Telecommuting Lessons 2.0

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I’ve telecommuted since before webcams and smartphones.

I thought this would be no big deal for me. A day that ends in y, as it were.

My husband is a molecular evolutionary geneticist who works in drug discovery and zoonotic diseases. I’m trained as a human geneticist. We watched events unfurl across the globe. And we knew.

We started to prepare, even while we lived like it was all going to be fine. We knew that when it finally hit here, it wouldn’t be just a few weeks of shutdown. 

2 months of every prescription, minimum.

A battery-operated nebulizer for our teenager, who has intractable asthma.

Cleaning up the pantry and freezers, sorting, organizing, buying, stashing. While at the same time buying Broadway tickets for the college tour to Philadelphia and NYC and sunscreen for a cruise to the Caribbean.

Watching. Reading. Plugging data into models.

Hushed conversations late at night. How long do we wait to cancel our trips? Are his parents ok? Does my mom have enough food, enough prescriptions? When do we go no-contact with her, given her health conditions? When do we move my best friend into our guest room so she’s not alone through this?

Telecommuting was supposed to be the easy part for me, the thing I knew how to handle and was already good at. I made a GIF-filled deck to help ease the transition for my colleagues who found themselves abruptly living in my world. Simple rules and tools to make telecommuting go smoothly and maintain your sanity.

I didn’t count on just how deeply everything would be thrown out of whack. How nothing would be normal. I had done the intellectual algebra but not the human calculus of what an ongoing, global-scale trauma would really mean. 

I hadn’t realized how utterly disruptive it would be to me, emotionally and physically, to have people in my space all the time and not be able to escape it. That I’d be rumbling with my teenager, worn thin from his school doggedly still holding every single class per the schedule and slathering on the quizzes and projects and essays, for the last cup of coffee. Or that I’d be creeping down the stairs so as not to interrupt my husband, trying to maintain the morale of his faculty, staff, and students in Zoom after Zoom from our dining room. 

I didn’t anticipate the dissonance of seeing my colleagues not as a group in a conference room with their easy camaraderie, but as a Brady Bunch game board of isolation and anxiety. Or the awkwardness of seeing into their personal lives so intimately – the child meltdowns overheard, the roommates walking behind, the master bedrooms and garages turned into offices. 

I didn’t foresee the explosion of demands on my time. The digital content, the webinars and info sessions, the happy hours and online conferences, the ‘you should see this!’ pieces telling me who’s put what cool thing online. And so I really didn’t foresee the screen fatigue.

I didn’t know to dread the paralysis. The harrowing feeling of staring at a blank Google document and being unable to get out a single word, as my brain was running complex calculations of when I was able to get an Instacart order slot for and did we have enough milk to make it till then and did we have enough bleach wipes given the decontamination process my husband has to put himself and everything he touched through every time he comes home from making sure the laboratories are still okay and functioning.

But I also didn’t count on the sweetness of getting more time with my teenager, of our gawky pas de deux in our awkwardly laid out kitchen when our lunch breaks overlap and we cook together. On my husband’s demented dedication to doing something weird in the house every two weeks, transforming it into a cruise ship, an Italian restaurant, a champagne bar. On being forced to play on the new foosball table which now lives right next to our kitchen table, instead of staying at my desk and just working working working.

I didn’t anticipate the little gestures of humanity. The meetings that turned into a genuine ‘how are you doing’ and not a reflexive ‘good and you’ call and response. The clients’ kindness and generosity of spirit as we all doggedly try to plow through. The vulnerability that we would all finally show one another.

I have found myself telling colleagues and peers, as they confess their fears and perceived failings to me in all of this, that they are not, right now, ‘working from home’. They are working at home during a crisis, and that ‘productivity’ might look and feel different right now and that’s okay and human.

I knew the basics. Real pants. Keep a schedule. Mute your mic. Lock the door and communicate your meeting schedule.

But now I know the basics aren’t so basic.

Real pants, but cut yourself slack when it’s all so overwhelming and the thought of one more thing to do makes you want to burst into tears.

Keep a schedule, but be good to yourself when you can’t fit it all in, when things derail.

Mute your mic, and forgive yourself when you don’t and your conference call can clearly hear precisely what your 17-year-old has to say about the college applications process and it is loaded with f-bombs.

Lock the door and communicate your meeting schedule, but shrug and say ‘welcome to my house!’ when you’re on-camera and get interrupted.

And most of all. Extend grace to yourself. Celebrate the tiny wins with your colleagues. Because we are all living and working through a wildly unsettled time, and to actually be accomplishing work is an achievement in and of itself.

Bonus points if you do it in real pants.

Post-script: I wrote this in response to Craig asking me what was different about telecommuting now versus how I usually work, at the end of May. Everything is now amplified. The urgency of protesting police brutality and how systemic racism oppresses people of color in this country, of working towards actual, lasting change makes proofreading a document or sitting in a meeting feel even more alien than it did during the first several weeks of COVID quarantine. And I say that as a white woman of immense privilege; I cannot understand how traumatizing this period is for my colleagues and peers of color. 

To my white colleagues in the industry: I know you’re tapped out from COVID and its personal and professional impacts, but you can’t shy away from the work of addressing systemic racism and unconscious bias. Goodness knows I’m interrogating myself and where I have failed, abided by bias structures and helped maintain them, and other hard, hard questions.  This isn’t just one more thing on your to-do list. You can’t fix systemic racism alone. But you’ve gotta do the work. If you’re looking for reading suggestions, see the resources I pulled together in support of my talk at SATE 2019. Showing Up for Racial Justice has chapters nationwide, check their website to find the chapter nearest you and additional resources, training, and ways to get involved. Feel free to do it in pj pants, even unshowered. Just do it.