Working from Home – reflections during the coronavirus crisis

Photo by @ronaldoav / Unsplash.com

It’s been three weeks since we saw drastic measures throughout the EU region to fight the coronavirus situation. In Italy, the situation has been much worse, while in Finland it’s been somewhat easier, in comparison. Yet, in Helsinki, where I live, schools closed in mid-March. While daycares remained open, the strong suggestion was to keep your toddlers at home. Those who could did the transformation into an ad-hoc Work from Home mode.

I reflected a bit on this during the weekend and wanted to expand on those thoughts in this post.

Remote school or homeschooling?

I have three kids, aged 12, 10 and 2. All are boys. The big boys go to school, days are usually between 8 and 1 pm, and the little one goes to full-time daycare from 8 until ~4 pm on weekdays. When we needed to transform into a remote school mode, I was in for some surprises.

Finland was utterly unprepared for remote school. We’ve got great infrastructure along with amazing network connectivity, but our digital transformation is more akin to heavy WhatsApp and Facebook use, rather than actually being productive while using all the digital tools at our disposal. The media affectionately hopes we’ll finally make the digijump. Perhaps COVID-19 will dry the digital transformation for us, too.

Now that the kids are home, here’s a recap of one day from the first week in mid-March:

  • 9:00: No word from the school. I wonder if kids need to do something today? I log into the mobile app to see we haven’t missed any messages from the teacher
  • 10:00: ding – a message from school! It’s a shortlist of tasks: two pages to read on geography, 5 exercises on math and a simple exercise to search for images on the web and print them out. We do this together with the 10-year-old.
  • 10:45: My 10-year old states he is done with the homework. We spend 15 minutes checking them together.
  • 11:00: The class starts using Microsoft Teams, and there’s a mandatory check-in at 11:00 with all pupils. It takes about 3 minutes – no video or audio; just a quick “Hello all” message on a public channel, and a thumbs-up from the teacher. I get a strong feeling the school is learning this on the go as well.
  • Rest of the day: Coming up with activities for the kids – playtime, time with the Xbox, a long walk outside, preparing meals – the usual activities.

When the kids are in bed I have a final look at the task they were given. To me, it all seems busy-work – “list your top 10 things you do with your family during the summer.” Understandably the teachers probably struggle to figure out how to actually teach virtually.

Based on the first week it feels like it’s not remote school. It’s homeschooling with parents in charge of learning. I reach out to one of the teachers and ask if I can help with Microsoft Teams or any of the other tools. I receive no reply, so perhaps the teachers are already bombarded with messages from parents, other teachers, and the kids.

It’s now week three of homeschooling, and things have evolved drastically. Both kids have a more structured day, with a few video classes each day. Yet, I keep hearing about the challenges they face:

  • Multiple – I count 5 – different systems they use. Each has a different login – sometimes it’s a shared login, sometimes a personal one. I wonder how the kids manage their identities.
  • There are always at least two kids on each call who don’t know how to mute their microphones.
  • Many times my kids tell me they are done with all school work before it’s noon. The afternoons feel long for them, too.

I guess many families are in nonstop survival mode when the situation is like this. Kids learn quickly – but it seems us parents and the teachers are slower learners.

Working from Home – I know how that works! I think.

I know I’ve mentioned previously that I’m used to working remotely, and often working from home. My current role at Microsoft enables me to work from home freely, although I took the time to go to the office frequently to meet with people.

A few things I’ve noted in recent weeks that I feel are interesting enough to highlight here.

First, about meetings. Now that everyone is working remotely, all the meetings finally have a Microsoft Teams/Zoom/Google Hangouts link! Rarely do I see video turned on by default, so that trait is still something us Europeans are inherently opposed to. I try to turn on the video, always. Team meetings, planning workshops, and similar longer events are also now all-digital. Perhaps it’s just me, but I suck at sitting still for 2 or 3 hours without a proper break. Back in the day, when we could actually meet in a meeting room, I would often pace around or stand up just to stretch a bit. My intelligent fitness ring together with my even more intelligent smartwatch keeps buzzing at me to stand up. But now with video on, it’s surprisingly tough. We are supposed to sit and focus on the task at hand.

Next, about reachability. I might be the only person on the planet but I feel as if I can reach anyone now. A quick ping over WhatsApp, Linkedin in´Mail, Facebook Messenger or Twitter and it literally takes less than 30 seconds to get a reply. We are all working from home, and constantly struggling to put in the hours and work that is expected from us. Thus, we’re all reachable at all times now. Even more than before.

I usually pace my days working from home with activities that keep me feeling fresh – a quick walk around by the sea, having lunch across the street, or visiting the post office to pick a package – are all things I no longer do. Except I do the walks but they are longer now as I need the fresh air. Linus Torvalds put this rather bluntly in one of his recent interviews, “If you spend hours in online meetings from home, instead of spending hours in meetings at the office like you used to, you’ve just taken the worst part of office life, and brought it home, and made it even worse.” So I’ve started taking calls and meetings when I’m not at my home office.

Planning – you need to love it

I’m grateful that I married a natural project manager. We don’t plan that much, but we sure do plan – especially now. Some key planning activities we do include

  • lunch and dinner lists for the whole week – from Sunday to Sunday
  • this results in a shopping list of groceries we get delivered to our home
  • significant or more expensive things we have to get are now postponed, yet we track these each week in case priorities changes
  • daycare – it’s still open but we’re not utilizing it at all – but we still plan for certain moments we feel it might be for the best (hello, 10 am -7.30 pm workdays!)
  • activities for those insanely long Saturdays and Sundays, split into four blocks – mornings and afternoons, with nap time in between

I wish I could reveal a magical and well-organized OneNote list of schedules and plans we have. We rely on printed (yes, printed!) weekly calendars, and our Outlook calendars which have five:

  • Our personal calendars
  • The kids’ calendar
  • Our work calendars

This brings order amidst the chaos and allows us to sleep more peacefully. I track my sleep mostly with the Oura Ring now:

Considering the situation, I’m quite satisfied with getting an average of 7 h 46 mins of sleep each day, with a sleep efficiency of 88 %.

How long will this continue?

Not indefinitely. I jokingly said to a friend that I’m prepared to continue living like this until Christmas. Christmas of 2027! Perhaps by August, we are back to the old normal, with certain new normalities. It’s hard to say for certain, but taking each day as they come seems to be the easiest way to manage the situation!

Stay safe.