COVID-19

I’m looking forward to going back to the office

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: my family is incredibly fortunate that neither I nor my wife have lost our jobs because of COVID-19. The virus has spiked unemployment; more than one in ten Americans who want to work currently lack a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bureau of Labor Statistics chart, retrieved 30 July 2020.

Therefore, I know I’m considerably privileged to say that working from home is getting old. I now look forward to it being safe to return to the office.

I very much enjoy some benefits of being home all the time. Yesterday, for example, I put a pork shoulder roast into the oven early in the afternoon — well marinated and then roasted low and slow, baby, mmhmm! — and dinner was ready when everybody got home, with little fuss. When I work in the office, either my wife or I have to figure out dinner after we get home, no earlier than 6, when frankly the last thing we want to do is more work. And then we eat so late, and then the day is over. It’s nice to be off that treadmill

Also, I’m riding my bike a lot during my lunch hour or, when the day will be too hot, in the morning. Not today; it’s raining. I’m writing this post instead. But I’m riding 5 to 7 miles three or four days a week. Once in a while I’m able to arrange my day so I can take a longer lunch, or start work later in the morning, and ride 10 miles or more. I haven’t gotten so much exercise in at least 15 years. I love to ride my bike! I so enjoy feeling the wind on my face and exploring the streets and roads around my home. I’ve been out of shape for years and this is starting to change that. But when I return to the office, these wonderful rides will end.

I also have more time for my personal projects because I’m not commuting. I’m writing more, making more photographs, developing and scanning more film. I’ll have less time for this when I return to the office.

A scene from my bike ride yesterday morning.

So why do I want to go back?

Because I miss the people I work with. I see my teams on Zoom all the time. But it’s not the same as seeing them in person, being able to go to lunch with them, or being able to laugh over something that came up randomly at our desks. Also, there are people on other teams that don’t report to me, people I enjoy, who I haven’t seen since our office shut down in March.

Because I miss the informal conversations I had with key players. I used them to build influence, move my own initiatives forward, and get the straight dope on what was going on. I’ve yet to find a good substitute.

Because I miss being Downtown. I really enjoy working in Downtown Indianapolis! The city energizes me. I love being able to walk everywhere I want to go. I miss all the options for lunch! And I miss being able to meet my brother at one of the dozens of great watering holes for an after-work drink.

Because our home doesn’t have space for me to have a private office. We didn’t buy our home with working from home in mind; there’s no spare bedroom for me to work in. So my desk is in our living room. I’m happy enough with the arrangement, but the rest of the family needs to be quiet from 8 to 5 weekdays because I can hear pretty much everything in the house from here. They don’t get to fully live in the house while I’m working. We were all willing to accept that when we thought this would be short-term temporary. But now my company has announced we’ll work from home at least through year’s end.

Because my home workspace isn’t as ergonomic as my office workspace. I bought my desk and chair long before the pandemic, with frequent but short-duration use in mind. I intended to write my blog and process photos here for an hour or two a day. I’ve worked from home from here many times before, usually a day or two at a time, and it’s been fine. But after about six weeks of this, my lower back started to crab at me thanks to my chair’s poor lumbar support. I stuck a tiny pillow back there, which has helped. Also, twice since working from home I’ve managed to strain my wrist. I did it most recently last week. I think I haven’t found the optimal chair height and position yet that lets me use my mouse without strain. I’m wearing a wrist brace as I type this; it’s limiting my wrist’s mobility so it can heal. In the office, my workstation is more ergonomic — and I don’t sit at it all day, because I have meetings in person.

Many of these challenges will be hard to solve until COVID-19 is no longer a threat. I’m not setting foot into a bar or restaurant for the foreseeable future, for example. But that doesn’t mean I can’t find creative ways to partially meet these needs. On nice days when my wife or the kids have a day off from their jobs, I can work from the deck with my laptop to open up the house. I can set up Zoom happy hours with some of the colleagues I miss, or even with my brother.

One of these challenges is fully solvable. I can buy a fully ergonomic desk and chair, if I really need to.

But all of these things are best solved when I’m back to work as normal. I look forward to it.

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COVID-19

Too soon to declare victory on distributed work

It’s a foregone conclusion that my company will keep us working from home through the end of the year. There’s no compelling reason to go back. We are delivering as well now as we did before mid-March, when the office closed. But more importantly, no amount of office safety precautions can eliminate our risk of the virus.

I work in tech. We can work anywhere there’s WiFi. A group of voices in our industry has said for years that we would all be more productive and have a superior work-life balance if we all worked from home. Now that we’re all working from home and it’s basically working, they are crowing victory.

Office

I say, not so fast. We’ve been at this only four months, not long enough yet to be sure. Let’s see how we feel in mid-November when it’s been another four months. Given the virus’s resurgence, it doesn’t seem far fetched that this could last even longer than that. Let’s see how we feel at the one year mark, four months later in March.

A software engineer on my team said to me recently, “I really miss everybody. I wish I could get a group together to go to lunch, like we did every day in the office.” I miss that, too. I used to bring my lunch, but anytime I wanted lunchtime camaraderie I knew I’d find some group of engineers going out, and I’d be welcome to join them. Many of those engineers are on projects I’m not involved with and I haven’t seen them in months.

He said he especially missed the in-person dynamic of our seven-person team: “I know I see you and the other engineers on the team on Zoom in our daily check-in meeting and in our regular tech discussions, but I miss our energy in the office. I feel isolated here.” Then he asked, “Do you think it would be possible to get us together, maybe for lunch at some restaurant outside? If people want more distance than that, maybe we could all bring our lunch to a big park?”

I checked in with the rest of the team and they were all enthusiastic about getting together, as long as we keep physical distance. We’ve laid in plans to spend some time together this Thursday, outside, at a place where we can stay spread out.

I also manage the managers of three other teams. Our four teams work toward common corporate goals, but we’re set up so that each team has its own backlog of work. It’s efficient. But part of what makes it work is that in the office we all sit in in adjacent groups of desks. This is deliberate. It lets us see each other all the time so we can stay in frequent contact.

It’s been harder since we started working from home. We’ve done our best to stay in touch, but haven’t found a replacement yet for the random, organic, quick check-ins we were used to. I’ve noticed an undercurrent of tension growing among the managers. Recently, there have been a couple spots of friction among them.

We needed to talk things through. My gut told me we’d be better off meeting in person rather than over Zoom. I asked the managers if they’d be comfortable meeting in a park with masks and good distancing. After they thought it over for a while they agreed — the benefit outweighed the (mitigated) risk. We met Thursday afternoon. We talked through the challenges we’re facing and came up with some collaborative and creative ways to stay aligned, both with each other and with some key peers we work with. All of the managers told me that it was good to be able to see each other in person, and to read body language as we interacted. They wished we could do it more often.

The distributed tech companies will all tell you that meeting in person from time to time is essential. But they tend to do it in big annual or semi-annual whole-company gatherings.

Also, these companies either built a distributed culture from the start (such as Automattic, which makes WordPress, the software that runs this blog) or shifted to a distributed workforce a long time ago and evolved their culture to fit it.

Companies like mine — most tech companies finding themselves with a COVID-driven at-home workforce — have not completed that evolution, if they’re even trying. We are used to the dynamics of working together in person.

Several people I work with closely tell me they’re perfectly happy and could keep this up forever. But the rest of us are still figuring out how to adapt. I can think of a couple people on my teams who might never fully adapt. They might need an office environment to work best.

I don’t look for my teams to meet in person regularly. We are all best off limiting our exposure to people we don’t live with. But during these summer months we can meet in person if we need to. There are plenty of wide-open spaces in our city parks, for example. But what happens when the warm-weather months end? This is Indiana, after all. It’s cold in the winter, and we get a lot of snow. For those of us who feel isolated now, just wait until winter takes away all of our reasonably safe options to connect in person.

All tech companies need to keep intentionally evolving toward more effective ways of working while distributed. I think it’s a long journey, one that is unlikely to be accomplished in the short term. I wish us all luck during the long winter.

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COVID-19

The lack of leadership is infuriating

Here in Indiana, lockdown worked while it lasted, but now that it’s over daily cases are up to near their previous peak, which was in late April.

You’ll hear people say that this is because we’re doing so much more testing than before. But notice how testing is actually down by almost a third in the last couple weeks, correlating with the increase in cases. It does take a week or more to get test results back, so if testing were a part of an increase in cases you’d see that lag between these two indicators. But testing fell off after that peak and cases are still increasing.

At least deaths are way, way down since their peak in late April — by as much as two thirds. Perhaps hospitals are doing a better job of managing and treating the disease.

I got all of these graphs from the Indiana State Department of Health coronavirus dashboard here.

A few states are doing better than Indiana, with fewer new cases over time. Several states are doing far worse than Indiana, with new cases spiking.

I’m deeply disheartened by it all. It didn’t have to be this way. We are here because of failed leadership at the state and national level. States have reopened too aggressively, and there has been no strong and consistent message from our leaders about what we should be doing to protect ourselves and our neighbors.

We have two ways of checking this virus’s spread: first, wearking masks when we are in public; and second, avoiding gatherings with people we don’t live with where we are in close proximity for more than several minutes, especially when inside. If state and national leaders would only get on the same page about this, and hit this message hard whenever they communicate with us, I believe it would have dramatic positive effect. I believe Americans would comply in large numbers. The group that believes these restrictions are fascism or a terrible infringement on our personal liberties would likely shut up, and maybe even go along.

At no time in my life have I experienced such a failure of American leadership. We are on our own here, and it’s infuriating. I fear that this nation will have to go through mass infection to achieve herd immunity — with all of the deaths and, probably, lingering serious health issues that implies.

I fear a couple things. First, that our lack of national unity in this response makes us highly vulnerable to countries that wish us harm. Second, that when we come through this time of COVID, whenever that is, that the balance of world power will have shifted, and our status in the world will be irretrievably reduced.

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If you, like me, aren’t going to any fireworks displays this year because you think it will be impossible to keep enough distance from others, then please enjoy these fireworks I photographed several years ago! Click the arrows to cycle through the show.

COVID-19

Independence Day fireworks

A 4th of July fireworks display for you!

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COVID-19

Cheeseburgers and beer, al fresco

That I haven’t written one of my coronavirus missives in more than two weeks says two things: first, that I’ve been consumed with other things; and second, my family has largely adapted.

That doesn’t mean things are necessarily easy. Margaret and I needed to run a bunch of errands on Sunday. At the end of them we realized we were hungry and, more urgently, needed to pee.

We were a half hour from home. The nearby Starbucks wasn’t allowing the public to use their restrooms, as a protection against COVID-19. The surrounding gas stations looked sketchy and dirty.

I knew of a restaurant Downtown that had plenty of outdoor seating, and since we would be customers they’d let us use their restroom. It was ten minutes away, so that’s where we went. We had terrific cheeseburgers and glasses of beer and it felt so good and normal.

Lit Fresh Local Restaurant

But using the restroom provoked some anxiety. It was big enough for just one person, a tight fit. Was someone just in here? Were they sick? Was whatever they breathed out still hanging in the air? Would my mask protect me at all? I wasn’t going to be able to hold my breath through the entire visit. I didn’t even try. I just hoped for the best.

Our table was a good ten feet away from the nearest tables, which we liked. We had our masks, but it just wasn’t practical to swallow fast and put them on every time our server walked up to check on us. She was masked, so she was reasonably protecting us. But we weren’t protecting her, and she had no way of knowing whether we were carrying the virus. Heck, neither did we. Everyone in our house but me has to report to their workplace. Who knows whether the people they work with are carrying the virus? Were we putting our server at risk? Was everybody around us putting their servers at risk?

Our lives can’t stop entirely because of the virus. We need to bring in our paychecks so that we can afford to live. When we support businesses that were hit hard when everything shut down in March, we help others pay their bills, too.

But all of us have a responsibility to protect each other. At the moment, the best way anybody knows to do that is to wear a mask when you’re around people you don’t live with. Sometimes, that’s just impractical. Most of the time it’s not.

I encounter entirely too many people who aren’t wearing masks when I do the things I have to do outside my home. I haven’t counted, but I’d say it’s one third to one half of everyone I see. I’m losing my patience with it.

I get it, this is America, rugged individualism, Don’t Tread On Me, and all that. But this is also a nation that bands together in times of trouble. I’ve seen it. Why are we not doing it this time?

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COVID-19

I know exactly what I’m doing but I don’t know whether it’s right or wrong

Margaret’s father turns 89 in a couple weeks. Since his wife died last August, not only has he grieved deeply, but he has declined dramatically, both physically and cognitively.

Margaret feels sure he’s in his last year. I think most of her seven brothers and sisters feel the same way, because they’re starting to travel here to visit as often as they can. We’ve made the decision to see Margaret’s brothers and sisters and their children (all adults) when they come.

We know this exposes us to risk. We also know that some of Margaret’s siblings and their children have different beliefs from us about how serious the virus is, and are taking fewer precautions than us.

We insist on one key restriction: that we see each other only outside, maintaining distance from each other. Based on articles I’m reading (like this one), the greatest risk of contracting the virus happens when you spend time with a group of people inside. If someone in the room is contagious, you all are marinating in the virus. Being outside heavily reduces that risk because the air is much more likely to carry the virus away. But it doesn’t eliminate the risk.

We’re most concerned about increasing risk for Margaret’s dad given his age. More than half of Indiana’s COVID-19 deaths are in people 80 and over, despite that age group representing only about 10 percent of cases. I made these screen shots from the Indiana State Department of Health COVID dashboard this morning, showing data collected from the beginning of the pandemic through yesterday.

We imagine that dying of COVID-19 would be extremely unplesant — and lonely, as it would require isolation. If I know anything about my father-in-law, it is that he would experience it as cruel and deeply emotionally painful to die without his children surrounding him.

Additionally, I think it would be far harder for Margaret and her brothers and sisters mentally and emotionally to go through this without seeing each other.

Still, I remain anxious. I’d strongly prefer to stay locked down, all five of us living here having no contact with people outside our home. I’d rather wait until there is effective treatment or a vaccine.

This is how Margaret and I are trying to balance both very real needs. I think nationwide, even worldwide, many families will have to make decisions just like this as our lives continue to naturally unfold during the pandemic.

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