Shelter in Place: Working in a time of isolation

In this time of social distancing without a clear time frame, I’m feeling the need to share some of the things I’ve learned over 17 years of working from a home office. It’s clear that the novel corona virus will disrupt our previous ways of doing business, but it’s possible some parts of that may be good, eventually. For people who are able to return to near former levels of productivity while COVID-19 runs its course, you may be able to contribute to economic stability, and save yourself much of the roughly 6 weeks every year that the average North American spends commuting to work. That’d be a serious bump in productive hours available with major reductions in transportation costs and green house gas emissions.

FullSizeRenderThe average American household spends more on transportation (16%) than on food or healthcare. Low-income families may spend up to 58% of income on transportation when they live in auto-centric environments. (Center for Neighborhood Technology and Virginia Tech University) A person with a one-hour drive to work must earn 40% more to be as satisfied as someone who walks. Shifting from a long commute to a short walk would make a single person as happy as if s/he had found a new love. (Cities Alive) There aren’t comparable studies for working from home, but I’m assuming a similar scenario. So here are a few of the things that have helped my home office productivity and made it viable long term:

1. Set boundaries.
Many of us are sharing scant office space with partners, roommates, kids, and pets. Or suddenly homeschooling kids, or at least trying to check in on online classroom progress. And doing curbside drop-offs to elder friends and family. With all of these new dynamics, it’s important to carve out enough time and space to do the work that must be done. Consider what time frames might work for you, which may not be 9 to 5 any longer, but may have a second shift in the evening.

Whatever time you set aside for yourself for work, guard it well. Make yourself some simple rules about what can be part of the workday: kid time and dog walks: yes; house work, news media, friend calls: no. How can you multi-task in viable ways? Maybe schedule a conference call or two during each dog walk or grocery run to free up some airspace at home but still do double duty.

2. Respect the flow.
You will need some new tools to collaborate with your team, like Messages to mirror text messages to your computer and FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype. While we are all anxious about how and for how long COVID-19 will disrupt our lives, working from home with a large team makes getting into a flow state of productivity more important than ever. Do not text, message, or video chat your team members unless you really need speedy input. Don’t text them unless it’s something that is important enough to make you usually walk over to their desk and interrupt them. Instead choose more discreet ways to communicate (see 6. Communicate well).

Realize that we all have times of day where thinking comes more easily. This was true for you in your regular office and will be just as true in your home office. Guard those times for high productivity writing or working, and save more sluggish time frames for conference calls, emails, and social media. Especially now, consider not checking emails or social media until afternoon, which is generally less productive time. (Business Insider)

3. Be accountable.
While you won’t have the physical face time of showing up at the office to keep you accountable, clock in on a shared online time sheet with your team members, even if you are salaried or are working for a flat fee or gig-based. Everything will feel odd for awhile, so holding yourself accountable will help you parse time. “What gets measured gets done.”

Choose a minimum number of big categories to help you see how you and your team are spending time. Mine are: billable hours; business development; firm development; and volunteerism. Add a notes column to share your intentions at the beginning of every day, to focus yourself and check in with your team. Especially in this new environment without physical proximity, seeing the commitment of others is the sort of contagion that’s welcome.

4. Share information.
Dropbox and Google Drive are some of the easiest File Sharing Protocols (FTPs) and make it easy to work together remotely. Decide carefully what documents work best in each. We use google sheets for large research projects like www.CodeScore.org and www.CodesStudy.org, and google docs for co-developing the meat of most policy and physical plans, as well as for zoning codes and subdivision regulations that will be delivered as InDesign files.

Only when the content is agreed upon do we flow into InDesign for layout, stored on the FTP we’ve designated for the project at hand. If the client requires a zoning code or subdivision regulations to be a Word Document, to ensure rigor we do not edit at the same time, and tend to work on these as a date-named file on Dropbox.

5. Record your workflow.
Whatever systems you’ve decided on for storing and sharing your work, record your workflow. Think of it as the office handbook if you were bringing on a new hire, to help them understand step by step how to do the hardest production work of your team. Except make sure it is shared electronically with the team and updated in real time. When someone makes a new find for a productive workflow, you want to make sure that person remembers it for the next round, and shares it with everyone.

We organize our workflow essentials by the programs and systems we use the most: Blurb, CAD, Charrette Book Requirements, Code Score Updates, Codes Study Updates, GIS, Illustrator, InDesign, Microsoft Word, Photoshop, Production Software Requirements, SketchUp, and Slack.

6. Communicate well.
Over our 17 years of many partners in many places, the largest challenge is viable communication. So we’ve spent some time on a number of hacks. For team members I’m working with closely on a particular project, we have a short morning phone call every day while walking the dog. While larger team conference calls are important when new jobs start up and to check in on team progress, several other tools are essential for the decanted workspace.

A shared calendar will help easily see when others are available to meet with clients, virtually for several weeks now, at least. For smaller teams, we use shared to-do lists in Notes, or recommend Slack for larger teams, to establish both tasks and who’s responsible for each one. Pick your tools carefully for the project at hand, so that they don’t weigh you down.

Laura Clemons at Collaborative Communities is the queen of virtual happy hours, which can be hosted by Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms. A group of colleagues enjoying a beverages virtually at the end of the workday help check in on each other and keep somewhat connected in these tough times. Still, Laura points out, “With all this e-communication it’s also good to remember to take time to disconnect and embrace some quiet alone time for yourself with a book or a bubble bath or snuggling with the dog.”

7. Be hopeful.
We are clearly in a time of disruption when things are going to change dramatically. Looking for what we can do right now is more important than ever. Here are several places I am finding inspiration:

Check out Yale’s all time most popular professor, Dr. Laurie Santos, and her podcast to engage in psychological and temporal distancing. (Happiness Lab)

Consider copying some part of neighborhoods in Washington, where small neighborhood militias of kindness, assistance and caring are running errands, dog walking & delivering groceries to at-risk or quarantined neighbors. Bars are morphing into food pantries. Tutors are helping out over Zoom, Skype, FaceTime. (Washington Post) Or the people turning Little Free Libraries into Little Free Pantries. (LIT HUB)

“Consider what just happened. In a matter of days, even hours, a multitude of people wrapped their minds around the fact that, to flatten the curve and stave off worse crisis, drastic measures needed to be taken. And they took them. It’s a victory of conscience and, above all, of collective sacrifice for the collective good.” – Melissa Martin (Winnipeg Free Press)

“In these very difficult and uncertain times, we often look to things in our community that connect us, inspire us and help us. Art has always been a vehicle to inform, inspire, connect and heal.” – Stephen Borys (My Daily Art on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter)

“I am a firm believer in the people, and, if given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crises. The great point is to bring before them the real facts.” ~ Gen. Douglas MacArthur, April 1944

8. Be grateful.
PlaceMakers celebrated our 17th anniversary last week, so we want to thank you for being a reader, colleague, and collaborator. For some time, we had bricks and mortar storefronts in South Beach Miami and Calgary, but since the majority of our public time is in community design workshops, we’ve moved to virtual offices years ago to maximize free time and minimize carbon footprint. It has been an honor and delight to work with 111 clients planning and/or coding 5,455,555 acres. Most of this was done from home offices and in the local communities.

Maybe you’ll go farther than we have, and take a page out of Isaac Newton’s book, when he was sent home from college to do almost two years of social distancing during the Great Plague, which took the lives of a quarter of London’s residents. Newton used the time to develop calculus, optics, and sat alone under his apple tree that helped formulate F=ma and the collection of ideas that we now know as Newtonian physics. Without his time in self isolation, you likely wouldn’t be on an electronic device at the moment or able to consider doing a single thing in this blog. (Washington Post)

Not to set the bar too high, but together let’s make some silver linings to the disruption we will continue to face in the weeks and months ahead. We wish you good health, well-being, and productivity during these challenging times.

Hazel Borys

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