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Working and Connecting in the Age of COVID-19

Periodically, Dan Perkins authors articles and commentaries for MCC Members.

Posted July 12, 2020

If you are like me, perhaps you can identify with the fellow in the illustration above.  He seems slightly overwhelmed.

COVID-19 has forced many of us to work from home, and this has profoundly changed the ways in which we work and interact with one another.  While there are real benefits to working from home, there are also drawbacks.  In this article, I will share some thoughts that just might prove helpful as we each seek to establish our new normal.

Whenever I assess a situation, I like to begin noting the good before addressing the bad.  So, I will begin by highlighting some of the ways I have found it beneficial to work from home. 

The first and perhaps most important benefit of working from home is not having to commute to and from the office.  Since the end of March, I begin my workday listening to news reports about the spread of COVID-19; and I am grateful I no longer have to stand on a train platform, twice a day, surrounded by strangers, waiting for a train.  Working from home has freed up nearly an hour, each workday, that used to be spent inside train cars with people talking, coughing, sneezing – you name it.  I have eliminated the transmission risks associated with taking a bus from the train station to my office, and back; and my life is now free of the stress and anxiety caused by stop-and-go traffic, train delays, and the constant noise of passing vehicles.

Working from home allows me to devote extended periods of time to projects without needing to stop at a certain time to catch the last bus or train home.  It has allowed me to engage in activities that would be impractical at the office.  I now take time to meditate, nap, or simply gain perspective on things without having to leave the office and find a quiet space.  I can grab a healthy snack or meal without spending time and money.  And I am not spending money on my professional wardrobe. 

While these are some of the benefits that come from working at home, there are challenges as well.  Working efficiently and effectively from home requires a high degree of discipline and focus.  I have found it useful to make appointments before placing calls and hosting Zoom-meetings.  I have also discovered that there is no effective way prepare someone for my emails or texts. 

Not having the ability to assess a person’s state of mind prior to engaging with them electronically is one of the most significant drawbacks I have encountered working from home.  On any given day, and at any hour, a colleague, client, or contact might be having a bad day or moment that prevents them from engaging me favorably.  Since I now work from home, I have no way of gauging a colleague’s mental state prior to contacting them.  I do not know how my email or text will be received. 

This reality came into focus after I sent a close colleague a text that contained what I thought was a harmless poke, the kind we used to exchange with one another when we physically worked together.  Had I been in the same space as the person, I might have sensed the quality of their day and their state of mind.  I would have been able to read their facial expression, detect their mood, or sense something was wrong based upon their body language.  Instead, I sent the email assuming the recipient was possessed of their usual sunny disposition. 

Unfortunately, my email arrived at a bad time; and it was NOT appreciated.  Normally, the poke would have been returned with an equally funny jab.  It is how the recipient and I interact with one another, or perhaps I should say, it is how we used to interact with one another – in more normal times, when we are together.  But the moment when I sent my email, everything was not fine with the recipient; and now, I find myself needing to do some repair work. 

I am confident our relationship will remain strong; but because we no longer share the same physical space, I am not quite as certain as I once might have been.  The reality is our current normal is not as normal as it used to be.

It might seem obvious to keep emails between colleagues, and close business associates, free of potentially hurtful content; but one must recognize that social distancing and working from home have eliminated small, yet significant, moments that form and strengthen personal connections.  As was the case with the recipient of my email, our bonding moments sometimes include rubs, pokes, and jabs that reinforce our relationships.  Now that we are physically apart, those pokes are jabs are much more sensitive to the timing of their delivery and receipt.

The fact that many of us now work from home has instituted new realities in our work lives.  We no longer greet each other as we start our day, nor spend time at the water cooler, or in the recess lounge.  Time spent walking to and from meetings are no longer what we do; and those impromptu conversations across desks, or in lobbies, are relics of our pre-COVID past. 

Working from home means we are literally working apart; and so, we must begin to form new ways of connecting with one another – ways that replace those small, but meaningful and sustaining methods of bonding. 

Our present technology allows us to communicate with one another as never before, but it is no substitute for physical contact and exchanges.  We have yet to discover a way to replace a warm, firm handshake and embrace, or a well-timed pat on the back.  Gone are the connections that were once made by stopping at a colleague’s desk and dropping off a much-needed cup of coffee or snack. 

Phone calls, texts, emails, and Zoom-meetings are the only tools many of us have to maintain professional and business relationships from our homes.  Although we are blessed to have these forms of communications, like all tools, they must be handled thoughtfully and with care.

So, take it from me.  Think twice before you send an email.  Failing to do so just might yield unintended consequences; and given the reality of COVID-19, potential remedies are limited.

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