Saturday, August 8, 2020

Teleworking During the COVID-19 Pandemic


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As companies continue to ask employees to telework in response to COVID-19, you might find yourself in unfamiliar territory—your own home. What is this place called “home” where you’re suddenly spending so much time? Who are these people called “family”? And how do we keep this “new normal” from destroying our careers? This post walks you through a menagerie of best practices.

Define your workspace

Sure, your kitchen, dining room, bedroom, and garage may seem totally familiar—but take some time to explore other areas of the house that may seem new to you. Who sleeps in these other bedrooms? What is this strange space called the “living room”? What goes on in the basement?

It might be tempting to involve your whole house in your teleworking. You could take your laptop to the sofa, the La-Z-Boy armchair, or your back deck and expect to get work done. Experienced teleworkers will tell you they tried this and it simply doesn’t work! Sofas are made for sleeping, not marching toward quarterly performance goals. As for taking your conference call out to the back deck, nobody wants to overhear birdsong—that’s just depressing. What’s next, taking your laptop into the bath? Don’t take the bait. Dock your laptop in the home office, and act like you’re chained to your desk—just like good old days before teleworking and COVID-19.

Prioritize privacy

Whether you work from your home or in a common area, take five minutes to assess the privacy of your workspace. Can someone standing behind you read your computer screen? What if your spouse, or your kid, is hunting for trade secrets? It may seem like “all in the family” now, until your teenager suddenly has a coveted internship with your competitor and they start poaching your customers!

Is it okay to work from Starbucks? Well, that depends. Is your local Starbucks even open? If you broke in, or pushed past their ad hoc takeout window, that may strike your colleagues as unprofessional behavior. Conversely, if your local Starbucks is open, because you live in one of these benighted cities that don’t believe in COVID, your colleagues may be shocked, during a videoconference, to see unmasked idiots seated near you. This could be a major distraction, so it’s probably best to work from your actual home.

Have a good Internet connection

Set up your workspace near your wireless access point (WAP). If the WAP is in the kid’s room, and you’re out working in the garage with the furnace duct blocking the signal, you won’t have a good WiFi experience and neither will your colleagues. Trade places with your children, even if banishing them to the garage—with all its toxic cleaners, solvents, and sharp tools—presents a significant risk. At this point you may wonder why you installed the one WAP in the house in their room to begin with. Or did your children do the install? How old, exactly, are these hypothetical kids? A couple sentences back they seemed like children or toddlers, and now they’re high school seniors with internships at Cisco. You can see how complicated teleworking gets!

You might want to splurge on a true business-grade Internet connection. A fully redundant setup such as dedicated concentric Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) rings can be acquired for just a few thousand dollars a month. You can defray this cost by installing an outdoor, all-weather WAP that your neighbors can tap into—for a fee. Just remember to let them know when you change the SSID password, or they might soon be offline and out of a job!

Audiovisual presence

Many first-time teleworkers commit the “rookie move” of failing to optimize their video conferencing setup. For example, the angle of their laptop screen—where the built-in camera is housed—might be set such that their nostrils seem to gape, or the age-related folds in their neck are accentuated. Take some time to set this up right. This might mean sitting with your back to a brightly lit window, so that you appear as just a silhouette, which creates an air of mystery even as it hides signs of ageing, frustration, or boredom.

Don’t neglect your audio connection either. The built-in mic on your modern laptop might be quite good, so it’s tempting to just use that—but then you lose the opportunity to show off your wealth and status by rocking Apple AirPods during videoconferences. Not feeling that flush? Here’s a simple hack: snip off the cords from a cheap pair of white earbuds and wear those, while actually using the audio from your laptop’s speakers and built-in mic. Trust me, your colleagues will never know the difference!

Note that in some cases, your video camera shouldn’t be used at all. For example, if your manager and director both approved the purchase of an external monitor for your home, but they see you plain as day on the video conference, they’ll know you’re just using your undocked laptop. They’ll figure out right away that that expensive hardware billed to their cost center is being used by your kids for gaming. Don’t get fired just because you’re a “cool dad!”

The mute button

Perhaps no other technology has stymied as many people as the mute button. Whether it’s a physical button on a telephone handset, or an onscreen button you click or tap, it seems to have a mind of its
own. Does anything erode your professional reputation as badly as colleagues telling each other, “I think he’s on mute” and yelling, “Bob, can you hear me? You’re on mute!”? Why, yes: forgetting to mute before screaming at your children or muttering profanities to yourself. (And you thought that was a rhetorical question!)

Take some time to master this “mute button” technology. Practice with your colleagues, or even with your kids, outside of scheduled calls. Also, learn to spot the telltale signs that you’re accidentally muted: nobody answers your question, or nobody responds to your statement, or people talk right over you. If these things are happening, it’s time to un-mute. (Now, if you’re already un-muted and these things are still happening, it may be time to find a new job.)

Eliminate distractions

Alas, teleworking can mean pets, children or a favorite hobby are only a few feet away. If you give in to temptation, you might find yourself totally distracted, doing something you actually enjoy or talking to people who really care about you and have interesting things to say. This can derail your career as surely as a three-martini-lunch habit. It’s best to nip these distractions in the bud. Chase your cat around the house screaming until she’s terrified of you, and she’ll steer well clear of your workspace going forward. Alienate your children by bawling them out over petty offenses—or better yet, get all Tiger Mother on them. They’ll stop coming around to chat, no matter how bored they get. Harsh, yes, but sometimes career’s got to come before family.

Sometimes the distractions can come from just outside the home. It seems like every city in America is taking advantage of shelter-in-place to fast-track civic projects like road maintenance and sewer main overhauls. Construction sounds aren’t just distracting—they’re unprofessional. Nobody wants to overhear a jackhammer or earth-moving machine during a conference call. A polite letter to your city council can work wonders—maybe they’ll put their projects on hold until your next vacation. If that doesn’t work, talk to the construction workers themselves. Explain to them how important your business calls are, and how much revenue is at stake. You might be surprised how accommodating they are. Many foremen will be happy to reschedule their work crews until after business hours.

Despite your best intentions and practices, you’re bound to get distracted from time to time, especially during long conference calls. Inevitably, somebody will ask you a question and catch you off-guard. This happens time and time again, and often the distracted party will try to save face by pretending he or she was paying attention. “I’m not sure I understand the question” is one such ruse, another being, “Can you provide a little more context?” Or, the person will try to win points by “coming clean” and saying, “I’m sorry … I [was multitasking] [zoned out] and didn’t hear the question.” Neither of these is acceptable. The first two are transparently disingenuous, and the  last one disrespectful—as if it’s okay to be distracted.

The only truly professional response is a sincere apology: “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the question because I was totally distracted. I don’t even have the context. I know this is unacceptable and I promise to try harder. When you consider how many people are on this call … let’s see, there’s ten of us, and this is an hour-long call, which equates to about $400 in wages … gosh, it’s such a waste for anybody not to be bringing his A-game. Which is why, starting now, I’m going to turn over a new leaf. From now on, you will have my complete and undivided attention, and what’s more…” Keep on like this for as long as you can, like a filibuster. That way, it’s highly likely nobody will ever ask you a question during a conference call again.

Be intentional

As the pandemic creates new and uncomfortable ways of working, setting up regular routines and workflows can help you stay effective. Being intentional means “doing things with intent.” For example, joining a videoconference or working on a spreadsheet is something you would do “on purpose,” which is to say intentionally. Knocking your coffee over on your keyboard would be unintentional. Know the difference. You can’t be an effective teleworker if most of your actions are accidents.

Nurture workplace socializing

Many of us truly miss the water cooler and employee lunchroom. Teleworking can be lonely, especially when you’ve totally alienated your family, so be creative about how to interact with your colleagues. Consider making time for “virtual coffee breaks” using video chat. Please note that the coffee, in these instances, does not need to be virtual. Drinking an actual steaming mug of your favorite beverage is more enjoyable than settling for an icon, GIF, or even a high-res JPG file depicting it. If possible, get that “cuppa joe” into the video frame, to make your coffee break seem more real! But don’t get carried away … try to consolidate your virtual coffee klatches, to cover all your colleagues at once. Otherwise, by the time you’ve “made the rounds,” you’ll have had like eight cups and will be shaking, irritable, and unable to focus. (That is, more so than usual.)

Consider if teleworking is actually appropriate

Yes, we all take orders from management and tend to comply. But if you think teleworking really isn’t right for your role, speak up! For example, if you are an EMT and have shifted to working only from home, your customers—that is, your patients—will definitely feel the difference. If you can help your employer to understand that your job performance is suffering, and that in fact lives could be lost, they may well heed your advice. If they don’t, though, just back off … consider that they may have a more nuanced understanding of these things.

Go easy on yourself

Especially with the added stress of the pandemic, teleworking can be stressful. You might not always feel as productive working all alone in your home office, and nowadays the fact that you actually showed up to work is not always visible to your colleagues. If you find your focus lacking, maybe it’s time for a break. If your employer doesn’t offer paid sabbaticals, try to get an unpaid one. If that doesn’t work, sometimes it’s best to simply resign.

As with all workplace adjustments, don’t take any rash steps until you look at the big picture. If you have a sizable trust fund and your spouse’s employer offers healthcare, it’s a slam dunk … otherwise, you might want to consider if unemployment is right for you. Sure, the stigma if being “on the dole” has greatly diminished in this new era, but many people find that a stable income and benefits may actually be worth the stress of employment.

Separate the personal and professional

Video conferencing tools like Google Meet, WebEx, and Zoom are now being used for both our professional and social activities. In many cases, people are socializing with far-flung friends more often than before the pandemic took hold. But there’s a downside to this: all that teleworkplace videoconferencing can lead to “Zoom fatigue,” where you spend so much time looking at faces on screens, your socializing starts to seem like work. Take stock of your situation and decide if this is a good time to even have a personal life. After all, is it worth the risk that you’ll spoil friendships by equating your pals with workplace stress? Maybe it’s best to cut off all contact with friends and family until after the pandemic. Don’t worry, they’ll almost certainly still remember you when all this is over.

Other reading on the pandemic 
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