Once Grace Queen sat down at her dining room table last week to begin a long period of working from home, part of an effort by her employer to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, she realized that she’d be spending a long time looking at it. Her home, that is.
When a global pandemic shrinks your world, you can’t help but notice its imperfections. The uneven lighting. The ho-hum paint.
“You start to think about the ways your home could be better,” says Queen, who has taken to sending her husband, Kevin Wood — also working from home — “a lot of West Elm links” on breaks: “Maybe we need to paint the guest bedroom. Can we install sconces on this wall?” They decided to get new lamps for the bedroom.
“We might redo one of our guest bathrooms,” says Queen, pausing as something dawns on her: “Now that I’m saying all of this out loud, I’m realizing that in the last four days, we’ve decided to redecorate our entire house.”
The threat posed by the coronavirus has prompted some companies to send employees home to work, plunging them into a disorienting realm. A realm where the divide between workspace and non-workspace never seemed so fragile. Where putting on real pants might be necessary to maintain this divide, and yet seems so totally unnecessary, because no one but the cat will see them. Where the cat appears confused about why you’re still around during her workday. Where the fridge is right there, better check to see what’s inside (again).
Working from home, all of a sudden: It’s convenient, yet disruptive. Comfortable, yet unsettling. Certainly, it’s a privilege — one not available to service-industry workers and medical professionals and others whose work cannot be done from the safety of home.
“A lot of us understand how lucky we are,” says Stacey, a senior program manager at Amazon in Seattle, who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld because she isn’t authorized to talk to the news media. (Though Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, that doesn’t mean we get first dibs on hand sanitizer delivery.) Nevertheless, she’s “counting down the days until I go back to the office.” Her schedule has become bogged down with calls and meetings that ordinarily would be a quick chat at someone’s desk.
“There’s no start or finish to your workday,” she says. “I probably worked until 11 last night, went straight to bed, woke up at 8, and just wandered over to my computer and fired it up and started working.”
Across the country, a new corps of workers is settling into familiar couches and unfamiliar routines. It’s forcing them to feel the dread creeping in at the corners of American life. It’s also making them hungry.
“I just went to the store and spent $100 on crap, just nothing,” says Sandi Lurie, the vice president of global recruiting at Optimizely. “I bought Parmesan crisps, blue cheese, fruit, chicken breasts — nothing that makes sense for one meal — and M&Ms. Amazon is delivering tomorrow: ketchup, Spaghetti-Os, mac and cheese. I’m 53 years old, and I’m eating like a fourth-grader.”
Tech employees who are used to having lunch in lavish company cafeterias are barely getting by. Like scrappy survivors of a shipwreck, they’re being forced to forage for their own lunches.
“I always look forward to getting lunch at work. It’s some of the best food you can get,” says Brian Terlson, 35, who works for a large tech company in Seattle. He began to reminisce about the good old days of one week ago, when the lunch options were bountiful and convenient.
“Monday is usually a pizza day, unless the chef’s table has something special they’re cooking up,” he says. “Pasta day is Wednesday; it’s a very important day for me.”
But at home, food is an “obstacle,” he says. “It’s 1:30 and I haven’t eaten yet. I’ll probably just skip lunch.”
For people who aren’t used to working from home, the first few days feel like a snow day where you don’t even have to shovel. That’s a feeling that some East Coasters have started to enjoy this week as their workplaces go remote-only to encourage “social distancing,” a measure to curb the virus’s spread that means exactly what it sounds like it means. But on the West Coast, where companies sent their workers home a week or two earlier, things were getting as stale as the chips they were compulsively munching (on mute) during the conference call.
You have to have boundaries. That’s what all the teleworking guides say. Get up on time. Take a shower, for Chrissakes. Put on real clothes. Don’t bring your laptop into your bed. Get a little fresh air. Trick your brain into thinking you’re commuting by going for a walk and, if you have two entrances, coming in through your back door. Don’t watch TV during work hours.
“I had a few boring tasks and thought, ‘I can multitask,’ ” says one 22-year-old Seattle woman who works for a big tech company and spoke on the condition of anonymity so she wouldn’t get in trouble for telling The Post what she did next: She opened Netflix and began to watch “Gilmore Girls.” It was not a great idea, she quickly realized. But it’s hard to resist the lure of streaming television, especially when your partner — also working from home — occasionally takes TV breaks during the workday, and you live in a one-bedroom apartment.
“You just have to ignore the break, or you get pressured into the break,” she says.
There are things the teleworking guides don’t tell you. Like how confused your pets will be. Joanne Teasdale Harvey, a content experience manager for Tableau, isn’t the only one getting cabin fever in her Seattle home, which she shares with her husband, two teenage sons, a dog, two cats and a lizard.
“It turns out they’re very needy if you’re home all day. They’re very talkative,” she says, and she’s not referring to the humans. The cats “sit outside the door and meow. … I have to shove them out of the office.” The dog “thinks it’s the weekend. When are we going to the dog park?” It’s made conference calls challenging.
The guides don’t tell you how you’ll miss the plush amenities of office life, like your K-Cup coffee and fancy Aeron office chair.
“We’re working on dining room chairs,” says Philip de Cortez, founder of Novi Money, who is practicing social distancing in his San Francisco home to keep his elderly parents, visiting from Spain, safe from the virus. Hard chairs “are great for a couple hours but they’re tough for a full workday.” His kitchen counter is too low to be an adequate standing desk.
Then there’s the placement of that desk, which wasn’t important until people started doing video conference calls. Each one grants us a tiny glimpse of our colleagues’ homes — an opportunity to judge their taste (hypothetically: side-eyeing that framed “Live Laugh Love” poster) or feel insecure about your own (hypothetically: hiding that framed “Live Laugh Love” poster).
Among the Silicon Valley set, it’s become a meme to post screenshots of all the faces logging in for a video conference, like a dystopian version of “The Brady Bunch.” If you didn’t wash your face that day, it’s OK: Margaret Rathgeber, 29, has taken to using a feature of the videoconferencing software that improves people’s looks, similar to “the way that an Instagram filter smooths out your face,” she says. When her San Francisco-based tech company asked workers to telecommute, she rearranged the furniture in her studio apartment.
She moved her desk “from my kitchen, which has our bar behind it, which is probably not a great look, to our couch for something more professional.”
No one wants to ruin this pajama party for their colleagues.
But just like homesickness, worksickness can set in as soon as 48 hours. Maybe it starts with a twinge of realization about the welfare of the baby succulent plant withering on your desk. Or the weird sounds you didn’t realize you loved: “I think I miss most the cries of agony you hear when somebody hits a stumbling block, or the quiet yays and hurrays when somebody does something great,” Wood says. “I miss the social aspect.”
Couples have each other. But they have nothing new to tell each other about their workdays now — they can hear every call the other one does. Queen and Wood have taken to closing out their workdays with a karaoke session. Wood has been trying to perfect his Frank Sinatra.
America has been trying to perfect its response to a crisis.
Queen has been trying to perfect her home, making plans for how she wants to fix all the things she didn’t know were wrong.
In the meantime, she’s been working on a Cher song: “If I Could Turn Back Time.”