During the COVID-19 outbreak, millions of Americans have set up impromptu work stations in their homes. The resultant pictures and descriptions of conference calls done while cats, dogs and children interrupt the flow are fun and inspiring. Even Satya Nadella – CEO of Microsoft – is getting some help from his “staff”:
“Sharing the office with my daughters has been actually quite fun,” the Microsoft CEO said Tuesday. “In fact I take my daughters help in setting up all of the things around my computer because I used to always work on my bed. Now I work at a real desk.”
Although things will eventually return to normal, it’s important for leaders to understand that “normal” doesn’t mean “unchanged”.
Now is the time to think about and prepare for the changes that are to come. I have been thinking about this lately as “the great sorting”, in that a person’s work from home (WFH) capabilities will become an important dimension for being hired, making an impact, and getting promoted. This important dimension will “sort” those who can master the WFH discipline from those who cannot, much like personal computer literacy separated workers a generation ago.
Using terms like “sorting” and “separating” can make us uncomfortable. They seem absolute, and perhaps cause us to worry for loved ones or our own career prospects. But as with many things in life, we can either be worried or be ready. This blog is for people who want to be ready.
In my most recent post about WFH, I laid out a few key disciplines to master. Here are some more ideas for you to consider:
Invest in your environment
Don’t wait for an employer to foot the bill. If you need to make changes to your home to reduce noise and distractions or improve the quality of your video and audio, do it. We just refurbished my home office and one of the last things we still need to do is get darkening shades on some windows that are behind me. Without shades, my back-lit appearance on video calls can be a black silhouette. Until those are installed, I’m moving my camera and swinging my computer by ninety degrees to avoid the light. You can get some decent equipment inexpensively. I’m using this webcam and external microphone.
Practice with friendlies
Find a buddy or two who will tell you how you look on your computer (as in “you look back-lit”, not “your nose is weird”). Ask them: How do I sound? Do I sound better with the external microphone on my computer or when I use this headset? Is there anything distracting in the background? Use this time to invite friends to a quarantini party after work hours and see where you each need to improve.
Stop looking at yourself
Some people – not me – might have a tendency to look at their own video to determine if they look ok and in the process lose their concentration on the person they’re speaking with. The best thing for these people, who are not me, to do is minimize their video so that they can focus on the task at hand. Again, I’m talking about other people. Not me.
As the Chinese proverb says, “may you live in interesting times”. These are interesting times indeed, and they will leave an indelible mark on our work habits in the years to come.
P.S. If there can be a fun fact about a quarantine, perhaps this is it: the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian word for forty, quaranta. In 1377 Venetians started to require ships from plague-suffering countries to stay off its port for a period of forty days to insure there was no latent disease on board.