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How to work without everyone right there

Date
May 11, 2020
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Online Article

For those now working from home, the coronavirus pandemic has completely upended daily life. This can mean more than just finishing work tasks from the comfort of home – it involves adapting to a new normal, especially for so many whose workspaces might now be populated with children, family members, or temptations to exchange to-do lists for a few hours of Netflix.

At the same time, some find themselves at a workplace alone or nearly alone. They stay connected through technology as best they can.

Reflecting on their own experiences with the move to remote work, three community members – Mara Kleiman, Scott Israel, and Lisa Hiller – offer some useful strategies for tackling the difficulties of working without physical proximity to others. Below are a few of their suggestions that can help you be prepared, create structure and stay motivated.

Choosing the right technologies

Transitioning to remote work involves choosing the right technologies for communicating with others. But some tools are more appropriate for certain situations than others.

Mara Kleiman, who has shifted to teaching online for the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, has found that the different videoconferencing or streaming platforms do not offer the same types of interactions with her students.

“The first week I was doing much more Facebook Live, and I definitely am a bigger fan of Zoom because I really enjoy seeing all my students’ faces and connecting to them more,” said Kleiman.

Scott Israel, former president of Congregation Beth Jehudah, suggested that phone calls can be more appropriate than video chatting or texting, especially when questions need to be answered quickly. In his career as a lawyer, managing people remotely requires reaching out “on the fly” with phone calls rather than scheduling video meetings.

In some cases, using a new technology comes with a learning curve. Hiller, the vice president of administration for Bader Philanthropies and a member of Congregation Beth Jehudah, pointed out that bringing groups of people together online could be difficult.

“When you were all coming into the office, you could chat with somebody and you had the assistance,” she said. “Now it’s trying to put a whole bunch of team people together at the same time. It just takes much longer.”

Kleiman said she tries to assist with any learning curves by explaining to her students how to use certain features in Zoom, such as different speaker views or chat functions. Doing so “creates a community” within online teaching and meeting spaces.

Designated spaces for work

Israel has worked remotely for several years and has developed a keen awareness of the home activities that can sidetrack even the most focused worker.

“It’s very easy to be distracted by things that are going on in the rest of the house or simply distracted because there’s other things that are in front of you that you know you’re going to do.”

Dedicating an area of your home to work, if possible, limits the distractions that can frustrate efforts to be productive. “You need to be in a place where you can concentrate and are not going to be interrupted,” he said. “It also gives you that perspective that you are in the office, that you’re working now.”

Creating structure and routine

Structure is helpful for getting back to routines that were a normal part of work life before the pandemic, such as attending daily meetings, working on scheduled activities or taking breaks.

Kleiman said her new routine involves developing online learning activities and videos, as well as leading weekly live meetings. In turn, her students and their parents can use these resources to create the structure usually found in a typical school day.

“I’ve created a section of my blog that’s called ‘Virtual Learning Page,’” Kleiman said. “And so I kind of put all of my teaching there for this time. On any given day, a parent can go look into my blog, where there would be a variety of activities that they can do with their children.”

Creating a schedule is also necessary when workloads increase or include other duties, such as caring for children.

“In order to be able to get teaching in with live opportunities and also cater to my children, I’ve had to make a schedule,” said Kleiman.


Ideas for Working from Home

Is a designated space unrealistic? Consider a movable workspace. Keep your office in a box and move between different spaces at home as needed.

Keep yourself on the same eating schedule. Pretend the kitchen is not steps away, but is in a distant, far-off land.

Set a virtual lunch date. You and a friend can schedule a Zoom meeting for days or weeks into the future. Then, look forward to it and consider making it a no-coronavirus discussion zone.


Hiller said daily and weekly meetings on Microsoft Teams keep staff members on task as they expedite processes for providing grants to those in need as a result of the pandemic.

“I can tell you I’m busier than I’ve ever been,” said Hiller, who has been communicating with coworkers remotely. “Everybody’s participating and doing their job faster and more intensely for some of these more emergency things.”

‘Spatial distancing,’ not social distancing.

But keeping to a routine doesn’t mean that it should be all work and no play, just as social distancing doesn’t mean avoiding all opportunities to be social. Maintaining connections with co-workers can encourage productivity.

Hiller said she uses the term “spatial distancing” instead of social distancing, because social interaction is still a necessary part of life, even in a pandemic.

“You need social connection to work and we’re not really disconnecting socially,” Hiller said.

Staying socially connected can be as simple as showing your face in a virtual meeting.

“We’re encouraging everybody on the meetings to turn on the cameras. Just making facial contact and seeing people’s faces that you see every other day is a huge boost in connecting socially,” Hiller said.

Israel also said that focusing on physical distance downplays the importance of social conversations. “It doesn’t have to all be so focused about work,” he said. Getting outside for breaks or exercise is an essential self-care step that should be just as much of a priority as work, Kleiman said.

“I think the best part of my schedule is that we get out of the house twice a day to go on walks,” she said. “I don’t think the rest of it would feel as good without those walks because I’d feel like I’m sitting in front of the screen all the time.”

Looking to Jewish principles can be another form of self-care. Kleiman said the oneness of the Shema prayer can help us reflect on how the world is connected in this crisis.

“The whole world right now is one,” Kleiman said. “Wherever you are, we are all going through this and it’s hard. But we’re all in it together.”