Physical Distancing: Work Apart

Anthony CloskeyGeneral

work together apart

Right now, we are all a little overwhelmed by emails from companies and organizations regarding the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Our inboxes and news feeds are over-saturated with tips and trends and questions without answers. Shift has spent the past week reading, advising, and preparing such messages. We’ve been discussing this experience internally and want to offer our insight to others, because we are in this together.

We’ve put together this three part series to help make sense of marketing and communications when the world is working to flatten the curve and manage an outbreak. This series is for those tired of hearing from brands with no heart, who can’t read the room. It’s for businesses who need to offer stability. And it’s to advocate for those without a voice.

Our message is Stay Safe, Show Compassion, and Work Together Apart.

Part three of three:

work together apart

This final post for this series applies our design expertise to inform how to create and collaborate over distance. We are students of good meetings and the creative process. Most design work begins with empathy for people and understanding their experience and circumstances.

Working from home is a challenge

Change is hard, and suddenly every way we do things in our lives is changing all at once. Give everyone some time to adjust. You may offer your alternatives right away, but give people time to catch up with the other changes in their lives.

If you are working from home, we wish you well in your adjustment. You have a lot that you may be managing, even if you have been working from home for years. You may be sharing your space with others, or perhaps your coworkers are adjusting to their own work environments. This experience is unusual because people are not often working while confined to home. Most experienced work-from-home professionals have learned that getting away from home helps in maintaining physical and emotional health. That is a challenge everyone is trying to tackle.

Self-Isolated School Kids in Japan Celebrate Their Graduation Online in Minecraft

While schools are closed due to coronavirus, a group of Japanese elementary students created a virtual graduation ceremony in Minecraft, so they could celebrate online.

Emma Taggart
My Modern Met, March 16, 2020

For some, working from home is more than just a challenge.

It may not be obvious, but working from home can be a crisis for certain people. It may be anxiety, or it may be fear of managing technology on their own. They may depend on family and friends or services, or they may have family they cannot visit or help.

Some isolated households face very serious survival needs. Many Americans lack access to food and essential services. Many fear sharing confinement with someone who is violent or contagious. Do not dismiss social distancing as a minor inconvenience, as your experience of it may not represent the challenges others face.

Be kind to workers who must remain in public

While working from home presents challenges, some would prefer those challenges to working in the public during an outbreak. Everyone working from home depends on the maintenance of essential supplies and services. Besides the production, transportation, and distribution of goods, there are infrastructures and services which must be managed and maintained in secured locations. The key purpose of social distancing is limiting all interactions to just the worker who must break isolation. The few remaining necessary interactions can more easily follow the necessary precautions.

Unfortunately, we only have a limited number of people to perform these necessary functions and they are increasingly growing tired. Their work is stressful, their hours may be increased. For safety, they may need to distance themselves from their homes and loved ones. If local businesses are required to close earlier and stay open later, they may not have an opportunity to shop for groceries or go to the hardware store.

Consider the state of mind of every customer the essential workers speak to throughout their day. Every customer is stressed or afraid. The essential worker may be the only stranger a customer has spoken to in a week. The customer may carry a threat to the essential worker’s health and most likely considers the essential worker as a threat to their own health. Each of these interactions is emotionally draining. When you are that customer interacting with any essential worker, what can you choose to offer. What emotion can you fill them with to restore their humanity?

Fully experience your temporary life of isolation

Learn and play; document your experience. Start a journal, a voice diary, or record your video chats with friends and family. It won’t all be pretty, but expect there to be moments of discovery and relief you will enjoy revisiting. Perhaps knowing that you will grow through this hardship will encourage you to face the worst of it with courage.

See what you can do to safely help people without a network or without idle time. One proven method to treat stress and anxiety is to help others. There are many who have less. There are many without access who need a car, cash, or voice. And there are many working hard to provide stability who could use a break from buying groceries or making dinner.

Treat your isolation as a vacation from your usual life. Visit online groups to meet new people. Join online games or video projects. Fill the time and conserve resources by doing the once convenient ways the slow way; for example, teach your children some science by baking from scratch. Make time to connect with old friends and family on the phone. (Bonus: Regular calls will also let you check if anyone needs medical help.)

Creating as a team is challenging, even in person

As a creative agency we regularly facilitate collaboration in other organizations. We design and troubleshoot ways to generate and share ideas across functional and mental boundaries. There is no universal rule and there is no plan you can set and forget. Sharing ideas and feedback is personal, and now many must attempt it through unfamiliar interfaces.

We are suddenly dependent on imperfect tools. Remember, your favorite internet tools are shared and built on taxed infrastructure. When planning a meeting for your team, understand that some may have a bad connection, may need to turn off their camera, or may be disconnected at a critical moment.

Our team uses an array of technology to communicate, and we are lucky to have been using it for some time. Instead of email, we have long used Slack. We work in shared Google documents. We can easily use the same video conferencing we use in meeting with clients to now connect within our team. In our internal meetings we are using all of these technologies at once. If your team is struggling with video conferencing, it may be that the video needs to be supplemented with some other real-time working documents. If your team members are struggling with jumping between tools, they may need practice, or you may want to order them an extra monitor or other piece of equipment.

Update your projects for the new working environment. Coordinate shared working time. Even if you are not connected by audio or video, it can help (professionally and emotionally) to work on projects at the same time. If you customers or strategic partners have had to close their space to the public and are sitting idle, now might be a good time to spend an entire day sharing ideas with them over all long leisurely calls. Adjust your process and your deadlines both to provide time for the learning curve and to take advantage of people’s undivided attention. Finally, recognize that you cannot save all of your important steps for “after the social distancing.” We cannot know when that will happen. When we do break the isolation, we will learn that a lot of people were saving something really important for that opportunity.


When You’re Pregnant During a Pandemic

We have pulled out enough cash to last us for weeks. We have stocked up on the food and medications we need. We are monitoring local news for updates. We leave comfortable shoes and our passports in the front hall of our home, just in case we have to leave quickly. We bolt the door at night.


Pay attention to what is lost when we don’t meet face to face

Explore tools that allow people to form ideas and share feedback independently. Some freedom to voice concerns is lost when you are second or last in a chain of feedback.
Make room for clarifying text comments. Emails and other written feedback can be misconstrued, so make sure you have time and space for clarity. Exercise patience with your team.

Include opportunities for the quiet voices to speak. Make sure the louder voices know they are heard so they can move on to listening.

Be ready for technical difficulties and background noise.

Leave time for small talk. Everyone is scared and isolated and these meetings are a break. Sharing a bit of our humanity in a team increases the generosity to create together.

Confidence can be contagious

As we noted above, not everyone on your calls has a choice to work from home and they may be stressed out about it. Be supportive. Not everyone understands why we must take such drastic precautions. Don’t fight about it. Take care and time to explain your position and policies, but try to take that discussion offline. Show gratitude for the sacrifices people make and offer patience to any who feel their sacrifices are under-recognized.

With that said, let us be clear: If you need help, if you need some free advice to navigate these unique challenges, please ask us. We are ready to help.

Return to first post Stay Safe.