The new normal? It’s all over the map, or the house

Styles and modes vary, but in the federal community telework means work.

A matter of historical record here at Federal News Network— in the early days of the Federal Drive show there were concerns around a live, on-air interview with, let’s call it a high level public official.

With our headphones on, conducting the interview, my then co-host and I looked at one another as if to say, “Do you hear what I hear?”

Yes, the guest was clearly conducting the interview from the bathtub — the full bathtub, while taking a bath. I’d noticed the echo-y, tiled room sound. But then we could hear the faint but persistent gurgle of water as the guest shifted ever so slightly. This person obviously was trying to avoid causing a real splash. Aside from the mental picture I still cannot unsee, I remember thinking, Lord, don’t drop that phone!

Now, thanks to mass teleworking, my ears go into every guest’s home. Mostly people have quiet backgrounds. I hear the occasional squeaky door open and close. Maybe they’re in the kitchen and letting the cat out, dogs woof, the errant child runs by. That’s life in the COVID-19 era. The “era” is about a month old, but it feels like years, doesn’t it?

A million articles have advised people how to work, eat, dress, set up your home office. I decided to check on my own. I asked a dozen recent guests about their telework-life habits to better understand the reality of telework in the federal world and its constellation of vendors, think tanks and consultants. I pass the results on to you, so you can gauge for yourself whether you are normal or weird.

Among the questions I asked:

  • Where in your home is your workspace? Is it a dedicated spot? Briefly describe how it’s equipped.
  • Are you generally alone during working hours, or do you have a spouse? Roommate? Significant other?
  • Any kids around? If so how old and how do you deal with them? Pets?
  • Are you a power-through-the-workday person or a frequent break-taker?
  • If you take breaks, where do you take them — at the refrigerator, outside?
  • How do you dress for the “office,” casual, boxer briefs?
  • If you normally wear make-up, do you do so when working at home?

I promised anonymity, so you won’t know who answered the question. But in the interest of transparency, I’ll go first. I am actually not teleworking. It is infinitely easier for me to do my job in my studio at our Chevy Chase facilities but I am physically isolated because everyone else is teleworking. A few WTOP people are down the way, about 20 yards away at their end of the newsroom, if I want to see another person. It’s also chilly in our offices, so I do wear jeans, shirt and a windbreaker.

How do you dress?

No one dolls up unless they absolutely must, which generally means an important video meeting. A D.C. lawyer said her code ranges from t-shirt and pajama pants when working, to a nicer top for internal law firm videos, to the “full on suit” for a video “with anyone not from my firm.”

For the CEO of a prestigious nonprofit, it’s “jeans and casual tops, but always shoes!” A federal program manager working from Florida (there’s a lot of that, by the way) answered: “Shorts and T-shirt. Have not worn work clothes in a month.”

A training organization executive compromises with what he calls “the business mullet … office casual (button down or polo) up top, basketball shorts downstairs (á la business up front, party in the back!).”

The women generally skip make-up. One guest, though, also appeared via videoconferencing on former colleague Francis Rose’s Government Matters TV show and applied make-up for that.

As the saying goes, everyone has a face for radio.

Where to work within your house?

That evoked perhaps the widest range of responses. A federal auditor created a standing workstation on the island in her kitchen, with the notebook PC atop a stack of boxes. “Standing all day makes me feel not quite so bad about not walking all day,” she wrote.

At one extreme, an association executive described this bit of austerity: “Dedicated small home office created years ago, but never intended to be occupied for this many hours or this many days. Office laptop and iPad provide connectivity. Limited printing capabilities.” Who prints anyway, these days?

More common are two desks in a bedroom or study, in a space shared with spouses. That creates conflict when work involves phone conferences. Then there’s this think tank researcher: “I am fortunate to have a study in a room in our basement. I have a bunch of books, a desktop computer I use for research and writing, and a laptop I use for Zoom calls, video interviews, and podcasting.” The former Marine and Iraqi Freedom, tank-commanding officer added, “The cat is actually curled up in his little corner in the office as I type.”

I can almost hear the whistling tea kettle.

Some work in near chaos. A lawyer has three daughters from kindergarten to teenager, “so my workspace is where I can find a quite space.” The youngest one “has gotten away with eating a lot of jelly beans while I am working. I mean A LOT of jelly beans.”

Several guests said they work the keyboard at a table, desk or counter, but wander to patios, balconies and even the sidewalk for phone calls. One longtime consultant, who is on calls for 40% of his day, warned, “You learn, sometimes the hard way, that you can’t do a conference call at the grocery store.” (Or the bathtub, I might add.)

One fed is forced to stay on the move. His wife is a teacher. “She is using our one desk most of the time. I roam around the house.”

On the issues of other inhabitants of the home, Federal Drive guests just deal. My impression is kids cause a greater challenge than pets. Many use their breaks for dog-walking.

Some of the pets know something’s up. Wrote one federal executive, “One dog  is wondering why everyone is home all the time.”

As for those with kids at home, answers ranged from having high-schoolers who are mostly self-regulated to those constantly demanding food, not that the semi-supervised are totally devoted to the books. This fed wrote of her “teenager, who has really upped his online gaming skills in the past few weeks thanks to a serious lack of parental supervision during the workday.”

However and wherever they work, this community works. People tell me they are putting in the usual hours, although in some cases sleeping an hour later than normal because they don’t need to commute.

Wrote the professional association executive, “I try to keep my normal workday schedule. Morning workout around 6:30 (I get an extra hour of sleep now that I don’t have to commute or pack a lunch).  Sitting down by 8:30, and shutting down by 5:30, with a short break for lunch.  I’m finding the day has to be much more structured to take care of routine business, so it really is usually a fully loaded day.”

Some overdo it, like this federal director: “I can’t seem to stop. Work, home, day, night, it is all blending.” The trainer put it this way: “I’ll take a break or two for exercise. We’re a global organization so there is always something happening, I am usually plugged in even during odd hours.”

No one admitted to goofing off, and I have the strong sense nobody is.

Even in a busy household, keep in mind it might be you who needs supervision, though. Wrote the lawyer, “I swear like a drunken sailor. Anyone who knows me, would tell you that. My children fortunately have not picked up that habit. My older daughters tell me that they can tell whether I am on a work call based on the volume of swear words I use.” The family is contemplating a swear jar — perhaps with the five-year-old’s jellybeans — to help cure mom.

Soldier on, people. And if you’re scheduled to tape an interview with me, and you feel it’s bath time, go ahead and slip into the suds and dial in. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Amelia Brust

Lítla Dímun, the smallest of Denmark’s Faroe Islands chain in the North Atlantic Ocean, has its own  lenticular cloud hovering over it like a mushroom cap. The cloud forms when moist air flows over a protruding geological feature, when the wind moving up the landmass hits the air current directly above it. A wave forms on the downwind side of the mountain, and moist air falling down this wave evaporates and then condenses.

Source: MentalFloss

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