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  • Hannah Brown

The Work at Home 'Workplace'

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

Work from home workplace - my virtual background.

At this moment in time, as most of the world is hunkered down under shelter in place orders, I realized that a few things are happening in the virtual 'workplace' as we work from home. I come from a New England background that borrows mightily from the British stiff upper lip when it comes to discussions of money and of why we need to take personal time. Given this over the years, I have often found myself either squirming with discomfort or just plained shocked when team members get into the personal details that I feel are TMI.

And now we enter a 'workplace' where we are let into how our staff behaves at home. And on top of that, how they behave at home under the stress of extreme uncertainty. The requisite virtual office meetings have given us a peek into cramped quarters, a wide range of styles of athleisure wear, and an introduction to sometimes unwelcome roommates and pets. During one recent video conference, one participant refused to turn on her video, citing her messy hair. She's young and I had an internal nod of acknowledgement because I've always pegged her as an old soul. I took her decision as verification of my intuition, especially in light of her continued refusal despite added peer pressure along the lines of "Look at me, I'm sweaty and haven't washed my hair in 3 days."

This informality has trickled over into my 'workplace' and how I show up in the work world. As one example, for the duration of stay at home, I'm forgoing all clothing that needs ironing or dry cleaning - that's 90-95% of my work wear. I need those precious minutes (yes, I iron regularly) to balance being at home with my husband and daughter. I spend the 10 minutes I would spend on makeup preparing my daughter's whiteboard with a colorful task list from her teachers and her own schedule of Zoom calls. My office is crowded as it's our storage room as well as our shared workspace and calls are frequently interrupted when my husband needs to print something or my daughter comes to pull a forgotten toy out of the Ebay bags and play for awhile at my feet. I am often on mute in meetings because there is so much stuff happening in the background of our house, but I'm not terribly worried about the visual. I would rather that my colleagues see my smile or laugh when they say something funny than present myself with a static photo or icon, or worse the dreadful black screen with just a name, because they might catch a glimpse of Peppa Pig getting ready for camping. Many of us have discovered the pleasures of virtual backgrounds, too, and those too I find incredibly revealing as only an art historian would. All that is to say that I am embracing informalities that would have made me squirm 6 weeks ago. And hopefully, I am coming off as a little less stiff and a little more human.

But I find that one of the downsides of being at home in the workplace is team members are often looking to leaders for help making personal decisions. One Principal noted that she felt that the behavior in the home 'workplace' reminds her of college with her staff searching for advise, help, and assistance in new ways similar to in loco parentis. I'm not sure if it's the familiarity of being together virtually or if it is perhaps a decision fatigue due to both the independence and the stress of life under shelter in place. It is a strange combination, we must be self reliant enough to weave through a strange new landscape of waiting 45 minutes+ to get groceries, wearing masks outside the house, shopping alone at the farmers market, and figuring how to best greet neighbors while wearing said masks.

At the same time, we need guidance from leaders on loads of new information from how to navigate partial or no employment, to best practices for masks, to how we might sit together in the future in a crowded office. At the moment, when I get a request to make a personal decision for an employee, I try to remember this strange independence and need for leadership. I also know that my advice may not be helpful because, despite the insights I've gained in the past few weeks, I don't know all the details of the person's situation. In spirit of in loco parentis, I recall various parenting tricks, such as asking a few pointed questions or giving just 2 or 3 options to see if the employee can figure the issue out on their own. Then I end on, "Whatever you decide, it will be ok and I can help you navigate how to make it work." Again, it's outside my comfort zone to act as a parent would in the workplace, but it's another way that home and work are blending and informing one another. I know for a fact that when I clamber up the stairs after working for 8 hours, I deeply appreciate it when my husband asks, "Do you want pizza or sausage for dinner?" in lieu of the open-ended "What do you want for dinner?" That's a parenting trick we learned a few years back so as not to end up with a toddler-chosen dinner and we now comfortably use the trick on one another.

For further thoughts on leadership in this time of crisis, I found Arianna Huffington's article, "The Eye of the Hurricane" full of thoughtful reminders. We are in the midst of a long drawn out hurricane and Arianna encourages leaders to find the eye of the hurricane so that they will have the focus and clarity to lead. A few of the pointers are directed at the decision fatigue that looms if we don't delegate to others and if we don't "put our oxygen mask on first" - another tip important for parents and leaders to remember.

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