Q: Everyone in my house of four (me, my partner, and two roommates who are siblings) is practicing social distancing and working from home — except one of us has a job that is location-dependent, and therefore has nothing to work on. How do we keep from murdering her and each other? — Ann, Brooklyn
A: Two gentle points.
One: Being fortunate enough to have a job that allows you to work from home right now doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to gripe about work. My mom always says, “All feelings are allowed. Not all actions are allowed, but all feelings are.” (By always saying this, my mother created a child loath to perform any action that might get her in trouble, but who complained constantly. Parents must decide for themselves if that kind of child is one they want to spend 18 years with.)
Two: People in this cohort must take extra care in the coming weeks to remember that they are lucky to have work-from-home to complain about, and to be healthy enough to do so. Many of our neighbors are putting themselves in harm’s way by performing the nonremote jobs that allow society to function. Others have had their income abruptly stripped away altogether. Work-from-homers should actively remind themselves to be compassionate and generous with anyone who cannot work from home. As a bonus, if this self-reminder is administered precisely at the moment of frustration, it has a potent mitigating effect on any annoyance.
Some practical advice for your household: Establish boundaries and an agreed-upon everyday routine. This will require a quick meeting of all household members. (If you aren’t comfortable sitting down in person for health reasons, do it over video chat.) Everyone should feel that they have been consulted. People will find fault with the most perfect plan in the world if it is emailed to them fully formed.
Your plan (which you should call a game plan, because it sounds fun and temporary) should establish people’s schedules and preferred working locations. If these include common areas, one person probably shouldn’t commandeer the best one every day. Figure out a way to share — and regularly disinfect — it. With four people cooped up together, some level of disturbance is unavoidable, and some level of friendly interaction should be encouraged to benefit the general atmosphere. Use your roommate conversation to establish what is fine and what is distracting. Are you best reached by instant message while working? Are you able to ignore a TV if it’s on mute? It might be useful, if you can, to plan to break for lunch around the same time, so people can check in with one another.
Once a schedule has been established, stick to it. You can’t demand extra quiet hours because you decided to take a 90-minute midday Netflix break.
Hopefully your roommate will accommodate the group’s requests to avoid becoming a pariah. If she resists, do your best to be empathetic. She didn’t cause the pandemic (probably?), and it is very likely that every other minute she is experiencing a full-body panic freeze wondering if and when she will be laid off from the job she is unable to perform through no fault of her own.
I’m not comfortable seeing you this way
Q: How can I adjust to the newfound intimacy of video chats and Zoom meetings? I can’t handle staring into everyone’s wild eyes. — Anonymous
A: Please, if you value your dignity, take the time now to put a sticker, some tape, a chewed-up piece of gum — anything — over your computer’s camera. I was recently talking to a group of professional women across a wide range of ages and geographic locations. Two had firsthand accounts of witnessing someone appear fully or partially nude while dialing in to a work meeting because he or she was unaware the call featured video as well as audio. Don’t assume that because you can’t see someone, they can’t see you. Believe me when I say it is worth the hassle of removing a small obstruction from your computer lens every time you want to appear on camera. Do not let your webcam catch you unawares.
You can look to this hellish time as an opportunity to rebrand yourself to your colleagues. Shed your reputation as the office slob by removing all the garbage from one corner of your home, and fielding work calls from there.
Do you have any plants that are not dead? Now is the time for them to earn their keep. A few houseplants casually visible in the background of your screen suggests, “These old things? Just some delicate pieces of nature I have no trouble keeping alive, for the pure joy of doing so.” (Fake plants work for this as well.)
If you are vain, position yourself so that light hits you from the front, rather than from the back or a side. If you are very vain, campaign to conduct all meetings on Zoom, which allows users to apply a subtle retouch filter to their appearance. (Find it in the video settings.)
Remember to remove drug paraphernalia from your immediate vicinity before broadcasting.
Scrub all tabs containing pornography from your browser before beginning a screen-share.
And don’t bother staring at anyone’s wild eyes. After you have evaluated your co-workers’ backgrounds, spend the rest of the time watching only yourself, which is what everyone else does.
Work Friend is a cheeky New York Times advice column to help with careers, money and the sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious maze that is the contemporary office, from a rotating cast of advice-givers. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.