Work in the Time of Covid-19

Sunset off my back porch in Austin, TX

Today, schools shut down in Austin, TX and my 5 year-old and 8 year-old woke to the happy news (for them!) that they wouldn’t be going to school. Then we went to the grocery store to stock up a bit and stood in a 30-minute check out line.

The anxiety hangs in the air like its own kind of airborne virus.

Earlier this week, my workplace (Lambda School, an online school for technical skill training) closed our San Francisco and Salt Lake City offices. Although a large number of our 200 employees were already working remotely, it has been an adjustment for many of my colleagues.

Work+life has gone remote in a big way, very quickly. It is a hard adjustment for hundreds of thousands of workers. Companies are searching for solutions, techniques, and sometimes “silver bullets” to the work-from-home reality.

The bad news is that there is no simple strategy to ensuring everyone works from home effectively. The good news is that we humans are generally adaptable, our technologies are dramatically improved for digitally-mediated work, and there are some basic principles that help.

A thought experiment — imagine our current situation in reverse. Suppose we had been all working, digitally-mediated, for generations. We log into an online medium, interact with each other through computing technologies, and never see one another in person to do work. A massive digital virus hits our infrastructure and we must suddenly, literally overnight, all go to workplaces. (Gasp, OMG, the horror!)

We’d search for the rare situations where people have been working this way and ask for help, tips, solutions. We would have an interestingly similar set of questions, just posed as if from a mirror-world: “How can I get anything done with the distractions of people around me?” “I lose so much time each day traveling to this workplace!” “I am socially uncomfortable in the presence of other people. It is impossible to focus and I feel overwhelmed.”

The only honest answer to all of such questions is that we must adapt. For human beings we are lucky enough that adaptation can come as a product of learning. The fastest route to learning will be immersion, in a supportive and developmental environment.

Immersion in the time of Covid-19 has some very basic elements. For those of us that have been working for some time as remote/distributed workers, we appreciate how important it is for everyone to play on the same field. Simple things:

In my company, we created a Covid-19 Slack channel and a Remotelife Slack channel earlier this week. Both are being heavily used. Just to share stories and empathize. One team member opened up about how difficult it is for her to be planning a wedding that is almost certainly going to be dramatically impacted by the pandemic. She received an outpouring of emotional support.

There are many, many more tips and strategies. I’ve written or spoken about some elsewhere. The internet is flooded with them right now.

Here, I’d just give one piece of advice:

Physical distance is not emotional distance. Draw closer, together, as teams, and companies. Stand together and on common ground.

As human beings we crave connection. Surviving the isolation and social distancing of Covid-19 — quite apart from the health crisis — will require us to band together despite being socially distanced. We are just so fortunate to have the technological tools for this, now.

What can working remotely for some period of time teach us about encouraging caring, inclusive and supportive environments? What can it teach us about seeing and hearing people for whom they are and whom they choose to be?

What if we used this experience, as workers, as an opportunity to discover what it means to be a whole person at work? There are nothing but screens, cables, and microphones in our way.

Mark Frein

Remote but present

Failed Philosopher, Musician, HR/Startup Executive, Game Enthusiast, Imaginarian