Marni Jackson’s books include Home Free: The Myth of the Empty Nest, Pain: The Science and Culture of Why We Hurt, and the novel Don’t I Know You?
I’m a writer, so I’ve worked from home all my life. My office is the dining-room table, where my colleagues are the salt and pepper. But now that many businesses are asking their employees to work from home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I find that my particular skill set – being adept at going nowhere, seeing no one and avoiding most cultural and sporting events – has suddenly become cutting-edge.
For those new to working from home, here is my personal advisory:
1. In a domestic setting, the rule of “social distancing” should apply to the refrigerator as well. Maintain at least six feet between your work area and the refrigerator, because you will want to open it many times a day, to compensate for not seeing other faces or hearing other voices. Full-fat cheese will become your new best friend.
2. For people working at home, the arrival of the non-digital mail is always an exciting daily event. But some of those envelopes have been licked shut. The postal person’s gloved hand has entered numerous other mailboxes. So be sure to vigorously soap your mail, especially anything from Canada Revenue Agency, and run it under the hot water until the bills and overdue notices disintegrate. Remember, in these dark days, many institutions are in a forgiving mood.
3. Create a professional “set” for your Zoom conferences and work Skypes. Many of your colleagues will get an intimate glimpse inside your living quarters. They don’t want to see that you work in a furnace room beside vacuum cleaner attachments and pool noodles. Consider building shelves behind your work area, with potted succulents and work-related books prominently displayed. If you work in the bedroom, try not to leave closet doors open with boxers, shapewear and bras hanging off one corner. If you collect Smurf dolls or Star Wars action figures, put them away.
4. Upgrade your above-the-waist wardrobe. It’s acceptable to wear track pants at your at-home desk, or even pyjamas bottoms. As more and more of us self-isolate, we are in fact entering a Time of Pyjama Bottoms. But try to stay professional from the waist up. Collars are good. No Led Zeppelin T-shirts with turmeric-smoothie stains when Skyping with the boss.
5. If you live with someone, ask your domestic partner to be sensitive about ambient noise during your teleconferences. Discourage passive-aggressive rattling of pots and pans during calls, but do not ask your partner to take the baby into the bathroom “in case she cries,” unless you want further self-isolation.
6. Pets will become more important to your mental health, for their company and their inability to talk about the coronavirus. But monitor yourself so that you are not talking to your dog for long periods, i.e. more than 60 minutes a day. If your cat looks bored or trapped, back off on the cuddling and cooing and phone somebody.
7. Establish boundaries. The great peril of working at home is that work never ends and this can make you hostage to your screens. Limit yourself to no more than three devices at a time. Sure, have the national news on the TV while scrolling through Instagram on your iPad, posting a gloating photo of your supply of toilet paper to Facebook and checking for late-night e-mails from the office. Three active screens are reassuring and not very carcinogenic at all. More devices before bedtime, however, may diminish the quality of your sleep – if you still sleep at night.
8. Day-sleep is restorative. If you maintain six feet between your work area and the couch, it’s acceptable to nap for one, two or more hours as long as you wash your eyemask before and after. Just make sure that, if you are scheduled for a conference call after extensive napping, you fluff out the head dents on the couch cushions if they are visible. You want your work environment at home to say “I’m a focused professional adapting to this extraordinary situation” rather than “What’s wrong with a few empty pizza boxes and this stack of Lee Valley catalogues from last year?”
9. If you are in a relationship, sex is permissible as long as you are asymptomatic and don’t kiss, make eye contact, use each other’s first names, or utter any noises.
10. Do the work. At home there are always interruptions, such as the courier arriving with your Amazon purchase of moccasins, because regular shoes indoors now seem silly. It can be difficult to focus. You might find yourself taking down the outdoor Christmas lights that you decided to leave up until next winter but now urgently require your attention.
11. Create a schedule. Tell yourself that you will do “real work” for an hour, then nap, then do “pretend work” for an hour. This includes unfriending people whose Facebook posts now seriously irritate you. Other pretend work includes signing petitions and cancelling tickets for all the cancelled events, which can eat up entire mornings, as can reading the flood of obsequious mass e-mails from corporations wishing to appear concerned and community-minded in the face of COVID-19.
12. Self-monitor for any symptoms. It is also normal to over-self-monitor if you work from home. You will go to the mirror and use a flashlight to stare at your tongue and throat. You will feel your forehead and then take your temperature and wonder if the usual “normal” can be trusted to be normal. Is 98.6 a hoax? Maybe only 97.6 is good? So taking your temperature 30 to 40 times a day is acceptable. More than 40 suggests a compulsive, anxious response to a legitimate global crisis, and you should then pause your self-monitoring to self-medicate with your preferred anti-anxiety strategy. These include meditation, benzodiazepines, edibles and tequila, although not all at the same time. But remember, if you over-self-medicate, you risk responding to your boss’s requests by saying, “Whatever, blah, blah, can’t this wait till next week?”
13. Try singing. The Italians have responded to their total lockdown by stepping out on their apartment balconies at 6 p.m. every evening to serenade their neighbours. If you don’t have a balcony, you could go into your yard or your little parking space and sing We Are the Champions or I Will Always Love You. If your neighbours call the police, just smile, wave and retreat. It’s possible that they don’t share your resilience.
14. Be grateful for your home time. Be grateful that we’re in Canada where the risks, while mounting daily, still remain relatively low, and our government has already directed billions to address the economic fallout from the pandemic. Be grateful that our health officials have been calm and communicative and that our leadership is sane. Be grateful for our health workers – and store cashiers – on the front lines of the pandemic. If you are working from home, be grateful that you even have a job when so many in the arts and cultural sector no longer have a paycheque.
15. Be grateful, but not smug: The future remains unreadable.