Brian adds, “There are examples every day. It lifts my spirit. When we see it we share it. It’s kind of cleansing. It cleans out my thought.”
David Hugh Smith is president of Right Writers, a Brookline, Mass., communications company. He’s also editor of PDC publications. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.