In the eight weeks since I have been working from home full time, the questions I ask myself — in the COVID diary that details the roiling emotions of living with a lurking, faceless menace — have ranged from Can I stand this? (boredom) . . . to Will I be furloughed for the summer? (fear) . . . to the current one: What is professionalism anymore, anyway?
What does it mean to be a team member, a productive human being, when the foundation of your work life is gone? When the human resources department judges you to be non-essential? When you have been banned from your workspace?
Still, I count myself lucky.
My brother, a marketing executive with an MBA from MIT, was furloughed only months before his older son begins college. My backyard neighbor, a public relations professional, lost his job — and his family’s health insurance — at 66. My younger son, who works behind the meat counter and in the sausage-making operation of Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis, has more job security than any professional I know. Yet, he seethes at being called essential. Even though he appreciates the federally funded $2-an-hour raise, he is cynical about the sidewalk chalk messages and other public displays of affection for nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers. “I was never considered essential before,” my son tells me.
(I recall, with some shame, how I’ve explained to friends whose kids have graduate degrees and corporate positions that my grown sons are a bartender and a grocery worker, respectively, that they’re hard workers but apparently lack my “career gene.”)
Another neighbor, age 63, who was let go from her position as a college bookstore manager, tells me she has lost her identity. She’d look for another job, but what would she find during a pandemic? (And what would she find at her age?)
I went through similar angst this spring as I waited to hear whether I would be furloughed for the summer. (I escaped, but no one’s safe at 62.) Work was all I could think about, even as it threatened to go away. The pragmatic — How will we manage financially? — intermingled with the existential, the philosophical: Who will I be without my job?
Be gentle with yourself and with everyone else around you. Everyone is experiencing this heightened anxiety, this uncertainty, all together.Susan Jackson, news editor, LinkedIn
The confusion and uncertainty I felt when I began working from home is ever present. Here I sit, day after day, perched alone on a hard chair at a small wooden table nudged against a wall in my bedroom and reading room, less than a mile but a world away from my sunny, third-floor office overlooking Summit Avenue on a vibrant college campus.
- What is it to be professional without the trappings of professionalism?
- Will the coronavirus ultimately blur the class distinctions that smugly separate us at work?
- When Randy, the janitor — the building engineer — is more essential than a college-educated, director-level, white-collar professional, where does that leave us careerists for whom work is both ego and identity?
What does professionalism look like?
Laugh if you will, and my Millennial sons do, but when I started my first full-time job in 1982, I bought a blue suit, with a bow tie and an off-white blouse. My uniform today — two months into my COVID-imposed sentence of working from home — is old jeans, baggy yoga pants, running or walking shoes and athletic vests or sweatshirts. I haven’t worn earrings or makeup in weeks. My closet full of work clothes looks like costumes from another era, a time when “dressing for success” demonstrated loyalty and earnest intention. Will I ever dress that way again, in trim wool slacks and scarves and blazers and (only when I had to) modest heels?
Nowadays, advice for appearing professional borders on the ridiculous: Wear pants during a Zoom call. (Oh, and the obvious: Don’t day-drink.)
I wonder whether what I long have considered professionalism — dressing up, deference to authority, duty above everything — will change now that many of us are living and working in the same space, now that our personal lives are a stronger presence in our workdays. Yes, I am still working, and I’m grateful for that. But two months into officing from home — an arrangement that suits neither my personality nor my job as a community relations professional — I am seeing shifts in the role that work plays in my life, in what I value, in how I want to spend my time.
Cooking for my family, donating time and money to causes where I can, giving my son rides to work so he can avoid being enclosed on a public bus, staying physically active: These actions are now the cornerstones of my day, and what I wear or how I look has ceased to matter.
How can home feel like an office?
I started a Microsoft Word doc the first day I worked from home last March, and for the first couple of weeks I wrote down any little rule that came to me, from the obvious to the previously undiscovered.
Weeks later, in the face of record unemployment and furloughs among my friends, the self-help tips seem like a luxury not afforded to people equally:
- Get up and get dressed in the morning (easy for me, as an early riser).
- Call a colleague every day whom you otherwise might have run into on the job.
- Move your computer to a different room to combat Zoom fatigue when your calendar is overloaded with meetings. A new view can spark a better attitude.
- Recognize that almost no one sits at their desk for eight hours straight each day. Doing dishes or sweeping the floor or making a fresh pot of coffee are the home-based equivalent of wandering down the hall for inspiration.
- Don’t let “fear of firing” alter how you’ve always done your job.
Because I answer phone calls and texts and emails when they come in, which is often nights or weekends, I have never worked a standard weekday schedule. I remind myself that it’s OK to talk to a friend or take a walk or ride my bike midday. Microsoft Teams, with its colored buttons to indicate “available” (green) or “busy” (red) or “appear away” (yellow) need not tie me to a conventional schedule that doesn’t suit how my work works.
How can we value all employees?
I was raised by white, middle-class parents in an era of white, middle-class exceptionalism. Though I raised my own sons on the saying that “all work is honorable,” pointing out examples of postal workers or waitresses who did their jobs well, in truth I valued the professional class over any other. A career was freedom to me, a chance to support my family as my father had done, to have a life as different from my homemaker mother’s as society and my own ambitions would allow.
Now, the lingering coronavirus shows me anew the privilege inherent in that upbringing, in those beliefs. I had access to college and to interesting, well-paying jobs, just as I have access now to a decent income while working from a safe and well-appointed home.
COVID-19 “has become a disease of the vulnerable,” writes a critical care doctor in the New York Times. Minnesota has experienced more than 24,000 positive cases and topped 1,000 deaths, and yet the disease has not touched my family or circle of close friends. How is that possible?
- I live in a modest, middle-class house with one other person that might squeeze in six people in a lower-income neighborhood.
- I work for a university that responded to the virus swiftly, based on data, and reshaped its human resources policies to allow most of us to work from home.
- I live among educated people who follow reputable news sources and who recognize the long-term gain of having their freedoms curtailed for now.
- I have so many face masks that I keep one in my kitchen cupboard, one in my car, another in my purse, one in my bike bag.
- I have employer-funded healthcare coverage.
Everyone wants answers: When will life return to normal? Will my career ever look or feel the same? Here’s what I know: Being professional doesn’t make me special. It makes me fortunate, born into circumstances I did not earn, with opportunities denied others because of race or class.
A dose of humility would do us good. It might also reconcile us to the radical uncertainty in which we are always living.Dr. Mark Lilla, New York Times
Yes, I work hard. I always have. But the equality — and equity — for all workers that I claim to seek will happen only when folks like me do more than contribute money to good causes or deliver Meals on Wheels during a pandemic. It will begin when I ask my employer to reinstate my 5 percent COVID-19 pay cut toward the wages of an hourly employee and when I look my son the grocery worker in the eye and say: I’m proud.