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Life on reset -- new dynamics emerging

by Tom Johnson on Mar 23, 2020 •
categories: writing

With the shift to sheltering in place and working from home, I've noticed that my family has grown closer together and that working remotely goes better when everyone is also remote.

We’ve taken a turn recently into uncharted territory with the recent pandemic. Not that the world hasn’t seen pandemics like this before (for example, check this nifty History of Pandemics infographic), but never at a point in time like this, when technology makes news a global instant, when social media saturates the world, when so many digital information jobs abound, and so on.

Talk about the coronavirus has dominated almost every conversation and news outlet. My wife and I go on daily walks, and it seems even as we are surrounded by coronavirus news, our conversations seem to center on it as well.

With the recent stay-at-home / shelter-in-place / social distancing mandates nearly across the globe, the world has shifted gears. While I lament the loss of so much vitality — for example, I love watching sports, going to the movies, eating out at restaurants, working next to colleagues, etc., I’m also noticing another social dynamic emerge, and it’s interesting.

With the stay-at-home mandate, my family members (which consist of my wife + four kids ranging in age from 9 to 19) are much more present. We’re hyper-aware of each other’s needs. We have a carefully followed and enforced chore chart — not just enforced by the parents, but sometimes by the kids as well, since everyone must do their part to maintain a clean and organized house. My chore, which is sadly just a single chore but not insignificant, is to do the dishes. Without a dishwashing machine and with six people constantly eating and drinking, washing dishes takes around an hour a day.

But it’s odd because we are closer now as a family than we have been in times past. I thought I wouldn’t see my 19-year-old daughter much more after she left for college, but now she’s back and home and adding her own energy and commentary to everything. She has taught me how to mimic the Starbucks Cloud Macchiato drink (by whipping 2 tbs water + sugar + instant coffee until firm and then adding milk). Our togetherness makes me wonder if this is how life was during the previous century, when families lived on farms and each family member pitched in to do farm chores. Large families aren’t nearly as lonely and isolated as it must be for single people or those whose families are separated in distant cities or states.

With so many events canceled, kids are less busy. I’m not always chauffeurring kids around to soccer, picking them up from their friends’ houses, attending various school functions, and so on. We’re all home, and we (mostly) like each other. So that’s my first observation: social distancing has translated into social cohesiveness for our family.

The other emerging dynamic I find interesting is working from home. Although people have been working from home off and on in various capacities for decades, now suddenly everyone is working from home. And you know what? Working from home is a whole lot easier when everyone else is working remotely too. When everyone is remote, you can dial into daily standups and hear everyone. Teams hold online coffee chats where everyone just dials in and has watercooler conversations. People add more detail in documents and emails. You won’t find yourself feeling left out because the rest of the on-site team has ordered lunch and skips you when taking order requests. You won’t have missed that hallway conversation where some decision was made that will require an update to the docs.

Although I actually like going into work, in part it’s because for so many years, staying at home has not been a quiet experience, with little kids growing up with needs and noise, it was hard to focus. But I’ve begun to adapt to working from home, and I’m starting to like it. I feel like I have so much more time than I used to. My hours seem more fluid and flexible. If I’m tired in the afternoon, I’ll lay on my bed and take a short catnap. I might wake up and work until 9 pm, or work early Sunday morning when I awake at 5 am and can’t sleep. I can make my time more productive. I don’t spend time and energy commuting to and from work. That commute isn’t just time-consuming — it’s exhausting.

I’ve heard that we might need to follow these stay-at-home guidelines for many more months to come. What if this event shifts companies into more permanent work-from-home situations? At some point, hiring might become confusing if your company requires you to be on-site in theory, but in practice everything is virtual. You can’t really require that someone move to your company’s headquarters if everyone is virtual. And if people can work anywhere, we’d transition into a globally distributed workforce. I’d definitely move out of the Bay area into a much more cost-friendly, livable city, to a place where I can buy a house and maybe ride a motorcycle around.

My realization is that working from home becomes productive and functional when everyone does it, but doesn’t work so well when only a few stragglers live online while the rest are in the office. What if companies embracing work from home turn out to be more productive, profitable, and efficient? What if we find that people actually prefer this model as a whole? That would certainly be an interesting outcome of the pandemic.

For so long I have accustomed myself to the idea that I’ll always live in an urban city because that’s where the tech jobs are, that’s where the companies and needs are in the tech writer space. But now I’m thinking that if work-from-home becomes more the norm, I could even live in the country.

With all that said, I really miss some things. Mainly, I miss playing basketball and I miss biking into work and being near others at work. I miss watching sports. But I also think we’re in an interesting phase and welcome the reset and shift in perspective, even if only temporary.

One constant that seems never to be affected much by world events is writing. You can pretty much always write — anywhere, anytime, with any instruments, and following whatever style you want. If computers all go offline, there’s paper and pen. Has blogging become passé? There’s journaling. Not in the mood to write a reflective journal post? Write some fiction. Is fiction too long? Try a poem. I guess the only question is how to clear your head enough to not write anything related to the coronavirus.

My kids are all starting distance learning soon, two of them starting next week and the other two starting the following week. We’ll see how that goes. Hopefully, it won’t turn out as bad as it’s going for this Israeli mom:

I’ve watched this video several times and it makes me laugh because of how true it is.

For more reading about working-from-home dynamics, see this post by Danielle Villegas, aka TechCommGeekMom, titled We all have to be in this for the long haul.

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