Today is 2020 April 1st, and we are in the middle of a pandemic. Roughly 2 weeks ago, the company I worked for went “remote first”, and in terms of work, things are starting to get back to usual (well, as usual as it can get). So today, I’d like to write down some of my first impressions of the whole situation so far!
How it went down (simplified)
Even before Berlin starts getting it’s first COVID-19 case, there has been a bunch of people asking if the company’s policy about WFH and other preventive measures are gonna adapt to it. And after Berlin has it’s first confirmed case, it takes a few more days until the management establishes official news source. And a few more days (& a lot of messages on the chat room) later, the company held a basically impromptu-all-hands in the morning, and announced the procedure of how to “apply” for WFH for most employees. And the next thing you know, half the people are gone before lunch.
Perception of remote working before this
I have been living in Berlin for 3 years now, and worked in multiple companies as full time employee, in their office, at least 9–5. I am now mostly used to it, but I don’t think I ever really liked it.
I like being able to easily make friends at work, but I don’t like waking up when it’s one of those days where I just don’t feel like socializing at all.
I like that it forces me to have a consistent schedule and lifestyle, but I don’t really enjoy the hours being so inflexible, given my work is not really time-specific.
I like that an office provides a safe space in terms of productivity (usually), but I hate having to spend 1+ hour each day on the commute.
TL;DR: I never hate showing up to office per se, but I have a list of things I can complain about.
The first 24 hours of “OK you work from home now”
Even though I was one of the people who tried to push the company to adopt WFH as soon as possible (i.e. “wrote on the super long COVID-19 thread to keep the conversation going”), the sudden announcement still throws me off. I spend basically the whole afternoon planning what do I have to do to get my room ready, and try to organize the work to make sure I won’t forget anything (although this didn’t really work because I was so distracted the entire time).
I left office a bit later than usual to try to avoid the crowd, and then I went to supermarket to get enough groceries for a week, and tried to go get a microphone for all the video chat (although the store was out of the cheap one). The last thing I did before officially working remotely is that on the next day at 7AM, I planned out how I am gonna move the furnitures in my room around to have a more separate work & rest place (sorry downstairs neighbors). Living in a tiny room in a share flat in the middle of a pandemic is not ideal.
What happens in the next week
In terms of the work itself, things are quite typical, since it is such a short notice, we are not really prepared to adapt anything to be more remote friendly. We still have a lot of meetings, but with video chat instead of face-to-face. It’s ever so slightly worse than what I usually experience.
In terms of productivity, I’d say I am able to focus around 60% of the time. There is only so much you can do to improve your home office in such short notice. And I tried to compensate for it with working extra hours, which ever so slightly cancel out my reduced productivity (but not sustainable at all).
The biggest change probably happens in terms of my sanity. This sheer amount of news around the pandemic drives my stress level high already, combine with issues with the work itself with a tight deadline that actually needs to be met or “shit might go down”, and me trying to compensate it with extra work hour, is driving my mood to an all time low.
TL;DR: Externally business as usual, internally pulling my hairs out
Knowing that I will be stuck on this chair for a while, I am starting to plan how am I gonna survive this without going me insane (if I am not already insane).
First thing I did: online shopping. If all the advertisements have taught me anything, it is “buy this product and your problem will go away”. I am now aware of how much “useless” things I just bought, and I am doing a slightly better job at controlling my spending habit than a week ago. But I do need to make a few adjustments to the physical environments, and I am fortunate enough to have some saving & incomes to do just that.
Next thing I did: spend a lot of time on the internet to try to figure out how WFH usually work. What should I expect (under normal circumstances), how should I adjust that expectation based on the situation, how people usually work, etc. One of the thing that kinda blows my mind is the Q&A session by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried from Basecamp. While some of it do feel a bit too much like an ad for Basecamp, I think the rest is a good short summary of what a team of expert remote workers is experiencing, along with how newly remote workers can/should expect.
While I am coming up with a list of improvements for my surrounds physically, I also started to think about how to change my behavior to reduce my stress level, so that I don’t have to pull my hairs out.
A lot of people have suggested that keeping your workout routine is very helpful, and I will try to do some quick research on what body weight exercise can I do in such a tiny space. I haven’t do much body weight exercise since my Uni days.
“Separation of concerns”
A lot of people also suggested to keep your work space and personal space separate. While it’s physically hard to do in my tiny room, I can kinda achieve that by removing all work-related items from my sight (all notes, computer, accessories, etc.) when the day is over, and let my laziness do the the rest (a.k.a. “Nah I am too lazy to move the chair and take the computer back out. I will check it tomorrow”)
Clean your room/apartment/mansion/whatever
A lot of people suggested to keep your space tidy, plus the act of tidying can double as a distraction. That’s just a good idea in general, especially now that we are all spending 24 hours in the apartment everyday.
Spend less time on internet
First I have to say I love the internet, without it I would be absolutely useless. But in the last few months, the amount of time I spent reading COVID-19 related news is pretty much inversely proportional to my mood.
Back in 2003 when SARS was hitting Hong Kong, I remember everyone can’t stop watching the news, and it drives everyone into panic mode. And this time around, it started for me back in Jan-Feb, when my family and friends in Hong Kong are panicking on how they are gonna get enough masks, and pretty much my entire instagram feed is about how people are trying to keep themselves safe (from the virus or the police, or both). And when cases start to appear in Europe, I just can’t stop scrolling on Twitter and panic.
And even if you find the news about COVID-19 useful, there is still a huge problem of misinformation being share around, from random obfuscated screenshots on Instagram, to actual leaders of multiple countries (yes of course I am referring to Trump). One of the most vivid memory I have is that in the early days of the spread in Hong Kong, no one actually knows what the symptom should be, how they spread (WHO were saying “human to human transmission is unlikely”), and someone share a (later to be proven fake/taken out of context) video, of a men puking blood on some China subway/underground/U-Bahn/MTR, for like a full minute straight. That was really disturbing, not because of the visual, but the idea of “what if this happens to people I care about”. I was (and still am) not prepared for this. I just can’t stop thinking about it and focus at work for 2 days straight.
I think it’s safe to say I should spend a lot less time on the internet.
Take up some new hobbies/pick up some old hobbies
Now that I promise to spend less time on the internet, I’d need some other form of distractions. Some of my recent hobby-building purchase (i.e. online shopping spree) includes buying a Nikon FM (i.e. an old-school film camera from the 70s?), some books (currently reading how to by Randall Monroe), and a decent speaker set (Creative T40 II to be exact. I am not an audiophile I just bought it because my work computer speaker starts cracking). Each of them should be enough distraction for quite a while.
There are also hobbies that does not involve extra spending, like writing, playing some instruments (A lot of people probably have an instrument laying around), or cooking (you have to eat everyday anyway, might as well make your food better).
We are all gonna be stuck here for a while, and by we I mean those who are privileged enough to work from home. The best we can do is to buy scientist and manufactures time to develop the vaccine and more effective cure, to help keep those who cannot work from home as safe as possible. In the day and age when both the physical world and digital world is plague with danger, it would be my first step to figure out how I can embrace remote working and get my sanity back on track.