Learning and working in the era of COVID-19

Article By : Brian Dipert

While COVID-19 has us studying and working from our residences, how can you not just survive but thrive in these unusual circumstances? This home-based engineer has some suggestions...

I’m writing this post on Sunday evening, March 29, and the world is very different place than it was a month ago. Some time next month, when my words appear on the EDN website, it’ll be different again; it’s at times like these that the truth of the phrase “the only constant is change” is particularly difficult to deny. Here in Colorado, we’ve been under mandatory “shelter in place” orders since last Thursday morning.

Shortly before I sat down at this keyboard, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, forecasted that his (and my) country could experience 100,000 to 200,000 novel coronavirus deaths, part of a broader “millions” of cases, before an immunity-stimulating vaccine is developed. This is in line with predictions for other countries in the developed world, and I don’t even want to think about the havoc in my beloved Nepal and other developing nations. Strange days indeed.

Related article: What we can do to help fight COVID-19

Our niece, a student at Purdue (who I’ve mentioned before), arrived a couple of weekends ago to (originally) spend the week with us. She and I were planning on going skiing/snowboarding a few times during her stay. But while her plane was in the air, all Colorado ski resorts were shuttered due a burgeoning COVID-19 “hot spot” in Summit and Eagle counties. Even before taking off for Colorado, she already knew she wouldn’t be returning to the classroom after spring break was over; while students had the week off, teachers were gearing up for a transition to online instruction. She ended up turning around and flying back home after only a couple of days with us; we wanted to make sure she got back to her “nuclear family” before flights got canceled by either government decree or financial pressures.

Purdue’s online education system is built on foundation technology developed by Blackboard.com. According to my niece, the setup is reasonably intuitive and works pretty well; her biggest challenge is that different teachers use it in different ways. To some degree, this diversity is understandable, given divergent teaching styles (not to mention subjects being taught), but some commonality is seemingly key, to make the overall experience relatively friction-free. I’m guessing that Purdue is further along this fine-tuning path than some others, by virtue of its spring 2018 acquisition of online-only Kaplan University.

My niece and her fellow students use a diversity of access platforms; she has a Windows 10-based first-generation Microsoft Surface Book that we’d bought her as a high school graduation present, and I’m sure plenty of her peers are toting Macs, with iPads and other tablets likely also in the mix. I’d actually also mentioned her a half-decade ago; back then her high school had standardized on Chromebooks and used Instructure’s Canvas platform.

More generally, as an excellent piece at Ars Technica details, educators are hurriedly cobbling together a diversity of hardware and software building blocks, with varying degrees of success. Some of the issues are predicable; an inability to connect personally with each student, especially if the webcam and/or microphone are nonfunctional (not to mention a possible lack of adequate computing resources at all, or of bereft broadband service), and difficulty in discerning whether students are paying attention. More obscure, but no less disruptive, is the ability (with some teleconferencing packages) for audience members to customize their usernames (with inevitable “creative” outcomes).

And what about working from home? I’m in a somewhat unique situation here; I’ve been home office-based since the beginning of 1996 (when I began my then-full-time career with EDN). Plus, I lean toward the introverted end of the spectrum, so for me things largely feel as-usual. For some of my colleagues, however, who are used to the conventional commute into an office, the experience is more jarring; I suspect many of you may be in the same boat. I thought, therefore, that passing along nearly a quarter-century of observations into what works (and doesn’t work) when tackling a home office setup might be helpful, for whatever it’s worth.

Establish (and maintain) a firm work-vs-personal life boundary

I often describe work-from-home to others as a “Darwinist” experiment whose outcome is quickly apparent. If you’re unable to resist spending all of your time in front of the TV (or refrigerator), your career will quickly come to a close. Conversely, if you spend all your time working, your personal life will rapidly atrophy (“all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy“).

Establishing and maintaining a clear delineation between the two, and adequately feeding both, used to be easier (with a desktop computer on the other side of a closed door, and no mobile smartphones or tablets) than it is now (laptops and other mobile devices, and abundant Wi-Fi). But maintain it you must, to keep your sanity (and your job). Some people go as far as to dress up in professional attire before their work day begins, switching to sweats or other more casual clothing at work day’s end (I’m generally in sweats all the time 😉 ).

Take breaks

When you work in an office, a good chunk of your day is consumed with 1:1 and group meetings in which multitasking is difficult-to-impossible (not to mention unappreciated by others). You also have lunchtime breaks (at least sometimes, for at least some of you). There’s plenty of inevitable “water cooler” chitchat to take up some of the day, too. And of course there’s also the inevitable round-trip commute between home and office to gobble up more of your waking hours. None of this is a factor when you work from home.

Multitasking while on a Skype, WebEx, or Zoom online meeting is comparatively easy; trust me, you likely won’t be able to resist doing it. The refrigerator and microwave oven are one room away from me in the kitchen, and I almost always eat from my home office desk. The morning commute starts one room away in the opposite direction, at my bed. And the only “water cooler” chitchat I normally indulge in involves my wife (who is also a busy from-home worker), the dogs, or the cat. You’re potentially able to squeeze much more work into the daily waking hours than you were before, which will quickly result in burnout if you aren’t careful.

Be comfortable

I had to laugh a couple of weeks ago when, in my regular 1:1 with my now-working-full-time-from-home boss, he mentioned that he’d just acquired a comfortable desk chair, replacing the hard antique wooden seat (at the dining room table) that he’d historically relied on. But “being comfortable” is more than just a big-enough desk at the right height, along with adequate cush for your tush. Adequate illumination, for example, is also a key requirement. Surrounding me are various pictures, stuffed animals, and other tchotchkes, along with a bunch of (living, not plastic) plants, and a decent sound system along with some headphones; I gotta have my tunes.

Surface desk setup

Invest in adequate tools (and even a few toys)

Your new work environment will be challenging enough; don’t let the hardware and software you use be a further impediment to success. Spring for a relatively modern computer; refurbished units with adequate warranties are a fiscally responsible alternative to brand-new systems. The same goes for your landline and mobile phone setups; get a femtocell for the latter if your regional cellular service provider-supplied coverage is poor. You’re probably going to spend a lot of time with a headset on your noggin, so make it a good one; USB and other digital interface models, if supported by the equipment the headset(s) will be connected to, are superior to analog variants.

Get broadband Internet service if you don’t yet have it, bump up your service tier if you think it’ll help (keep in mind that bottlenecks elsewhere in the to-cloud chain may make peak bandwidth updates at your edge location irrelevant), and ensure that your home network is robust and dead zone-free. And don’t resist the temptation to pick up a “toy” (or few), if your budget allows. Anything that’ll put a spring in your step when you enter your home office is an invaluable investment.

Be patient with yourself (and others)

As I said at the beginning of this piece, these are “strange days indeed.” Not only are you likely navigating a relatively alien work environment, many of you are also juggling spouses, kids, elders, and others all under the same roof. You’re stressed out by evaporating toilet paper (and food, and other essentials), you’re not sure if that sniffle is allergies or something worse, you’re watching your 401k trends with dismay (speaking of evaporation), and you’re not entirely sure if your government officials have a handle on things, not to mention when this all is going to end.

Guess what? Your coworkers (and members of your broader family, friends, and acquaintances network) are going through similar straits. So practice patience. Take a deep breath before reacting. If you need to type out an email reply to something that’s arrived in your inbox, leave it in your drafts folder for an hour and then re-read it before clicking send. Use videoconferencing whenever possible, instead of just the telephone (or, heaven forbid, relying solely on sterile email, text messaging, and Slack chat); the more nonverbal cues you can collect in addition to the words said, the better. And if all else fails and you fumble a correspondence, apologize sincerely and profusely. Then forgive yourself, patiently learn from the experience, and move forward into the unknown future.

In a near-future post, I plan to pontificate on various predictions for how this current pandemic climate may more fundamentally change the way we live, work, and interact in the future. For now, however, I’ll close and await your comments.

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