Working from Home – Experiences from the TCOM team

As the COVID-19 crisis changes day by day in the United States and around the world, more people are beginning to work from home. Many resources are providing helpful tips for people new to working from home, so we decided to ask some of our staff who generally work from home to highlight their successes and challenges.

Michelle Fernando, Operations Director, Center for Innovation in Population Health

  • My responsibilities: Pre-award planning and proposals, business operations for the Praed Foundation, policies and standard operating procedures for the Center for Innovation in Population Health
  • How long I have been working full-time from home: 2 months
  • What makes my situation unique: dog owner, and currently a full house
  • My workspace: A carved out space for my laptop, screen and printer.

My dedicated home office space is in a closet in our guest room. We re-arranged the existing shelving to mimic a freestanding home office. By doing this, we saved space and money, as we didn’t have to purchase any additional office furniture. An unexpected bonus is that I can close the closet doors at the end of my workday.

With schools and businesses shut down, and a shelter-in-place order in the State of Illinois, my husband, son and I are all working from home for the next few weeks. Each of us have a designated space in our condo where we work and participate in video conference calls. The dog, in the meantime, is patiently waiting for his “calming dog bed” to arrive.

Office in a closet (top); eLearning space (bottom left); office dog (bottom right)

Laura Rogers, Senior Policy Analyst

In my role, I provide training, coaching and consultation. After a 20-year career of working in the field and/or office-like settings, I began working remotely in November of 2018.  I’m originally from Upstate New York and this is where all my family lives.  I live in the North Park neighborhood in the city proper of San Diego, CA where the average temperature is 65 degrees in the winter and 75 degrees in the summer.  While we live in an arid climate, we tend to get our rain during the winter months.  The neighborhood where I live/work is multicultural: middle eastern, Ethiopian and Hispanic people.  I live at home with my 2 pets: Eclipse, a Siberian Husky, and Char, an Alaskan Klee Kai.  Because I live in the city, my condo is small.  Therefore, my workspace is in my second bedroom in which I have a desk and file cabinet. 

Laura with Eclipse and Char

Being an introvert, the transition was rather easy as far as socializing.  I tend to save up my energy for when I travel to other jurisdictions to provide in-person trainings in front of large groups.  The one aspect I noticed when I first transitioned it that I will sit in front of my computer for hours without getting up.  My iWatch has been helpful in reminding me to stand every hour and move around.  I now try to get out of the house in the afternoon, weather permitting, to take my dogs for a brief walk around the block to stretch and get some fresh air.  While working in an office setting, I used to purchase ready-made, prepackaged food.  Now, I will make a sandwich or salad for myself to get me to break away from sitting and working at the computer.  Another aspect is that I have limited space in my home for handouts, etc. that I may receive and will scan and save it electronically (instead of hard copy).  I have found unique places to store documents (paper for my printer, handouts I will provide at upcoming trainings) in a closet or storage cabinets in my garage.  When I first started working remotely, I began doing monthly webinars.  Because I was an administrator for the last 17 years of my career before shifting to my current role, it had been many years since I did presentations.  While presenting, I felt nervous and it was nice to be able to pet my dog who was sitting next to me patiently wondering who I was talking to aloud. Another change I made in working remotely is getting up in the 5 a.m. hour to workout at my local YMCA as opposed to going to a workout after 5 p.m.  While it is hard getting up at 5 a.m., especially on Mondays, I find that I wake up naturally without caffeine to join in conference calls at 7 a.m. due to working with a team in different time zones.  And, lastly and I’m sure not the least, while I proclaim to be an introvert, I do crave meeting with others.  Therefore, I became a co-organizer of Meetup group in which I schedule events with people who have similar interests as me and I will go to a local dog park where the same group of people meet on a regular basis.  As a resource, I recently heard Scott Kelly, an astronaut, give some good advice for those who had to suddenly make the switch to working from home.  Here’s a link to his tips/suggestions.

Tiffany Lindsey, EdD, LPC-MHSP, Safe Systems Practitioner

  • My responsibilities: I’m a TCOM trainer and provide technical support to 18 jurisdictions (domestic and international) on applying strategies from safety science into public child welfare and adult mental health.
  • Length of time working from home: I’ve been working from home full-time since March 2019, but I’ve worked remotely—in varying capacities—for the past six years.
  • What makes my situation unique: I live in the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee, with my husband, our 16-month-old daughter, my mother, three dogs, and a cat. The cat “owns” the house, though!
  • My workspace: I have a dedicated office space now, but it wasn’t always that way! For several years, I worked at our dining room table. I tried the living room couch at one point, and it actually worked well for me. If I’m reviewing peer-reviewed articles or other technical documents, I still prefer to read on the couch with paper, highlighters, and a pen.

I functionally grew up as an only child—my brother is 10 years older than I am. As a result, I may be inclined to working effectively and happily in some isolation. It helps me concentrate and organize my projects well. Since working from home these past several years, my family composition has changed dramatically though! In the past few years, I’ve moved homes twice, married, had a daughter, and had my mother move-in with our family. As much as I love all these happy changes, it’s been an adjustment to my “work from home” life!

What works for me has changed over time. These days, I benefit from the consistency of a quiet home office and set Monday-Friday office hours. In the past, I was most productive when turning on some music, sitting in a common area, and conducting a good portion of my work in the evening. I think the most important things to remember is to be flexible, set realistic goals, and have some grace for yourself when a day isn’t as productive as you planned. It’s easy, in those moments, to let a distracting day become a distracting week. Mindset is everything, and community is also important. Taking time to talk with colleagues and share your webcam is so crucial. Audio alone is never as personal or enjoyable as seeing someone’s face, and interpersonal connections are one of our most buffering factors against burnout.

Here’s a fun picture of me and my daughter taking a break from work to call my husband via Facebook Messenger (image at right). I’m definitely most effective when I have childcare—which fortunately is 99% of the time!

Lynn Steiner, Senior Policy Analyst

My main responsibilities are coaching for certification on the TCOM tools, including reviewing and providing feedback on tests; and developing and reviewing training and testing materials.

I have been working from home full-time since late February 2020. Previous to that, I worked in the office and would work from home about once a week with my laptop, sitting on the couch.

I live alone, with a cat, in a small apartment building in Chicago. I don’t have children but I do have elderly parents who live nearby who require my assistance. I live in a one-bedroom apartment without a spare bedroom/office, so I chose to carve out an office space from my dining room. I set up a small desk and chair in the corner of the room and everything work-related is kept there.

Imagine a person whose work mainly takes place on a computer – reviewing tests; providing feedback by email; asking questions of my colleagues and receiving responses by email; reviewing, revising and creating training materials – with perhaps 10% of the job requiring phone calls or face-to-face meetings. Imagine also that this person has a natural tendency to work independently without much interaction with others. Now imagine that this person is told that they will now be leaving their workplace (where they shared an office with two colleagues) and working full-time from home. Yikes! With a job that mainly is self-initiated and mostly doesn’t require real-time contact with people, the office was a way to connect with people and break my self-isolation. Going to the kitchen to refill my water or get a snack, or past the kitchen to the bathroom was a way to see and say hello to others, to talk about what we did over the weekend, to discuss the political climate or complain about the weather. Working from home completely changes that. It’s a physical change, but also a mental one, even for those who generally do well without too much interaction with others.

Lots of people had advice for me along with standard positive clichés. In the end, you have to try some different strategies and see what works for your unique temperament, goals, needs, and limitations.

Some of the strategies that are working for me (and you might commonly hear them):

  • Sticking to a professional routine when preparing for work: No matter what, I always take a shower, get dressed, and fix my hair before “going to work.” I may cut corners a bit (e.g., not put on make-up if I don’t have any planned video meetings, wear comfortable sweats rather than pants), but making the broader effort puts me into a work frame of mind.
  • Creating boundaries between work and home: At 8 a.m., I am at my computer, working. I’ll take breaks, but I whenever I am working, I am in “the office.” At lunch, I leave “the office” and have lunch in the living room; then I return to “the office.” At the end of the workday, I leave “the office,” turn off the dining room light, and I’m out of there until the next day.
  • Allowing myself to take breaks: Boundaries are important, but I can’t spend 8 hours a day in front of the computer or on calls, just like I couldn’t at the office. It’s OK to get up and go pet the cat (she might not be happy about having her nap disturbed, but that’s not my problem!), stare out the window or get up and walk around a bit, and so on. This was time that I was formerly “wasting” with colleagues that served as “break” time. It may reduce my productivity a little, but it’s key for my mental and physical health.
  • Scheduling occasional meetings and calls with colleagues helps me regulate my productivity: If I’m staring at the computer screen all day, I do tend to lose focus and waste some time. I’ve found that breaking tasks up into large chunks helps to keep me focused, so working for a few hours, and then having a meeting or call tends to help me re-set and transition to the next task without losing my efficiency and attention to detail.

Not all recommended strategies are for me. For example, in our group, we have been encouraged to try to connect with our colleagues by video where possible to try to keep the connection. I’m not a big video fan – seeing someone online is not the same for me as experiencing them in person, — and so this is a strategy I’m likely to use less often than others. I like to be efficient, so it’s easier to me to email someone than set up a meeting, generally.

Working from home before COVID-19 was going to be a challenge for me; working at home since has ramped up the social isolation. And yet, there have been some benefits: no commute, so I’m putting gas in my car less frequently and I have extra time to either sleep in in the morning, or exercise, and to do a variety of activities after work; I’m no longer buying lattes from coffee places, so my disposable income has increased (though this is slightly offset by the cost of purchasing coffee and milk and making lattes at home!); I am surprisingly more productive than I thought I might be, though my productivity does ebb and flow. However, if I get too far off-track, my new office colleague will keep me in line:

Readers: You have heard some stories from us, in our specific situations, but most of us will continue to work from home long after this our situation returns to normal. The TCOM community would like you to share your story and the challenges that you are experiencing or the successes that you have had working from home. We encourage you to share with the community the strategies that have worked for you, or respond to someone else’s challenge to help them figure out how to make a positive impact. Let’s connect and share!

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