Puzzle #12. Quarantine Zoom

The initial input for this post was a Guardian article, but soon I realised there was more I wanted to write about: the bliss (?) of working from home, Zoom links, and what to make of the ‘post-lockdown’ everyday we live in.

 

30 Aug 2020. Earlier today I came across an article from The Guardian by Barbara Ellen, titled: Relationships, advice, careers… so much of life is lost when you work from home. My friend Bobby shared it on her Facebook and, as I distractedly scrolled through my feed, the title caught my attention instantly. It felt like it was talking to me, like it could read through my brain, all the way to the very core of my mind.

The article (more like the first entry in a list of brief pieces about different topics) touched on the pros and cons of the WFH (Working From Home) regime ‘enforced’ by the pandemic. In particular, it compared those who were already used to working from home, and those who gradually slid into the WFH pattern in the wake of national lockdowns and quarantines, and have now made it their habitual routine.

Cycling path to Bílovice nad Svitavou

 

‘Dear Home Office, I love you’

It’s a fact that, amongst other things, this pandemic has altered dramatically everyone’s working routine as they know it. There are those who have turned WFH into the norm. These are the majority, I would argue. It’s not even a matter of virus anymore: they just like it that way. (Needless to say, we’re talking about jobs where the WFH regime is feasible in the first place.)

Some feel that, not having to commute to and from work, they’ve gained an extra half hour of sleep or a lot of precious time for housework and chores (which they no longer have to take care of outside working hours). Others simply cherish their daily dose of sweatpants, paired with coffee breaks spent on the balcony, soaking in the sun and admiring their plants – which plants, oh the irony, they probably started growing through lockdown. (I know something about this myself: my tiny garden, too, came to life when quarantine was in full swing.)

And then there is a minority who still strenuously supports the ‘work-from-work’ routine. I, too, belong to this category. I believe the author of the Guardian article gets it very right when she claims: ‘Workplaces offer everything from social interaction to professional/personal development to boosted interpersonal skills.’

Brno, Medlánky

Needless to say, there are plenty of work-related advantages to working from the office. Work-related discussions are much easier and more immediate, and that often speeds up the handling time of issues or processes to fix.

‘In-person’ meetings are so much simpler to arrange, because you don’t have to care about how stable the average Internet connection of those involved is and, if you realise you forgot something just when the meeting is ending, you can simply add: ‘Also, guys, sorry, last question…’, instead of realising that everyone has already ‘left the meeting’, and they’re not connected anymore.

The commute to and from work plays itself a role in this sense, be it a bus journey, a bike ride or a short walk. Shutting down your laptop and leaving work means the rest of the day is about to start, and you don’t take work home with you. Even if you turn on your own laptop once you get home, the journey makes for a salvific break from the keyboard, at least for a while.

But there is more. The office environment is a lot more complex and multi-layered than it seems. It’s about casual chats or tips or conversations on the most random topics, from the benefits of essential oils to the learning about unknown vegetables and (this is one of my favourite so far) the pros and cons of growing up on a farm.

‘Work from work’ means human interaction, confrontation, and therefore growth. Interaction helps validate one’s thoughts, and the enrichment is both professional and (especially, I would argue) personal. Few things I find more motivating, challenging and necessary than all of this.

So I strongly agree with Ellen (the article’s author) both when she says that ‘as much as there are WFH gains, we also need to address what’s lost’, and when she points out that ‘many people find life partners at work’ while ‘others risk isolation and serious mental health issues working from home’. For some people WFH is not about wearing comfy sweatpants and gaining an extra hour of sleep. For some it’s about experiencing unbearable isolation and coping with psychological side effects they might not yet even be able to fully appreciate.

Brno, Medlánky

 

Daily dose of Zoom

In the picture I’ve painted so far my increasing aversion to Zoom fits very well. By now we’re reaching unprecedented peaks of dislike.

This popular video conferencing platform has objectively been very handy in time of global pandemic. For almost a year now it has contributed to the daily running of companies, institutions and schools all over the world. In time of quarantine it also helped strike sparks of normalcy, for example when work-related video calls ended up touching off-topic questions like ‘How are your cats?’, or when co-workers used Zoom to join online quizzes and karaoke nights.

That made (and, to some extent, still makes) the difference in so many ways. I myself have my own Zoom account, and can create as many links as I want. That’s how Zoom-self-sufficient I am.

Regaining real-life human interaction after lockdown, though, has made it increasingly difficult to appreciate the pros of Zoom, while promptly highlighting its cons. There’s the mild frustration of seeing only the ‘passport photo’/’mugshot’ version of people. There’s the desolating feeling of being alone in an office you’d always known as loud, lively, and filled with people. The quiet feels nice, but it’s the people that make a place real, and where are they?

And there’s the unnerving reality of only having Zoom links with the default 40-minute time limit. This comes with the pain of having to reconnect when the given time allowance has expired – and, obviously, do it again (and again?) if the meeting you’re having is especially long.

I witnessed a remarkable example of The Frustration of Having to Make Daily Use of Zoom Links. Imagine being a trainer in a company and, as a result of a tech issue, having to deliver a three-hour training session with a 40-minute Zoom link. This means having to reconnect four or five times throughout the session – and praying for your trainees to do the same. You can read the pain between the lines.

Somewhere near Vranovice, bike path

Needless to say, I’m telling a true story here, though I don’t play the trainer part in it: I was a trainee. Our trainer had issues with the office room she was supposed to work from, and was eventually stuck with the basic link. You could see the pain in her eyes as she tried to explain to one of the trainees which one line in a five-page text he was supposed to rephrase. She wanted desperately to point her finger at that bloody line on his laptop. Except, he was the one sharing the screen, so she could only try and explain it all in words one more time. I can safely say we all left the training session with a headache that day.

 

The New Normal?

I’m bound to believe that optional WFH might really be the new normal. For one thing, it has been in place for long enough to feel that way. Also, the reality of things (i.e. threats of impending second waves) suggests it will be going on for a while still.

But the truth is, it’s not so much the apparent ‘normality’ of the current work regime that leaves me disoriented, as the (apparent?) ‘coolness’ most people seem to have displayed ever since it was ‘enforced’.

I’m mostly surrounded by people who seem to thrive on the WFH regime. Some of them I haven’t seen in months if not through a Zoom video – or, in some (rare) cases not even via video, because they have a weak Internet connection, so either they speak or they show their face. And, well, having them speak is understandably the priority there.

It goes without saying that I’m not judging anyone’s choices here. I’m not in the position to do so (no one would be, anyway), and who am I to say my vision is better or more right than others’? Plus, to some people staying put as much as possible might be a way to protect their own health and safety, and there is nothing to joke about or judge when it comes to that.

Brno, between Medlánky and Komín

Brno, Královo Pole

I am genuinely fascinated by the ease displayed by people that have embraced WFH and have made it a ‘lifestyle’. I find their calmness refreshing and challenging at one time. It’s refreshing, because it’s great to see how well people have managed to adapt to the ‘revolutionary’ tempo of 2020, or at least cope well with its short- and mid-term consequences. It’s challenging because it makes me ask myself so many questions.

 

All The Questions

It makes me wonder: ‘Why can’t I function this way too?’ It makes me wonder whether it really is only a matter of choosing the work environment you prefer, or there’s something deeper to read between the lines. There usually is.

Maybe if one’s life is well balanced enough, if one has a strong network of human connections that exist outside work, one is innately bound to choose WFH over office regime? If that’s true, there might be something deeply unsettling about the preference for office work.

I don’t quite have the answers to any of these questions. I can imagine that the answers lie (at least partly) somewhere between a number of half-buried traumas from the past I have yet to fully explore, and the awareness (also validated by past experiences) that sudden, imposed detachment from people affects my persona the way flash drought leaves crops withered and dried up.

This last bit, in particular, always makes me think about the article Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini wrote for The New York Times in March this year. Commenting on the impact of freshly imposed restrictive measures in Italy at the onset of the pandemic, he made a disarming remark: ‘For a society like Italy, keeping company with others is better than sedatives, and if you have to do without, you suffer withdrawal symptoms.’

I find the truth behind these words truly mindblowing, nor could I think of a better way to phrase this feeling. I’m often told I’m not Italian about many things, but this very feeling would blow my cover instantly.

And it’s precisely because of this feeling that I know I’m not good at WFH. This, and only very few other things I know for sure. Yes, because 2020 has shaken up most of the (already few) certainties I felt I had established as perennial cornerstones of the mind and the heart. I thought I’d grown old adult enough to at least have a few of them always there to show the way and blindly rely on. As it turns out, things always change in ways you hadn’t foreseen, and sometimes fighting them is equally exhausting and fruitless.

Brněnská přehrada (Brno reservoir)

Sometimes I hear this colleague or that acquaintance mention that ‘this summer was the weirdest in my life’, or ‘I can’t think of planning to travel anytime soon, there really is no point right now’. Such remarks make me feel a little more ‘normal’ at a time in my life when literally everyone else looks and sounds wholesome while I’m gasping for air from the deep pit this 2020 has been so far.

I can’t help going over what I’ve built over the past few years. I try to figure out whether I’ve really built something out of them or, as The Shins wisely phrase it in their ‘Caring is Creepy’ song, I’ve only been ‘laying bricks’ the whole time.

Everything feels still and fragile, even though I’m aware it can’t be that way. Maybe things are moving in ways and patterns we’re not familiar with. That’s where the perception of stillness comes from. Not that being able to explain it always makes it less scary.

 

I remember very well what I wrote in the very first quarantine-themed post about how things were changing. I wrote: ‘We shall cope with this, but we shall not get used to it. This is not life as I know and love it, so I’m never going to say that I’ve got used to it.’

I haven’t changed my mind about it. Now, though, I might have a broader picture of the current predicament than I had six months ago, when that post came to life. It’s safe to say that this whole pandemic thing has had (and will have) long-lasting, if not permanent consequences on all of us. The WFH regime will continue to live and thrive, both because it rhymes with employees’ safety and because by now it’s grown into a regular working pattern option, wherever applicable.

Ignoring the effects of all that’s been going on this year would be awfully stubborn and short-sighted, because it would mean denying reality as it unfolds before our eyes. Most importantly, it would mean overlooking the impact it’s had on each one of us. And that is far too large an elephant in the room to act like we don’t see it.

Brno, Kraví hora

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