MEGHAN KEANE, HOST:
A quick note - this episode was recorded on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Things may have changed between then and when you hear this.
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KEANE: This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Meghan Keane, our show's managing producer. LIFE KIT is all about helping you out through tricky life situations, which is why, with coronavirus spreading, we're working to bring you these special episodes. We have one about health precautions you can take, like washing your hands, for instance. And we also have an episode about keeping kids entertained and active during all these school closures. And in this episode, we're talking about working remotely. Never before have workers telecommuted on such a broad scale. Millions of people are trying to work from home, if they can, of course. And LIFE KIT wants to help you with that, especially if you're working from home for the first time. And with me today is NPR's business and workplace correspondent, Yuki Noguchi. She joins us to discuss some of the takeaways from her reporting on this evolving story. So thanks, Yuki, for being here.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Of course.
KEANE: So, OK, let's start with this. Let's say your office tells you you need to work from home in an email. What should be your first step to prepare?
NOGUCHI: Well, the first step is really just technology because that's the thing that enables us to work remotely in the first place.
NOGUCHI: So don't leave your laptop at work or your charger. I've heard people get hamstrung for as basic a reason as that. You know, also just take all the other things that help you work from your laptop - your mouse, your special keyboard, if you have one, you know, anything that might make that a little easier on you since this might go on for a couple of weeks. There is also the software issue, so make sure you have the right applications. A lot of us use a lot of applications, and, you know, these days, what I'm hearing is remote workers are leaning heavily on things like Slack or Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting. Which one is your team using?
KEANE: So maybe also testing all these things, too, allow for some extra time.
NOGUCHI: If you can, right. Like, I mean, you don't want to get flat-footed. So this is something that you can prepare before that email, you know, comes out. Just anticipate it.
KEANE: So speaking of managing expectations, is it wise to have a discussion with your boss about, you know, what can actually be accomplished from home? Because I imagine, depending on your work, it's going to differ.
NOGUCHI: Oh, absolutely. I mean, next to technology, communication with management is the next biggest concern. Understanding what the priorities are and how those tasks will get done is something that managers should be telling workers already. How are teams going to track projects they're working on? How will they meet to discuss this? How will you be connecting, on Slack or email? Will there be standing meetings at a certain time to get everyone coordinated? That should be ongoing conversation because, remember, going fully remote is a new experience for many companies and their workers. Being honest with what isn't working, what is working, what cannot get done in these circumstances and communicating in general more than usual is what's called for.
KEANE: So it sounds like this is going to be maybe a new good practice for everyone is just communicate more.
NOGUCHI: Yes. I mean, we're going to...
KEANE: Something we should be doing all the time (laughter).
NOGUCHI: Yes. I mean, in fact, you know, businesses are really thinking about disruption broadly, not just with coronavirus, and so this is a real training for everybody - training by fire.
KEANE: Training by fire. So working from home looks different for a lot of people and people of different personalities and different preferences. Some people really focus in and just never move a muscle, sit at their desk. Other people are endlessly distracted by pets, laundry, maybe you want to start cleaning all the sudden. So how do you manage that?
NOGUCHI: Right. So I'm one of these people who loves working from home, and I get a lot more work done, but not everyone's like that. If you're very distractible, get ready for work every morning like you are going to work - dress up, do your hair, whatever you normally do - because this puts you in a professional mindset. You know, it's very hard to draw a sharp distinction between work and home life when the two are going to blend, but to the extent possible, create a space at home that looks and feels like the office to you. Have a desk that has all your tools that you need. Maintain close contact with your co-workers. Whatever it is, you know, just try to kind of get your mind into the office even if your body isn't.
KEANE: Right. Completely. And I saw someone on Twitter talking about how even if you're working from home, always put on pants on a conference call, otherwise you'll feel weird. So (laughter)...
NOGUCHI: Yeah. Well, that's - yes, that's another thing. You know, the emphasis on webcams makes that critical.
KEANE: Yes, exactly. All right. So what are some tips for people to help them stay productive if they don't typically work from home? And how do you also - more importantly, maybe - stay sane if you don't like working from home? I'm already anticipating feeling, honestly, like, kind of a little lonely.
NOGUCHI: Lonely, exactly, exactly. I heard a lot of advice on this recently. So just to run through them - do more video chats so you can see your colleagues. You know, use Slack and chats and things like that if you miss that sort of real-time interaction. Another is set a timer and take lunch and turn off your work. I mean, you have to be distinct about when you're working and when you're not. So go for a walk or, you know, change your venue at some point during the day and take a breather because otherwise, you know, it can really start to feel quite claustrophobic. I spoke to someone named Tristan Guyette (ph) in Toledo, and they recommend this.
TRISTAN GUYETTE: Schedule your days. It's really easy to fall into a day with no structure when there's, you know, no one or not any - not many other people around you. So for me, scheduling my day means making sure that I set aside time for lunch and making sure I stop and take breaks.
NOGUCHI: Another thing is Internet access. Is it robust enough at home to allow you to video conference? You need good Internet for that.
KEANE: So there might be some basic bandwidth issues happening.
NOGUCHI: Exactly. So one woman I talked to lives outside Chicago, but in a leafier, more remote part of the suburbs. Audree Hall (ph) is a social media manager. She told me when she moved into her house four years ago, the only Internet she had was dial-up.
AUDREE HALL: Honestly, I hadn't heard dial-up in, like, the AOL days, so I was so surprised.
NOGUCHI: Yeah. I mean, who knew dial-up still existed? Now she has better wireless and satellite connections, but she still has to manage it by shutting down other applications when she's video calling, you know. And there's another thing, which is increasingly relevant, which is that kids also hog your Internet. So many schools are being canceled. Numerous universities are now moving to online classes. As that happens, that's certainly going to change the dynamic of working from home in many ways. So it's not just you needing the Internet. Your remote-working spouse might also need it. The kids might want it. So maybe if your Internet is not so robust, set some ground rules about when they can be online because mom's on a conference call or whatever.
KEANE: Yeah, a lot of negotiating about Internet time is probably going to go down. How should someone deal with child care issues if they're also trying to get stuff done?
NOGUCHI: I mean, that is so tricky. Among other things, there will be concerns about putting kids in day care, as well as staffing those places up. So I'm not sure parents have a lot of great options, especially for the parents who have to go to work because they have no remote work option. You know, some schools are preparing some take-home work; others might do online classes. And this will certainly prove to be a test of studying from home as well. I will be working from home, too, and I really dread this outcome personally. But if this happens for my kids, I'm thinking I will stock up on books and puzzles, and we'll also lean on Netflix and play dates, you know, hashtag #worklifebalance (ph), just not the kind you were hoping for.
KEANE: A little different than we thought it would be, right.
KEANE: Yeah. So how much work can you actually be expected to do when you're working from home?
NOGUCHI: Well, that's, you know, the biggest of the economic questions, I think, when we're talking about coronavirus. How much business will get done and especially with so many of us working from home or not able to work? You know, you've seen some cancellations of things. Roughly half of American workers do at least some of their telework today - well, before the coronavirus anyway. I've heard estimates that a third of American workers cannot work remotely. Think of fast-food workers and factory workers, people who are stocking the shelves in the grocery stores and warehouses, nurses and doctors on the front lines of health care. These people cannot work from home.
NOGUCHI: But there are many jobs that are kind of in between. So, for example, realtors might have an open house that gets canceled, but they can still work on marketing or other paperwork. University professors and teachers, you know, they might be teaching classes online, but they can also be tending to, you know, experiments in their labs. So I'm sure we'll hear about lots of creative solutions. And there will also be a lot of work that simply will have to wait.
KEANE: Right. There's just so many open-ended questions, especially like you were saying about those workers who just don't have an option to work from home. For me, personally, when I am working from home and I'm not in the office and I have to do a conference call - I hate doing this when I'm in office, to be quite honest. It's so tricky because there's time delays. It feels like people are either speaking all at once or not at all. No one knows who's talking. You can't see them. What are just some good conference call etiquette? Because I feel like we're going to see more of this as we're working remotely.
NOGUCHI: Yeah. I mean, you know, I kind of loathe meetings of all stripes. But one thing I hear a ton in my conversations is the importance of webcams, which can solve a number of the problems you just mentioned - the sense of isolation and that confusion about who's talking - wait, I can't keep track. So Matthew Hollingsworth heads operations at a company called Tiny Boards, which has several job boards that are just devoted to posting remote jobs.
MATTHEW HOLLINGSWORTH: To be able to see the person that you're talking to I think is important.
NOGUCHI: And also he says because we miss cues when we aren't working together in person, just make doubly sure everyone understands their marching orders.
HOLLINGSWORTH: I tend to over communicate, and I think that it's a good default setting. What I mean by that is making sure that you maybe reiterate priorities when you think that everybody's on the same page with something. So you make sure that everybody - and say - literally say in Slack or over email, hey, do you have any questions about this? Is this clear?
KEANE: I think that's such good advice because nothing is worse than being in a meeting for an hour and then everyone kind of leaves scratching their heads thinking, well, what am...
NOGUCHI: What was the point of that?
KEANE: What was the point of that? What am I supposed to do? I think that's just good meeting etiquette in general but especially when you're not in the same room. So this is somewhat related. Of course, we go to work because we need to make money and have livings, but there's also a social component to it, just seeing people for casual conversation in the kitchen or stand by someone's desk and catching up with someone. What are some tips about how to stay connected with co-workers while you're remote?
NOGUCHI: Yeah. I mean, that casual conversation can actually, you know, build your sense of teamwork and sort of, you know, connect you. And it's a way of checking in. And so some people are actually having these random conversations with people, you know, just by setting up meetings with no agenda, you know, exclusively just to catch up. And, again, people are embracing video calling and webcams, you know, a lot because seeing people face to face, it's important. And Dennis Baltzley, who heads leadership development for Korn Ferry - that's the recruiting firm - he says some people keep their webcams always on.
DENNIS BALTZLEY: I know a couple of executives who have two offices, and they pull up a video platform, and they leave it on. And they're sitting at their home office working, and it's just on, and people can walk into their office at work and just talk to him.
NOGUCHI: Well, you know, I'm not sure that I'm going to do that, but, you know, it...
KEANE: Yeah, it's a little intense for me, too.
NOGUCHI: But, I mean, it's basically, you know, you're not out of sight, you're not out of mind. That's the concept.
KEANE: And it keeps it a little bit more casual maybe rather than feeling like this regimented, like, we're going to talk now, like...
NOGUCHI: It sort of simulates - you know, it's sort of - you're pretending like you're there and your webcam is sort of creating a proxy.
KEANE: Totally. So we kind of already mentioned this, but what if you really cannot work remotely? Like, what kind of discussions should you be having with your employer to make sure you're not losing pay? Because this is going to be increasingly a big issue if this keeps going on.
NOGUCHI: Yes. And this is a rapidly shifting landscape. It's not clear that hourly workers or workers who can't remote work will be paid if they don't work. The lack of paid leave or sick leave is certainly in the spotlight because of this virus. Some companies, including McDonald's, Walmart and Amazon and several others, are now saying they will offer paid leave or sick leave to protect the health of consumers, as well as their workers. Airlines are paying stewards who signed up for shifts that are quarantined, for example, and other unions are trying to negotiate this issue of missed pay. So I think the best thing at this point is to ask your manager or human resources department if you cannot work remotely or you cannot come to work, what is the compensation? Or if you can work, what are the precautions they've prepared for you? And finally, if you do get sick, will they pay for your leave, or will you get worker's compensation? So these are the kinds of things that will probably evolve. But, you know, it's a conversation you can have with your manager.
KEANE: Gotcha. So let's do a quick recap here.
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KEANE: If you get that email saying you need to work from home, first thing to do is what?
NOGUCHI: Bring home all your equipment. This is your laptop, your charger and also the software and security settings you might need.
KEANE: And if you're not used to working from home, you know, try to keep this work and home boundary as alive as you can. Maybe make sure you get dressed every morning. Keep a routine. Also set up a workspace for yourself that's not your bed.
NOGUCHI: Yes, exactly.
KEANE: You're also going to be having some new co-workers if you have kids. You're going to have to be probably be a little flexible.
NOGUCHI: Which brings us to our next point, which is the expectations. You know, prioritize what you can accomplish and how you're going to communicate but also be realistic. I mean, if, you know, the rugrats are home, I think it's probably better to be honest about sort of the difficulties that you encounter.
NOGUCHI: And then, you know, heavy reliance on webcams, if possible, you know, Slack, other things that keep you sort of connected to the office and connected to other human beings.
KEANE: And also just get outside.
KEANE: Take a walk.
KEANE: You don't have to stay inside all day. And then also conference calls - what's the best practices for those, again?
NOGUCHI: Be clear about marching orders. Rely heavily, again, on video conference. You know, circle back with people. Use Slack and email as a way to sort of round up everything that was discussed and, you know, just make sure that everyone stays connected.
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KEANE: Yuki Noguchi is NPR's business and workplace correspondent. Yuki, thank you so much.
NOGUCHI: Thank you.
KEANE: NPR's LIFE KIT is going to keep bringing you these special episodes to make sure that you are prepared for everything you need during this time of coronavirus. And you can find more of those episodes at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and you want more, we just had a great newsletter come out about coronavirus. Subscribe to our newsletter. And if you've got a tip, leave us a voicemail - 202-216-9823 - or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Meghan Keane. Thank you for listening. Please go wash your hands. Bye.
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