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Friday, April 16, 2021

Staying Sane At Work During A Pandemic

So here we are, in the third wave of the pandemic in Ontario, over a year into this world changing issue, and I can tell talking to my team members some folks who are normally rock solid and self-confident are having a rough time.  They aren’t the only ones – articles are popping up all over titled ‘Burnout Working from Home’ and ‘The Stress of Isolation’.  I’m not surprised, the future is uncertain, we’re all tired of being stuck inside, it’s easy to feel cut off from your fellow employees working remotely from home.
Moving to remote work a year ago was the easy part.  Keeping your company culture alive and well is the hard part, because its ephemeral and has it’s own ebbs and flows.  While the current commute is great, some of the things that make work enjoyable are missing right now.  Here’s some advice for my colleagues, and how we are trying to cope ….
Home Is Home, Work Is Work
When I first started the company with Jason Kingston, I didn’t want to commute 45 minutes to just be at the office by myself, so I worked from home a lot the first year – but to have a work/life balance, I still went through the routine of ‘going to work’.  I put on work clothes, went to a separate area of the house, did my work, took a break for lunch, worked till 5, and then walked away.  It kept me focused an on a schedule.
Now fast forward ten years to the beginning of the pandemic, both my wife and were working from home, and some times, we’d be sick of being in a specific room we’ve worked in all day, so we had this weird little dance where we would rotate our work room, and then not go back to that room for the rest of the day.  It’s just a sign you need to have boundaries – set a work area just for work, and when you aren’t working, get the heck out of there.  You’re going to feel cooped up spending eight hours at work, and then another bunch of hours after work in the same room.
Also, don’t work just because you are bored.  Set boundaries.  Don’t start working at 7am just because you have nothing else to do, or look at work emails late at night because you have watched everything on Netflix three times.  Unless something is on fire, get away from work and have personal time.  If you work 60 hours a week because you are bored, it will seem harmless at first, but eventually you will burn out and crack.
Having things like chat messages like Slack is great, but when you are done work, turn them off – don’t let work bleed into your personal time.
One of the things we do at our company is use a flex time program … anyone who spends more than 37.5 hours a week banks that time (and there is a cap, so they don’t work themselves into oblivion), and we owe them that time, and they can take it whenever they want.  So they want to start at 10am the next day?  Sure!  Want to take a day off to recharge?  Sure!  Want to take a 2 hour break in the middle of the day?  As long as they communicate to others they are stepping away, and get someone to cover anything critical while they are gone, it’s their time.  It was originally put in place to make sure we weren’t taking advantage of our IT staff working late into the night on some server emergency and then being expected to put in 40 hours of work in the next week.  The same philosophy applies to all our staff, and it’s self managed – they get to decide when they take time off, because we trust them.
Also, we’ve been chasing people to take their vacation time – I know there’s nowhere to go right now, but taking a week away from work is healthy, or a series of long weekends to recharge.  The company won’t burn down while they are off, and it’s important to not eat, sleep and drink work.  Sitting in a hammock on your back reading a book is better than no vacation at all.
Does Working From Home Suck Sometimes?
For the first month of the pandemic, I squinted at a small laptop screen and lived with laggy intermittent rural internet.  Drove me nuts.  I eventually hooked up a monitor to my laptop, put it at a real desk instead of a coffee table, and built a real work area.
When my internet would cut out or I’d start feeling frustrated or burning out from working late at night, because nothing is quite as efficient with most of the company working remotely, I’d message folks saying I was coming in later in the morning the next day, or I’d step away from my computer to eat lunch on my porch, or walk down to the mailbox, or just get away from my keyboard.  See the signs of when things are getting rough, and take care of yourself.
As employers, we need to bend to current circumstances – someone needs to take off from 9:00 to 10:00 to get kids ready for remote learning?  Let them.  The lockdown is over, and you give your staff members the option to come back into the office, but someone doesn’t want to because they take public transit and don’t feel safe?  Try to accommodate them.  Someone feels overwhelmed because all their administrative tasks are 20% harder because they aren’t sitting in an office where the mail comes, and they have the company printer, or someone they can turn to?  Be understanding about deadlines and try to share the load.  New staff member is struggling, but they are working remotely and don’t have the support and training they would normally have?  Reach out and talk, don’t just hold them to a regular measuring stick or staff review and think it’s good as-is.
It’s easy to feel isolated, even though you are one of many people working at the same time at the same company.  We have a #random channel on Slack for folks to goof around, talk about the latest sportsball game score, post a meme, or joke about something … and I think that helps us feel like there are other human beings out there, out of sight, all working together.  Pick up the phone to hear a voice, or if you can take a breath and spend 5 minutes of your day with someone you work with *not* talking about a technical support emergency or a pivot table report.
Try to share positive news … I’ll send out an email thanking people, or post on Slack “we just landed client X!” to share something good, or try to recognize people – we had our best month ever in March 2021, so over and above our regular profit sharing we do with our staff, we gave everyone an unexpected bonus, just because we did so well … money isn’t everything about work, but it doesn’t hurt, and the thank you that went with the bonus will mean a lot to people.
You Aren’t Alone
Ultimately, if you feel the signs of burnout, reach out and tell someone, don’t wait until you crack.  This is a hard time, and nothing is normal.  We have an Employee Asssistance Program at our company for people to call anonymously if they need someone to talk to, but not every company has that luxury.  There’s a free service at in Ontario for anyone who needs someone to talk to.
If you feel the stress of work, and you need a hard break to not think or worry about what’s happening in the company, turn off your cell phone, log out of the IM program, and let people know you won’t be reachable for a day, three days, or a week, and take time off.  Just because the line is blurry between your home and your home office doesn’t mean you can’t draw a line and step back like we would in a pre-pandemic world.
We’re almost there – the road ahead is shorter than the road behind.  Approximately 1 in 4 Canadians has had their first vaccination shot, and while we are in a lockdown till the end of April, if we can hang on a little longer things are going to get better.
If you need some uplifting pandemic-themed comedy to make you feel like this will all get better, I recommend Youtube's channel for Brittlestar ---
Got any ideas how to make the lockdown and pandemic more tolerable at work, and not melt down while we wait for something that looks a little more like normal?  Feel free to drop me a line.  We can all help each other and get through this.
Thanks kindly,
Blair DeMarco-Wettlaufer
KINGSTON Data & Credit
Cambridge, ON

1 comment:

  1. Very well written and so true for so many people. Life is very different and it is grounding to be reminded that each of us are not alone. I am very lucky to be part of such an amazing and supportive team