One of the benefits of my job is that I work from home one day a week, and have been doing so for just over seven years. It’s a wonderful perk. If I ever chose to move to a different job, I’d want to be sure I retained this same benefit as it goes a long way toward my mental health.
As a confirmed introvert, working from home on Friday allows me to get my job done while having a little break from my very extroverted team of peers (all of whom I adore, in measured doses).
So when word came down from my leadership that we are to work from home for the foreseeable future, I though “pfft, no problem, I’m already a pro at this.”
On Day One, I approached my now shelter-in-place working from home days exactly as I approached every work from home Friday, and that was my first mistake.
Since I believe in growing from my mistakes, here are five things I have learned and want to share from the first week of working from home every day:
#1 You must have boundaries
When working from home just one day a week, the boundaries between work life and home life were never an issue. I’d get up a little later than usual, make the short commute down the hall, and do my job. Since the end of Friday is also the end of the work week, at 5:00pm I’d log off and enjoy my weekend time.
Now that work from home is every day, it’s too easy at 9:45pm to think “oh, you know, I could just dash off that email to my boss that I forgot to do earlier” or when I’m obsessing over the current news at 3:30 in the morning, “I could take one more look at that PowerPoint draft.”
To be honest, it’s very likely that I have used “putting in extra work” as a way to deal with my anxiety over the current events. It feels like I am doing something about it, but I’m not. It’s an avoidance and over time will wear me out when right now I need to find ways to stay strong.
In short: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.
#2 You must have boundaries
Since my husband is now my coworker five days a week, and since my husband is my absolute favorite person in the world, I find myself wanting to spend time with him as we usually do after work or on the weekends.
This means sitting together, drinking coffee, talking over all the things on our minds, including but not limited to: how cute our cat is, our thoughts on movie, television, or literary characters, what to have for dinner, and most importantly whether or not feeding peanuts to the crows and bluejays in the backyard will cause them to protect us, as a fierce corvid army, when the zombies rise…you know, normal couple stuff.
But if we spend too much time in our usual weekend pattern, then I am not getting work done. Then again, if I spend too much time doing work (see #1 above) then I’m not spending needed time with my husband.
Once again: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.
As part of my job I support a team of technical people who are dispersed across the country, so I am very used to using video conferencing daily, whether at home or not. When this new stay at home edict came down, I was already set up on the app, had a good camera to use, and a speaker for sound.
Not so for my peers. For the most part using videoconferencing is new for them, and I find myself giving mini tutorials on every meeting we have.
Our IT department is now conducting four one-hour long trainings a day on how to use the videoconferencing service, but my peers seem loathe to take a course. “Too busy,” they say. So instead they are relying on me to help them. In every meeting.
This is not sustainable. I love to help people but I can’t get sucked into this vortex. Instead of jumping in there when they have troubles, am now sitting on my hands when someone says, “I can’t figure out how to share this document” or “Why can’t I see everyone?”
If they ask me directly, I will help, but if they are just muttering and fumbling I stay quiet because the best way to learn is to do it for yourself. The user interface isn’t really that hard, it just takes a little time to get comfortable with it.
The one exception: The times when a participant has both their phone and laptop dialed in which produces that horrible ping back and forth that escalates into a high teeth grinding sound. The audio equivalent of standing between two mirrors. I cannot restrain myself from jumping in to sternly say “Phone or Laptop, not both, mute one!”
At any break at work, I find myself looking at the latest headlines. On every call my peers want to talk about the headlines. In the kitchen while making lunch my husband and I talk about the latest headlines, “So, did you hear that…”
All of this fuels my anxiety and managing this is a big factor in my ability to stay safe and sane, and to be an active, productive employee.
Many years ago I took a meditation class and the instructor told us: “You don’t have to watch, read, or seek out the current headline news. If there is something you need to know, it will find you.”
It has been almost 20 years since I first heard this gentle guidance and it is more true today than it ever has been.
#5 You must have boundaries
On Friday work from home days, I tend to dress pretty comfortably. Yoga pants with a not terrible shirt. Fluffy socks and slippers. Loose but comfy (okay, ratty) sweater.
This is fine once a week, as Friday is the most causal day at work by far, but this is not sustainable for me five days a week. It is really true that clothes impact how you speak, how you hold yourself, how you feel. Clothes matter.
Now, I’m not saying put on a three piece suit and hard shoes every day, but at least wear the kind of “business casual” clothes you might wear to the office. Get up, take a shower, comb your hair, put on some work clothes, maybe light makeup if that’s your thing, and present yourself well. You’ll get your mind right to sit down and do some work.
Then when the work day is done, by all means, jettison yourself right back into those comfy home clothes. You’ve earned it.
We have no idea how long this current stay at home edict is going to last. so it is important to build good boundaries now to help stay sane over time.
And just because you work from home, don’t neglect washing your hands!
Today I reluctantly rose from bed, put some mismatched clothes on my body and headed out. The roads were unusually empty. Stopping at my neighborhood grocery store, I parked and hopped out of the driver’s seat.
Behind me I heard, “Hey! Is anyone coming?”
Assuming this was not directed at me, I leaned into my car to grab my wallet and heard again, more insistently this time, “HEY! Is anyone coming?”
Realizing this was in fact directed at me, I whipped around to see a man in a very new and very shiny cherry red Mustang. He pointed as if to show me that he couldn’t see around the large Amazon delivery van that was parked next to him, and was wary of backing out in the tightly packed parking lot.
“Oh sorry,” I said, and turned to look, the morning sun blinding me as I did.
Shielding my eyes and with a pirate’s squint I said, “Yeah, it’s okay, come on back.” I stood there waving my hand and muttering encouragement while he maneuvered his pretty vehicle through the obstacles. “Yep, keep coming. Yep, you’re good.”
Finally, the driver straightened out the wheel and put it in drive. While pulling away he yelled out the window, “Thank you! I love you!” revved the engine, and was gone.
I stood there for a minute with a perplexed look on my face.
Then went inside the store. Chicken salad was my goal.
It’s morning and I’m waking up rough after some really painful dental work. I’m running late for work but I’m trying to stay calm and just get there.
I’m traversing a road that is something of an unofficial border. On one side is a series of slightly rough neighborhoods where gentrification is coming hard and fast. And painfully.
The other side is the “good” side of the road (scare quotes used intentionally). Gentrification has already arrived to this side of the road, for both better and for worse.
I stop at a red light at a major intersection. I am first in line and there is a long line of cars behind me.
“Who Can It Be Now,” plays from the oldies station on my radio. A popular song from my high school years is now an oldie. Don’t get me started.
I tap my thumb on the steering wheel and hum along when to my left, a local denizen, a gentleman who has seen better days, enters the crosswalk taking something of a slanting route over the white lines.
In his hand he’s carrying an open tall boy and holding it close to his chest. He’s smiling, though his face and his skin looks like he’s seen some things.
I am alternately like “right on!” because why not beer at almost nine in in the morning? Then “oooh, damn” because beer at nine in the morning possibly means chasing a few demons somewhere around nine o’clock the night before.
But I don’t know this guy’s story, so I don’t judge.
As he ambles amiably in front of the grill of my very old and very tired car in the center lane, in the right lane an oblivious driver in a black Mercedes whips right into the crosswalk, intent on turning right and doing it right now, and damn near hits the guy.
Our beer drinking friend pulls up short, steps back and slightly bows, waving the Mercedes along. It pulls out in a huff, if I can attribute huffiness to a car.
Then the man in the crosswalk turns to me and smiles a lopsided smile and waves. I do what any decent member of the human race should do, I wave back. I briefly entertain a “I should not have done that” thought because I have learned through enough years living near and in big cities that sometimes it’s just better not to engage.
But I was wrong for thinking that. As I wave, he smiles a little wider, peers around the corner of my car to be sure the coast is clear, then makes his way safely to the other side of the road.
My light turns green and I drive on, thinking about the guy, this city where I now live, the ever growing division between rich and poor, and the implications of gentrification. I also think about how delicious the lemon scone sitting in the passenger seat is going to be when I get to work and gobble it up.
I get to the place of my employment, find a parking spot, quick yank the parking break and start my day. Something about the man with the tall boy sticks with me and I can’t quite figure out why.
One thing I know for sure is that I have to write about it, to capture the fleeting moment and memorialize it for myself as much as for anyone else.
Did you ever have the kind of day where you are going ninety miles an hour at your work desk, cranking out the emails, spreadsheets and taking phone calls left and right, all while balancing the Greyhound bus stop that is the chair in front of your desk….
And despite all the chaos and kerfuffle, just in the nick of time, you manage to whip out one page with a beautifully wrought, easy-to-read table that contains the cheat sheet you’ll need to answer every question that will be machine gun fired at you at your 3:00 meeting.
So you send that sumnabitch to the printer and grab your notebook, hike up your pants, run to the copier, and grab that thing off the machine so you can make it to your meeting at something less than five minutes late.
Then you squeal your tires around the corner into the copy room and you are heartened to hear that the machine isn’t working. It’s done. It’s printed your copy.
Only it hasn’t.
The screen reads “out of paper, load tray three.”
Inside your head, you say, “I can deal with this.”
It’s one of those big industrial machines and to fill the paper tray takes not one, not two, but three reams of ecologically friendly 50% post-consumer lily white paper.
Being a good office citizen, you could throw half a ream in there and call it good, but you don’t. You fill it up to the top, slam the drawer and the machine fires up.
Sweet sound of the Gods!
And the machine begins spitting out page after page after page…..
And you realize the guy in front of you must be printing like a hundred copies of his forty page slide deck and it’s HIS FAULT that the machine was parched for paper when you arrived.
Nothing you can do now but watch that machine like a bird dog after a duck, all the while not-my-copy, not-my-copy, not-my-copy shoots out of the machine, perfectly stapled and collated and tidy as you please.
“Ok,” you say to yourself. “I can deal with this.”
Then the machine stops again. The engine winds down.
“Thank god!” you think.
But wait, your copy isn’t there.
“WHAT THE [EXPLETIVE DELETED]!!!” You may or may not shout.
The LCD screen on that machine says “Replace Toner” and provides helpful animated arrows to guide you through the process.
“Ok,” you think to yourself, “I can deal with this. It can’t be that hard.”
So you find a box with a new toner tube and you follow the bouncing arrow on the screen and the old toner comes out and the new toner slides in and now you may or may not have black toner dust peppering your arms.
But you slam closed the toner door and the machine begins to make a noise.
“Warming up,” it tells you.
And you wait for what must be an [expletive deleted] eternity while the machine “cleans the wires” and “recalibrates” itself at the pace of an anemic snail.
Then Holy Mother of Xerox, the machine starts spitting out copies anew and more and more of not-my-copy of someone’s presentation comes out.
Then, most miraculous! The single sheet that you desperately needed finally exits the machine!
So to be helpful you pull the other copies off the machine to lay them aside in a nice, neat stack.
And because you are nosy by nature, you look to see exactly what is the document that held up your progress and made you irretrievably late for a very important meeting, and you come to realize that it is…..
Handouts for someone’s upcoming Cub Scout meeting.
You ever have a day like that?
No way, right? Because that story just has to be made up.