COVID-19

Returning to the world

It was quite a week: I went to church, and I went to work.

Margaret and I are both vaccinated, as is one of Margaret’s kids who lives with us. The other isn’t, despite our admonitions. But she works in retail, and with nobody masking anymore she’s far more likely to get sick at work than because Margaret or I brought COVID home. So Margaret and I are no longer restricting ourselves. We’re also not rushing to Do All the Things in the world, either. We’re taking measured and deliberate steps.

When I walked in at church, everyone about fell over. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming, I just showed up. We hadn’t seen each other in 15 months! I took my usual place in the back and enjoyed the service. I was almost overcome with happiness when communion was passed. In my faith tradition, we take communion every week. I really missed it.

Last month I said that when Margaret and I felt safe to return to worship, we’d find a new church together. That’s still our aim, but in the short term I will attend at my current church about every other Sunday. There needs to be someone from church leadership in attendance every week, and the fellow we’d been leaning on for that is going to be away most of the summer. So one of the other leaders and I are alternating weeks.

I won’t go every week because our granddaughter comes to visit on Sunday mornings. Without getting into all of the complications around this, I’ll just say that this is the time her mom can bring her, and that’s that.

I worked in the office on Tuesday. The company opened its office on Monday, allowing anyone vaccinated to work unmasked. I had to provide a scan of my vaccination card. I understand how some people might find this to be too invasive, but in this instance I didn’t at all mind sending in my scan.

This is a brand new office for my company. We were in the building next door until March, and then we were homeless for several weeks while finishing touches were placed on the new office, which is in a new building. The photo above is from the window near my desk, where I have a commanding view of the Eli Lilly & Co. building. The pharmaceutical giant is headquartered here.

My company is allowing us to work some days at home and some days in the office. My plan is to work in the office Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday for sure, and maybe on Monday. But I’ll work from home every Wednesday for sure.

I’m going to add in-office days slowly. I found it to be intensely stressful to suddenly work from home every day last year when all this began. I hope that by easing back into my in-office schedule, I can adapt more easily.

It’s as if I am given a limited number of “energy cards” every day, and when I’ve given all of those cards out in the course of a day’s events, I’m out of energy. Truly, when that happens, I’m fried. I make routines out of anything I can, because it reduces how much I have to think about them, which conserves energy. When the pandemic sent me home to work, every last one of my workday routines was upended. I had to figure out all new ones, and until I did I was exhausted at the end of each day.

Sure enough, working in the office on Tuesday left me spent. It had been a long time since I’d dealt with rush-hour traffic, and that spent a whole energy card by itself. It didn’t used to, probably by sheer daily repetition. But after a 15-month hiatus, I had lost my chops, I guess.

Of course, I did all the things you do when you work for the first time in a new office: set up my desk, figure out how to work the coffee machine, and find the restrooms. But I also took all of my meetings over Zoom just as I did the day before working at home, as nobody I met with was in the office that day. So I had Zoom fatigue on top of everything-is-new fatigue.

When I go back to the office this Tuesday, I won’t have so many new things to figure out. But I’m sure the commute will still be tiring, until I get used to it again.

Another reason I plan to add in-office days slowly is because when I work from home, I can ride my bike on my lunch hour. I’m reluctant to give that up, as this is the last summer I will get to do it. I’m even considering taking a long bike tour later this year, covering 150 miles or so over a few days. Riding most weekdays will help me prepare for that. I’ve wanted to do a tour for years, and if ever there’s a year to do it, this is it.

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COVID-19

Like sex without a condom

Indiana’s mask mandate ended in early April. While a few counties opted to continue it, the one I live in did not.

Even though Margaret and I are both vaccinated, we have continued to wear masks even where it isn’t required, and we have continued to stay out of indoor public places except when strictly necessary. Two of our adult children still live with us, and they are not yet vaccinated. One of them has a health condition that puts them at extra risk. We didn’t want to risk bringing it home to them. We know that our vaccinations make the likelihood low, but the impact sure could be high if it happened.

My chiropractor’s office was the first place in my world to shed their masks. The woman behind the desk directly encouraged me to leave my mask behind on my next visit. Then I started seeing a small number of people ignore various businesses’ mask requirements.

Meijer

Last Saturday, when I went to Meijer to do the week’s shopping, they no longer required masks. I’d say 70 percent of shoppers shopped bare faced.

Meijer was a bellwether for me. If they aren’t requiring masks, other businesses assuredly aren’t either — including the restaurant and retail store where our two adult children work. Shortly, none will.

Margaret said, “If the kids get it, it is going to be from where they work. We can’t protect them anymore.” She was right.

We’ve been strongly encouraging them both to get vaccinated, but neither has been interested. One was concerned about side effects. I told them both that my own reading says that they were far more likely to have a bad time with COVID than they were with any of the available vaccines, but it didn’t move them.

I’m the kind of dad who would say, “Look, my house, my rules. Get vaccinated. If you want to follow your own rules, get your own house.” But these are Margaret’s kids, and Margaret doesn’t parent in the same way I do. She continues to encourage them. One of them finally agreed to do it and has one Pfizer shot in him. The other remains disinterested.

BW3

I said to Margaret, “I don’t know what you think about it, but I think it’s okay for us to relax our vigilance.” She agreed. So we’re no longer masking up in places that don’t require it. And Sunday we took the plunge: we walked over to the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant near our home, went inside, and ate cheeseburgers and drank beer. “It feels like sex without a condom,” Margaret said as we sat down.

I did feel slight anxiety as we entered, but it melted when our first round of beers arrived. (I had a Porter that tasted like coffee and chocolate. I love a good Porter!) It felt like it had been only a week since our last visit to a restaurant, not 15 months.

Meanwhile, my company has announced that they are opening the office June 7. They aren’t requiring anyone to return just yet, but working in the office will be available for those who want it. Anyone vaccinated will not have to wear a mask, but we have to place a copy of our vaccination cards on file with HR.

Switching suddenly to working from home last year was surprisingly stressful. I had to learn a lot of new habits and figure out how to cope with Zoom fatigue. (On a typical work day, I’m on Zoom six or seven hours.) I suspect that if I were to return full time to the office, I’d experience similar stress. To spread out that stress, I’ve decided to work one day a week in the office, and add days slowly.

Probably later this year, my company will end this flexibility and ask us to choose among working remotely full time, or working in the office full time, or working a hybrid schedule at home Monday and/or Wednesday but in the office the rest of the week.

I choose the hybrid schedule. There have been big benefits to working from home — shedding my hour round-trip commute, being able to walk and ride my bike more, slipping in a load of laundry here and there, even being able to cut the grass on my lunch hour. I’d like to keep some of that. Truly, these benefits are so strong that I considered never returning to the office.

But I miss the people. As a pegging-the-meter introvert, I don’t need much human contact. But I need some, and my needs have not been met during the pandemic. I didn’t realize until I didn’t have it anymore just how much of that need is met in the office. Also, when I’m back in the office I will have a much easier time building the relationships I need at work to influence things to go the way I want. Most of the company is choosing the hybrid schedule, so I’ll see most people there and be able to have the casual interactions with them that I’ve always used to build bonds.

I know the pandemic isn’t over. Not enough people are vaccinated to create herd immunity. We don’t know how long the vaccines last just yet, and we don’t know whether they protect against the variants yet to come. I’m moving forward on some faith, recognizing that we might have to isolate again. I’m sure I’ll experience that as a blow if it comes. But I can’t defend against every possible future event. I’m choosing to act on the current reality.

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Personal, Stories Told

Living life after running out of things to graduate from

I first shared this in 2013 as my older son was about to apply to colleges. Now his younger brother has graduated college, and I’m thinking about this message again.

I overheard my sons talking the other day about college. I found that to be encouraging, because I think they’re both bright and capable and should go to college.

My youngest said, “Elementary school prepares you for middle school, which prepares you for high school, which prepares you for college. And then college prepares you for life.” I was with him right up until the last link in his chain.

My degree itself didn’t prepare me for life. My overall college experience helped prepare me for life a little. But after I graduated college and lived on my own, my adult life was significantly new and different from anything I had experienced before. I had to figure it out as it happened.

Cueing a record
On the air at Rose-Hulman’s WMHD

Now, I loved my studies. I majored in mathematics and minored in German and sociology, and exploring these subjects made my heart sing. A few things I learned in class have directly helped me in my software-development career, but otherwise, my studies have benefited my life and career only intangibly.

Surprisingly, my time working at the campus radio station gave me much better clues about life and career. I had fun doing my regular air shifts. I learned a lot about working as part of a team and taking care of my commitments to them. When I became station manager, I led an executive board and had responsibility for about 100 staff members. I also learned to deal with difficult people (primarily the chief engineer, who seemed always to look for reasons to clash with me) and still get the job done.

There were no tests and no grades; there was no end goal. We meant to stay on the air indefinitely. (Sadly the station shut down in 2013.) We aimed to deliver the best on-air work we could today, and do it a little better tomorrow.

What I didn’t see very well at the time was that this was a lot like real life. When you run out of things to graduate from, you need to set your own goals and live to make each day as good as it can be.

I’ve lived more than 8,700 days (in Sept. 2013 when I first published this; it’s 11,600 now) since I graduated college. There have been some great times and some really awful times as I’ve figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on it now that I’m middle aged. With good health and good fortune, my sons will have many thousands of days after they graduate from college, too. I hope they figure this out faster than I did.

Did college prepare you for life? What prepared you best? Tell it in the comments, or write it on your own blog and link back here.

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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 surprising benefits of working from home

Schwinn Collegiate

I realize I’m fortunate that COVID-19 hasn’t affected my or my wife’s employment. I’ve written about my challenges adapting to the changes lockdown and reopening have brought, but at no time have I missed a mortgage payment or chosen buying groceries over paying the electric bill. I merely had to adapt to the changes and forge a new normal.

I’m still working from home. My company has announced that we’ll keep it up through at least Labor Day. Word on the street is that it’s unlikely we’ll return before 2021.

Fortunately, there are some real benefits to working at home. Now that spring is truly here I often go for bike rides on my lunch hour! I have always loved to ride my bike. For years and years I’ve struggled to make time for it. It’s easy to get a ride in when the bike is 20 feet away in the garage and I have an hour to myself!

I use my lunch hour in other ways, too. On rainy days, I develop the film I’ve shot lately. The other day I ran over to Meijer to buy a few staples we ran out of. These are things I used to drag myself through while tired at the end of a workday, or put off until the weekend.

I’m also sometimes able to start dinner for the family during a gap in my work schedule. Before, making dinner after my wife and I both come home meant we frequently didn’t eat until far later than any of us like. Or we were both too tired to cook and spent a ton of money going out. But working from home I can often arrange my afternoon to prepare a roast or a stew or a soup that can cook while I work the rest of the afternoon. We eat earlier and have the rest of the evening to do other things.

Also, not commuting is giving me a full hour back each day. I’ve mostly used the time to write more in my blog — posts like this one!

My evenings and weekends are more open now, because I work from home. It is going to be hard to give that up when we are eventually called back to the office.

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