Working from home in the age of pandemic

In a normal week, many of us might work from home for a day or an afternoon or an evening. In a normal week, many of our colleagues are full-time remote or the company itself is entirely distributed around town or around the globe. Normal.

But this was not a normal week, nor will be next week or the week after. And working remotely in a normal week is a different proposition than working from home in the midst of a global pandemic. So, let’s accept that the usual tips and tricks will only go so far in this situation.

I am no expert in working-from-home, diagnosing the trauma inflicted on journalists covering both natural and manmade disasters, or the complexities of being both part of and apart from a community in crisis. But I have lived through all of these things as have many of us at this point in history. In my professional career: a horrific murder case in small-town New Hampshire; the minutes and weeks in Northern Virginia after 9/11 followed a year later by the D.C. sniper; and the Boston Marathon bombing while at The Boston Globe.

What my experiences have in common is a sense of immediate disbelief and confusion, followed by days of anxious and exhausting work. But in every case, the initial elevated tension resolved itself within a month. Arrests were made, the immediate danger was resolved, soldiers left the streets, lockdowns were lifted and people returned to their relatively normal but also forever changed offices and downtowns.

Many in our industry have seen more, and worse; it is not a contest. But the coronavirus is incomparable in scope or potential impact to anything most of us have seen. So while the work must go on, it is critical to acknowledge and respect that the work is secondary to your health, your family and friends, your pets, your community and your optimism.

But the work does go on, and for journalists it is a time where that work is more than just important, it is critical to our communities. And as we are keeping a social distance, sheltering in place, self-isolating or quarantining at home, there are some tools and tips that might be helpful to consider. Some of these might sound whimsical, expensive, pedantic or overly idealistic so pick-and-choose those that work for you.

Since we need some whimsy at the moment let’s start there:

  • If you drink coffee or tea, use a diner-sized coffee mug — 6 or 8 ounces. Over-caffeination is a short-term strategy and we are running a marathon here, not a sprint. Using a small mug is going to force each additional cup to be an intentional decision. And at the least it will encourage you to stand up every hour for a refill. If you don’t drink coffee or tea: stand up every hour anyway. Too much sitting is bad for you.
  • Damon Kiesow's calenderIf your calendar allows color-coding of individual events, make each type of meeting a distinct hue. This will provide an at-a-glance intuitive cue as to which metaphorical hat you should be wearing at any given time. (I have categories for class time, student meetings and faculty committees. And at this point any event requiring in-real-life attendance is displayed in a bright red.)
  • Newsrooms are often a noisy hustle-and-bustle. If you thrive on that background noise search in Spotify for “Coffee Shop Sounds” or search “ambient sounds” in your favorite mobile app store.
  • Keep hydrated and have a bottle of water handy for conference calls. Projecting your voice across the web is thirsty work.

The possibly expensive:

  • A fast internet connection and a stable Wi-Fi network are required investments if you expect to spend extended periods in video conference calls. An ethernet connection is preferred, but a Wi-Fi mesh network is also a good solution if you need to extend the signal from one floor to another.
  • If an internet upgrade is not in the cards you can save some bandwidth by using your phone to call in to meetings while still connecting to the video over the internet. (Yes, your phone can make audio calls.)
  • A good audio connection critical for remote discussions, especially in large groups. The human brain can cope with poor or no video but if your audio is muffled or digitized you will suffer endlessly frustrating and unproductive discussions. Use a good headset or speakerphone if you have one available.
  • Regardless of your Wi-Fi connection, conference calls are incompatible with multiple devices streaming Netflix or Hulu, or a solo teenager engaged in a grudge match on Rainbow Six Siege. Try to get any streaming devices and gaming computers connected via ethernet.
  • Since you are going to be sitting, make sure you have an office chair you don’t mind being friends with for a few months. A reasonable investment here is worth it.

The pedantic:

  • Keep a schedule. Work in a dedicated spot at home. Block time in your calendar for routine tasks. Take regular breaks. Mute yourself when you are not talking. Don’t “reply all.” Don’t recklessly “@channel” on Slack. Exercise if you can. Put the screens down and read a real book in the evenings.

The idealistic:

  • Block an hour or two every week for co-workers to get together online with no specific agenda. It is too easy to fixate on productivity when you are working remotely. Small talk is important to team cohesion and it can’t all happen on Slack.
  • Over, over, over-communicate repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly. The fewer channels you have to communicate the meaning and intensity of a message – in speech, in writing, in body language, in artifacts around the office – the greater the chance it will be misunderstood or overlooked. Now is not the time for gentle nuance. Be polite, but don’t assume and if you say something important on a conference call, follow up with a short but detailed email.
  • Of course, be careful with your tone in any written communications. People are stressed. You are stressed. That is how misunderstandings happen.
  • Assume the best. Fundamental Attribution error is a very common cognitive bias that lets us justify our own failings while we harshly judge our co-workers’ for similar mistakes. This bias is exacerbated when working remotely because we may not be aware a colleague is doing their best but is also caring for two kids home from school, or a sick parent or partner. Be generous with your time and your empathy.
  • Value the work. Do the work. But forgive yourself for allowing family and friends to be more important.

Finally, I’m certainly not the only one thinking about this topic. Here are two other great guides written for specifically for journalists:

Heather Bryant and Tyler Fisher wrote for Poynter about online tools:

Trevor Knoblich wrote for the Online News Association about tools, tips and expectations and included a list of suggestions from the ONA team:


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