Office is where the worker is, and for many civilian and government employees, the advent of the coronavirus has meant taking our laptops and a few choice desk items from the office and setting up shop at home.
Whether young or old, a first-timer or seasoned teleworker, the experience has been an insightful experience for all.
Below are four teleworkers from various professions and different parts of the country offering their thoughts on a new way of doing business and sharing what they’ve learned.
Darren Court is the Museum Curator at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., where he has worked the past 13 years. He began teleworking for the first time in late March when his den became his new office.
Do you like teleworking? It's okay. It has definite pros and cons.
What do you like about it? I like being with my family and not constantly having people come in the office and distract me.
What do you not so like about it? I miss the interaction with the public, tours, etc., and also having all of my research material easily at hand.
What are some of your biggest challenges teleworking vs working at the office? Getting distracted by the kids is sometimes a problem. With seven kids at home, and most of them trying to do their own work, it can be a bit tough at times. With so many people around the world working from home, it's been difficult getting images and permissions to use in the new museum exhibits from various archives across the U.S. and Europe.
A recent study by one organization found its employees' productivity increased during a telework experiment. Are you more productive/efficient? I've certainly noticed this - I've been much more productive regarding researching exhibit material and creating content for the Facebook page, and later use on the website.
What do you do to help separate work time from free time? I still haven't mastered that! I find myself in the den working long after everyone has gone to bed.
What advice would you give someone if they were going to start teleworking next week for the first time? Make sure you have a very clear telework plan, with goals and outcomes that are workable for your situation. Also, don't be like me - keep your work and off time separate!
Is there anything else you would like to add? Just that it's been a very interesting experience. I'll miss being at home in a lot of ways, but need to get back to the museum to start working on the next phase of the new WSMR Museum.
Benjamin Friedlander is a Research and Data Analyst for the The Memphis Education Fund (Education Philanthropy, Nonprofit) who discovered an affinity to teleworking back home at his parent’s house in Mobile, Ala.
Do you like teleworking? No, I love it! Seriously, I want my job to switch to 50/50 office/telework when this is all over.
What do you like about it? The number one thing I like about it is that my workday is now based on task completion instead of business hours. Once I've completed all of the work that needs to be done on a given day, I'm finished working! I also like being able to schedule non-work activities throughout the day, including exercise, chores and family time. Even if mixing in these activities means I finish the workday later, I get to finish the workday with all of my responsibilities finished.
What do you not so like about it? Since I'm not physically leaving "the office," it can be harder to mentally separate myself from work, and I've caught myself feeling guilty about not being productive even during non-business hours. It's also difficult to connect with my teammates unless we schedule a time to meet - which is fine for major tasks, but frustrating for quick 2-minute questions and conversations.
What are some of your biggest challenges teleworking vs office work? My biggest challenge is prioritization - every day is so open-ended it can be difficult to figure out which assignments need to be completed NOW versus which ones should happen later in the day or week. Having people working on different schedules has exacerbated this. Sometime I know what my highest priority is, but I can't work on it first thing because it requires partnering with a co-worker who isn't available until later in the day. We also have way more meetings than before, so I have less available time to work independently during business hours.
A recent study by one organization found its employees' productivity increased during a telework experiment. Are you more productive/efficient? Yes! Like I said earlier, when my work for the day is done, it's done, so there's a lot of motivation to work more efficiently. I think the hours I have to work independently are also more productive because there are fewer distractions.
What is your routine you do to help separate work time from free time? I start work at roughly the same time every day (8 a.m. -9 a.m.). As much as possible, I schedule my day out ahead of time so that I know what I'm working on each hour of the day. Of course this changes based on updates and meetings, but writing it all down helps me get in the mindset of starting the workday. I also dress "business casual" so a collared shirt (but no tie!), pants, socks, and close-toed shoes. Since I'm staying with my parents, I have an entire room designated as my work from home space - my older sister's childhood bedroom!
There are two ways I usually determine the end the work day:
1. If everything on my daily to-do list is complete, and I'm on track for all of my long-term projects, I'm DONE! This usually only cuts about 1 hour off the normal workday, but it's a great reward and motivator.
2. If I hit 5 p.m. without finishing everything, then I give myself 30 extra minutes to either wrap up or plan how I'll fit the work into the following day's schedule. 5:30 p.m. is a hard cut-off time for work though.
As soon as I'm done working, I change into comfy clothes and usually don't go back to the designated work space until the next day, just like I don't make evening trips to the office!
Is there anything else you would like to add? I hope what a lot of offices are learning from this experience is that a lot of standard office work can be done from home. There are definitely positive aspects of working together in a physical office space, but these moments could be consolidated into 2-3 days a week. The COVID-19 pandemic threw us into the "extreme" of 100 percent teleworking, and we should use this experience as an opportunity to find the happy medium between office and teleworking when that option is available again.
Adriana Salas de Santiago is a former WSMR employee who now works as a federal outreach coordinator in El Paso, Texas, where her new job has required her to work exclusively as a teleworker for the past 15 months in various “office” locations that include her garage, dining room table and bedroom.
Do you like teleworking? Pre COVID-19, it was somewhat manageable. Right now it's a bit hectic and causing a lot of anxiety.
What do you like about it? I like being able to spend time with my children and getting to know them a lot better.
What do you not so like about it? Having to balance homeschooling with four young kids is EXTREMELY difficult. That alone is a full-time job, and then you throw in conference calls for a full-time job and virtual meetings along with actually doing your job after those meetings. And there can be interruptions when one of the kids tell me they accidentally exited out of something, the teacher needs to ask me a question, or to tell me they finished their first task and they need something else to do.
What kind of routine did you establish? We have a very loose routine. Mornings, depending on how we feel, the kids watch about an hour to two hours of television. My husband, who is also working from home but has a more lax schedule, will make breakfast. Based on my schedule, I will either get on a conference call or get the kids started on their assignments for the day. My husband and I will switch off on lunch duties. By lunch, the kids have most of their assignments completed. My husband finishes most of his assignments by 3 or 4 p.m. At that point the kids go outside to play... and I stay working. We're trying to work out together as a family at 4:30 p.m. after my workday ends. We get started on dinner about 5 p.m. while the other spouse works on any school assignments we couldn't get to during the week. We usually end the day with a walk around the block except on Tuesdays and Fridays which are usually movie nights.
How do you help separate work time from free time? It's really important to disconnect. I know it's redundant and cliché but it's absolutely vital unless you're okay with going crazy. Allow yourself time for lunch, and do not take your work phone with you.
What are some of your biggest challenges teleworking vs office work? Working in an office allows you to get away, to have a space away from home where you can be an adult (if you have kids) and feel like you're contributing to something bigger. When you work from home, the message and the importance of your job sometimes gets lost. It is difficult to stay organized and on task. You don't have anyone to chat with and the only way to mimic chatting is through text, email or phone, which makes you feel a little awful knowing you're always "on" or connected to your phone even after hours because you find yourself texting your co-workers when that time should be allotted to your family.
What advice would you give someone if they were going to start teleworking next week for the first time? Create a designated work space, create a schedule to allow yourself time for breaks and lunch. Disconnect from your "office" and your phone as soon as it is time to disconnect.
A recent study by one organization found its employees' productivity increased during a telework experiment. Are you more productive/efficient? Because there's less time to have a conversation with co-workers, it does allow more time to do actual work. My job in particular requires a lot of face-to-face meetings from people all over the city. Though I waste a lot of time driving, I gain a really great networking opportunity by being able to meet with a partner face to face. It makes our partners more willing to assist us because they see the commitment in us.
Has teleworking changed for you since the coronavirus has now prompted thousands of civilian and government workers to join you as fellow teleworkers? I have more people to vent to who can now relate to me. People with young children or family members to take care of are in a completely different ballpark than young single professionals or empty nesters. I spent a good part of 20 minutes this morning venting to a partner about the difficulties of homeschooling when most of our interactions up to this point have been very professional.
Is there anything else you would like to add? We're all doing a great job! It's important to take things one day at a time. Tomorrow is a new day!
Troy Kitch is a seasoned teleworker who has been alternating work stations at home and office for several years with the National Ocean Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Md.
What is your job? I am the lead developer and managing editor for the National Ocean Service website. I spend about half of my time as a web developer; a quarter of my time writing stories or producing video, audio, or infographic content; and about a quarter of my time managing the writing and web development assignments of our staff and editing stories for the website.
When did you begin teleworking? I began teleworking about eight years ago. Our office started out with one day of telework a week and, about four years ago, expanded to two days a week.
Where is your "office"? My office is in a dedicated room of my house. Probably the most important aspect of this is that I have a door I can close. I love my teleworking set-up. Over the years, I've invested in creating my vision of an ideal workspace. I have a desk that can be raised and lowered, so I can alternate between standing and sitting. I have a split keyboard set up with the Dvorak layout that helps immensely with my RSI (Repetitive Strain Issues). I have two input devices — a trackpad on the left and a mouse on the right — so that I can alternate hands to also help ward off RSI issues. I have a widescreen 32-inch monitor on my desk — I'm a big proponent of screen space! When I acquired the giant widescreen monitor, I re-used my old monitor by setting it up in landscape mode next to my desk. I use this second monitor to display tasks and my calendar, with the big monitor as my main workspace. I also have a standing desk foam mat to help with fatigue. I stand 90 percent of the time.
What kind of routine did you establish? It's very easy to start the workday and lose track of time. When I began teleworking years ago, I often would barely move over the duration of the workday. Over time, I've developed a routine to ensure I frequently get away from the keyboard to break up the day. I use a timer to let me know when to break (there are tons of free apps for mobile devices that perform this task). During breaks, I walk away from my desk, stretch, go outside, and sometimes meditate a bit. For meditation, it's nothing fancy. I just sit on a cushion on the floor. I also set times of the day to deal with email and, during those times, I will frequently go outside with my laptop to have a change of scenery. I also have flexibility with my time, so I will often work a few hours in the late evening, freeing up an hour or so during the day to go for a hike and take a short nap. A good hike and a short nap during the workday does wonders for productivity and positivity, in my experience.
How do you help separate work time from free time? If possible, it really helps to have a separate space for telework that you can set up how you like and leave it that way. Having a separate space also allows you to depart that space and physically distance yourself from work. Another thing that helps me is "dressing for work." I don't dress very formally, but I do typically change clothes to start my telework day and, once the day ends, change into something else.
What are some of your biggest challenges teleworking vs office work? I have a cat who often screams and cries when he is hungry or wishes to be escorted to our back lawn to eat some grass. The screaming often starts just when a teleconference begins. Another potential challenge is with group video meetings — many people keep very quiet on video calls, some participate a bit too much, and it can be hard to get an inclusive group discussion going. I think the key is to spend more time preparing ahead of time for meetings, and only hold meetings if you really need to do so. I think everyone benefits in having fewer, shorter meetings to accomplish discrete tasks. Another hurdle is that telework relies on a good internet connection. For my job, and for many jobs these days, if the internet goes out or if bandwidth is overtaxed, it's hard to get work done. Lastly, it's a challenge to maintain a work laptop remotely, scheduling time to have IT people remote in to fix problems with VPN, updating apps, etc. on my NOAA laptop.
What advice would you give someone if they were going to start teleworking next week for the first time? Get dressed for work. Establish a routine over time, built around taking periodic breaks. As much as possible, set up a nice environment so you enjoy being there. If you feel like you need to get away for a bit and can do so, then step away. Twenty minutes of focused attention on a task is more productive than an unfocused hour.
A recent study by one organization found its employees' productivity increased during a telework experiment. Are you more productive/efficient? I am much more efficient working from home, as there are fewer distractions. At the office, hours a day can be eaten up with copious meetings and with random people dropping by. I also don't have to deal with a three-hour commute, and that time saved can be invested on healthier endeavors that I think make me more productive.
Has teleworking changed for you since the coronavirus has now prompted thousands of civilian and government workers to join you as fellow teleworkers? Some jobs are more easily done remotely than others. For the type of work I do, it works quite well. For people whose daily schedule revolves around meetings and close interaction with others, I think it can be much more challenging. Perhaps the biggest challenge for others is for those who have young children at home, given that schools are closed. Trying to work, maintain a household, keep children occupied, etc., has been very taxing for many people that I work with.
Is there anything else you would like to add? If you have a chat capability at your workplace, it can be a nice way to maintain a connection with workmates. At NOAA, we use Google services, so we have ready access to Google Chat. This gives us the ability to 'drop in' to ask people how they are doing, to say good morning, or to ask questions/get feedback on some task. We also use a free project management tool called Trello, which has been very helpful to manage assignments remotely through the use of shared project spaces.