What is our new normal when we are incorporating Social Distancing, Telehealth, Working from Home (WFH), Sheltering in Place (SIP), Maintaining Personal Space, and use of face masks? All new expressions, abbreviations, policies, hashtags, and memes that were not used or were unfamiliar just a mere 4 months ago. It is hard to comprehend a world without these expressions and essential functions. Like many of us, I've been hunkered down for the last 4 months. Not only have I been SIP, I've been WFH. Added to my WFH set up, my husband and son are also home 24-7. We are able to go to separate corners of the house, and on any given day we may not see one another until late in the afternoon. Thankfully. One might think I won the lottery as I was thrilled to be able to WFH every day. And, if I am being perfectly honest, WFH has worked out very well for me.
I am lucky enough to have a separate room to call my office, and even went as far as buying a standing desk, all to ensure my level of productivity would remain intact. WFH was going really well until something happened.
For me, being afforded the opportunity to WFH on a daily basis was a gift I didn't want to take for granted. Sure, I've worked from home, just not Every. Single. Day. I had to re-imagine my work space, adjust my mindset, and maintain a fairly consistent schedule in order to be productive. Admittedly, not all days were stellar. After the first three months, the day in and day out of my routine felt as if my 4 walls were closing in, and it became more challenging to be productive, almost as if a switch inside of me was flickering on and off. My well thought out plan of action was clearly not set in stone. It was hijacked by screen fatigue, coupled with an invisible veil of uncertainty, the imaginary black cloud that hovered over my head and in the pit of my stomach. This invisible force appeared out of nowhere and zapped my level of productivity way down. While this wasn't an everyday occurrence, I certainly noticed it. Being able to hold it together when you don't have the answers or don't know what's coming next, day after day takes its toll, even to the most resilient.
Coping with uncertainty is part of life, and it's debatable if I've managed my unpredictable life with grace or not. The job, relationships, parenting, life, the world - everything has challenges, and I've tried breaking down the things causing me the most angst during WFH into smaller bits and pieces so it would become more "manageable". For starters, I tried maintaining my pre-Covid schedule of "working out" before I started my day. Unfortunately all gyms are closed so I now take strenuous walks in the neighborhood or follow along with a workout YouTube video. My now familiar route is filled with challenging hills, lengthy stretches of winding streets, and picturesque landscaped yards. As I walk the neighborhood, I make mental notes of future home improvement projects, much to my husband’s chagrin. I was dedicated to this routine for the first two months. After a week of incessant rain, followed by high levels of humidity and uncomfortable temperatures, getting back on the exercise band wagon was more difficult than I realized. "Not today" flew out of my mouth when I opened the door and was immediately assaulted by the heat and humidity. And, the thought of ending the day with a healthy walk when it is equally oppressive is a non-starter. It has been so hot that I could fry an egg on the sidewalk. Like the game of dominos, it soon became more difficult to fall asleep, resulting in challenges of getting up on-time. And, as if I were throwing salt onto a fresh wound, my eating became more like a binge fest. My well intentioned, fully productive, perfectly imagined WFH days fell short. As month 4 rounded the calendar, my productivity was dipping below my own benchmark of what I considered a good day. The continuous loop of “GroundHogs Day'' was playing in my mind over and over again. My SIP existence was on the rinse and repeat cycle not only in my house, but my head and my life outside of the workday.
I've come to accept that SIP and remaining productive while WFH is a work in progress. Additionally, keeping my normal stressors at bay requires more mental flexibility than I had previously thought. Keeping people waiting in person, Skype, email or Zoom feels as though I am pushing the envelope. How hard is it to show up for a zoom meeting when you are already at home and in front of your computer? runs through my mind. One morning, like the 79 other mornings of WFH my laptop literally forced a shutdown, required several updates and took its time to restart. 30 minutes later, and showing up 10 minutes late for a zoom call sent me to the edge. Even though it was a 'check-in' after a long weekend, I am someone who adheres to the clock. Arriving late was not how I wanted to start my day. In the past, if I had something due on a certain date, that date would loom over me like a dark stormy cloud ready to unload its contents at any given moment. With the current situation of life being put on pause and work in a constant state of rescheduling, I realize that the work will get done, and have to accept timelines may have to be extended, and that is OK for now. I can take a deep breath, pause for a second and hopefully move on, hopefully with a positive outlook (fingers crossed).
Feeling isolated while WFH, even though my family is SIP with me, has taken me by surprise. I always considered myself more of an introvert, and experiencing the loss of not seeing my colleagues hit me harder than I imagined. The routine check-ins with my peers, status updates with managers, and bi-weekly staff meetings with the entire team through Zoom have been a much needed lifeline, bringing me the companionship and camaraderie I crave, and provides a glimpse of my former life. I have grown reliant on calendar invites as a means of uplifting my day, even if it is 'work'. Skype, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime, Town Halls, Google Hang-Out, Webex, BlueJeans, Flock, Slack, you name it, I'm using it to connect with everyone. The familiar ding of a new email arriving, the clicking sound of a slack message, the chime of Skype call, or last but not least, the ring of the phone are the sounds of being connected to the outside world, and a world that I miss. Those notifications are the sounds of productivity, the sounds of life, and a reminder that I once had a life outside my home and a life when I last felt normal.
Being distracted while WFH, I hear is fairly common. In an effort to not feel guilty about taking a few minutes here, 30 minutes there, I close my eyes and imagine a time pre-Covid and remember that 4 months ago, I had to force myself to step away from my desk, fill my water bottle at the water station, take a walk down the hall, go outside for a fresh air break and when I really felt adventurous, walk to the supermarket and shops down the street to pick up lunch. I also made a point of popping into someone’s office to say hello and visit for a few minutes. It dawned on me that I wasn’t at my desk/screen the entire day pre-Covid, why should it be different now? The unfortunate reality is that home is no longer the place to unwind after a long day at the office. The office represents a part of my life not normally spent with my husband and son. Going to work, my home away from home is the place that still has my family photos tacked to the bulletin board, my favorite mug, and the other trinkets that made me think of my life outside of work. Work is the place I went to get away from home. Now both lives are co-mingling and sometimes it is hard to separate the two.
As this virus lingers, and things in North Carolina remain precarious and unpredictable, plans to resume office life is left hanging in the balance, leaving me in a semi-permanent state of "standby". While WFH isn't perfect, given the current state of affairs, this may end up being my new normal.