Thursday, May 14, 2020

How Much Do We Need That Office, Anyway?

Yesterday Travis County announced that after the pandemic has passed, they hope to continue having a substantial portion of their employees (about 3000) working at home, because apparently productivity has gone UP.  The City of Austin and the Austin Chamber of Commerce are reportedly looking at similar plans. 

I'm seeing from friends that companies across the city are looking at the data, and that the combination of 'employees are not less productive working from home' and 'offices are kind of expensive' is starting to percolate through a lot of people's heads.  We're mostly still a month or two from going back to work in many cases, but by that time I think 'work' may look a lot different than it did in February.

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

We're all stressed and distracted and scared and half of everybody is doing double duty as teachers, yet the Travis County employees are still getting more done working remotely.  I am also getting more done on the projects that require deep attention.  We told our bosses, all along, when asking for telework options, that it wouldn't negatively affect job performance.  It's nice to have this data, because all the times a previous employer explained to me that the company wouldn't support telework because 'some people, not me of course, think you wouldn't get your work done' can now be dismissed entirely as bunk.  Instead, we can say "the benefits of telework are so significant that *even under these conditions* it was an improvement for a lot of people."

If you're working right now in a thrown-together emergency home office space carved out of a kitchen table or a family room, start thinking practically about what you need to make your home office work for you as a permanent part of your home.  It needs some way to be separated from your living space, so you can 'leave the office and come home' at some point during your day.  A laptop you can close, a curtain you can pull, just something to draw a barrier between you and your workplace.  If your office permanently transitions part time or full time to telework, be ready with a list of what you need to do your work:  faster internet, office supplies, filing boxes, upgraded laptop, second monitor, collaborative software, membership at a co-working space, second phone so you're not using your personal phone for company calls.  Requests made in transition will be more likely to be approved, especially if you can document how working around them for the pandemic has been difficult.

We can change how we treat collaborative work and team environments.  I don't want to work at home 100%, because I genuinely get a lot out of sharing space with my team, but teleworking one day a week so that I could use the team space for team things and my own space for more intricate or difficult projects would be a huge blessing.  After months of running our businesses entirely in email and Zoom, we have a chance to reset the 'this meeting should have been an email' trope.  As we start looking at what 'coming back to work' looks like, let's really take this chance to stop and consider "How can I prioritize differently to make the time when I'm in the same room as my co-workers valuable and useful?"

One of the things I've been doing since working from home is taking short (15-30 minutes) breaks to work on creative or house projects (like writing this post!).  When I was working in the office all day every day, I didn't always have access to my photos, or my writing, or my garden, to go reset my brain when my focus got fuzzy.  It was also generally frowned on to work on 'my stuff' on 'company time'.  It turns out that being able to step out, immerse in a different set of brain-skills, and then step back in works as well as the experts have been telling us all this time.

This is a good time to really look at work-life balance and see how you manage those boundaries.  One of the reasons, for example, that I've resisted getting my work email added to my phone at my job is that at the last job, work emails would come to me 24/7, and there were a lot of weekends where I saw something come in late Friday evening and spent the weekend thinking about it, or interrupted my weekend to address it.  Every day now, when I am done with work, I shut the work laptop and even though I'm frequently tempted to go in and check on something, I leave it until it's 'time to work' again.  The struggle to just go do a little more because the office is just 'right there' was really hard at the beginning, but I'm getting better at it.

Finally, a citywide shift to increased telework will almost certainly make life better for everyone, even the folks who have to go into the office.  Austin's traffic is legendary.  From before 7am to after 7pm, there's perhaps a 2 hour window between 1:30 and 3:30 in the afternoon where the traffic isn't that bad.  But if, say, as little as 25% of the people on the road were suddenly not on the road, it would transform our traffic patterns.  Think about Columbus Day or President's Day, when the government offices and banks are closed but most of the offices are still open.  If the traffic looked like that every day, we'd all get back 6-10 hours of time a week (depending on how long we normally sit in traffic), and experience a substantial improvement in air quality.

It's not that I'm trying to 'silver lining' the pandemic.  This is a massive global crisis that will severely damage our economy, our health, and our lives.  But it's also a space for us to step outside of a lot of the patterns we've had ripped out from under us, and ask ourselves "Is this particular pattern so valuable to me that it's worth working to reestablish?"

Friday, April 3, 2020

Staying Alive

There is a scene from Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne in which the women of Arbonne (and one of Garsenc) await the invasion of an army bent on destroying them all, that resonates with me right now.

Some of the women sit and work on needlepoint, while Signe de Barbentain gives rein to her anxiety, pacing and venting and worrying.  Finally she turns on Rosala, one of the women who has been calmly smiling at her embroidery, and demands to know, "how can you be so calm?  How can you possibly SIT there like that, knowing what's coming, what's happening?"  Rosala stops and holds up the ruined, worthless needlepoint she has been stitching with shaking hands.  She wasn't doing the work because she was calm, she was calm because she was doing the work.

I have struggled with depression and my own mental health for thirty-five years, since I was in middle school.  My particular manifestation of it is to engage in increasingly self-destructive behaviours until I trigger a life crisis and everything crashes.  I've talked about my struggles openly for about the last fifteen years, and it's helped, but the thing I've learned about that is that what helps me is the part where I talk about the things I am doing to keep from dying.

Almost everyone I know is dealing with some combination of depression, anxiety, fear, and isolation right now, and we're all coping or not coping in different ways.  I am seeing an interesting trend, though.  As a coping mechanism, "Today I rolled myself in a blanket, ate an entire pie, and lay on the floor for three hours," gets replies of "That's great!  Do what you need to do!  Your choices are valid!" but people who say "Today I made a list and I did the things and then I checked them off and looked at the check-marks to reassure myself that I will be OK," get bare shrugs and "Well, I'm glad this is going so well for you.  SOME of us are actually struggling." 

Every day of my shelter-in-place I make a list, and this is why:

Today I will get up at a reasonable hour, because if I do not do that consistently, I will begin to sleep longer and longer until my morning meets the night and I just stop getting up.

Today I will shower or at least wash my face, and I will brush my teeth and my hair and use deodorant and moisturizer, because I deserve to be clean and cared for, and because if I don't do it today I may not do it again until I become so disgusted with myself I just stand in the shower and cry.

Today I will drink water and eat food, because Traitor Brain says I don't deserve to have them and I will spite that bitch.

Today I will get at least a little exercise, because if I stop moving I may not start again.

Today I will go outside to feel the sun (or the moon) and the wind, because if I don't keep touching the world I'll let myself shut it out entirely and convince myself it doesn't need me in it.

Today I will set myself a bedtime and obey it, because left to my own devices I'll just stay up indefinitely and destroy my ability to rest and recover.

Today I will accomplish some small task to improve my space, my life, my health, or my relationships with others, because every improvement is another spiderweb-tie I use to bind myself into this world.

Today I will tend or at least visit my garden, because I do not "ruin the life of every living thing I touch."

Today I will talk to my partner or my friends about how I am feeling and where I am emotionally, and ask for support if I need it.

If today is a workday, today I will accomplish one concrete thing that finishes a task, plans for the future, or improves my workflow.

If today is not a workday, I will not do work just because I'm bored, and I will deliberately do things I know relax and recharge me.

This week I will spend one hour of time doing something creative, because if I increase the sum total of beauty, it muffles the voices that tell me I add nothing to the world.

This week I will dedicate one block of at least two hours to a long-term improvement project, because I would like Future Badger to have the same feeling Present Badger gets when she looks at the things Past Badger has done, and doing nice things for Future Badger helps me stick around to become her.

When I start to feel the water closing over my head, I will look at the lists of ticky-marks and I say "See, Self, you're doing the things.  You're all right.  You're in the world and you matter to it."

When my chest gets tight and painful and the voices rise, I will go and stand in my pantry, and look at the physical manifestations of my skills, my resources, and my upbringing, and repeat to myself, "You have what you need, and you are enough to get through this."

This is my list.  It doesn't have to be anyone else's list, and the things on it are the specific areas where my own history tells me I'm vulnerable to my own brain.  I've got no shade for people who are coping by being pie-eating blanket-rolls, because the important thing is just to figure out what you need to survive and DO THAT.

So while it may LOOK like I've 'got my shit together', the reality is that I'm just stitching away as hard as I can on this messy tapestry and holding on to the fact that the work I'm doing, the project I'm completing, isn't a fresh loaf of bread or a tidy office or a new creative accomplishment.  It's something that matters more than any of those:  myself, whole and living, walking out of my house at the end of this crisis.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Now is Not the Time

Driving along to work one day last week, I caught a broadcast of our city officials talking about the COVID-19 response and what they'd like people to do: stay home, practice good sanitation and distancing, and stop panic-buying.  One caller wanted to know: we've been hearing for years about the long-term dangers of the overuse of antibacterial products and hand sanitizers.  Should we really be using them this much?

The response was:  now is not the time to worry about overusing hand sanitizer.

At first I was annoyed, because if you let people do a thing in an emergency, then pretty soon every Tuesday is an emergency.  But what lies behind that is this:  you must do the things you do for the long-term health of the planet and the species when you can, all the time, because there may come times when you have to set them aside.  This is one of those times.

There's a lot of reason to avoid overusing that little bottle of sanitizer you keep in your purse.  On a regular basis, especially if you buy the fancy kind with the special antibacterial label, you can contribute to a dangerous buildup of resistant organisms.

There's a lot of reason to go to the store yourself instead of having the groceries delivered, and to make fewer trips for larger purchases.  It's more expensive to get things delivered, and a twice-weekly grocery store habit contributes to the use of fossil fuels.

There's a lot of reason to choose social interactions over isolation.  In the long term, it makes you feel connected and builds relationships to rely on.

Myself, I spent a little time last week worrying about the amount of water that goes down the drain while I wash my hands for 20 full seconds several extra times a day.  As someone who's turned off the tap to brush her teeth since she was in elementary school, that amount 'wasted' really started to weigh on me.

For every responsible, reasonable choice, there is a very good explanation for why we should do it all the time, but the best possible explanation is this:  sometimes we have to stop doing it for a while.  Sometimes we have to let that water run.  Sometimes we have to spend what's in the savings account.  Sometimes we have to pull an all-nighter to get an important task done.

If you've been practicing those conservation-minded habits all along, then you have reserves for times like these.  If you usually carry your own straw and cutlery, you don't worry about three weeks of single-use disposables.  If you've been diligently setting your HVAC to minimize usage when you leave the house, you don't need to worry about a couple of weeks of not changing it because no one is leaving the house.  If you get enough sleep and exercise, and eat healthy foods, you will be more physically able to withstand the lack of them.

This is not a matter of "Well, don't you feel like shit for not 'doing better' all along?"  No guilt, no shame, no judgment here.  This will end and we can 'do better' then.  It does, however, bring two points to mind.

The first is that if you're stressing or feeling guilty because once shit hit the fan all the things you believe in and your personal ethics seem to have become malleable and all your healthy habits start shifting: don't.  This is an extraordinary situation, and for extraordinary situations we have much shorter-term priorities.  Anything you're doing right now that decreases the likelihood of you catching and especially spreading COVID-19 is the correct priority, as is anything you're doing to make sure that others have the resources and support they need (without endangering them).  When things begin to return to normal, we will have the luxury of more choices.

The second is this:  the stress, panic, fear, and scarcity that many people are experiencing in ways they had not before, that is some people's daily reality outside a pandemic.  Some people never have the option of doing the conservation-minded thing because their priorities are always shortened to immediate survival for themselves and their families.  Some people can never save for a rainy day because it rains every day for them.  Remember, moving forward, how it felt to not know what your world would look like next week, and retain some of this empathy.  Remember how much you learned to appreciate what your children's teachers do, and how important the truck driver and the shelf stocker are, and that medical professionals (not just doctors, but every single person down including cafeteria workers and janitors) literally risk their lives and the lives of their families to fight for other people.

We can come through this having given way to fear and selfishness and blame, or we can come through it having gained an understanding of the importance of community support, a respect for the work and needs of others, and a willingness to look at our own lives to see where we can build our own resilience.