By Alex Stecky-Efantis
On March 13 (yes, Friday the 13th), news spread fast that Ottawa Public Health was going to order changes to the way we work for the time being. “Social distancing” quickly became everyone’s duty. With a wife at home who is at risk for the virus, I packed up my laptop computer and important documents in preparation for setting up a makeshift home office. I have been working here ever since.
I’ve never been someone who dreams of working from home. I enjoy the stability of my daily routine of getting ready for and travelling to work. As an urban planner, my work involves a mix of meetings, analysis and writing. Much of this work benefits from being in the same room with colleagues while looking at and discussing drawings or maps.
On the first day, I set up my phone and laptop on the dining room table. While this worked for email and catching up on daily reporting, I realized conference calls and concentrating on report writing are very tough in the middle of the house. The radio was constantly reminding me of the deepening crisis, and the view of the kitchen was a distraction that might have led me to depleting the pantry way too fast when supplies are limited.
Once I moved to a more office-like space in a spare room with a desk, it was much easier to get into a working routine. I have read that keeping up a routine is very important when working from home, and my experience suggests that is true. It is tempting to want to sleep in and go straight to work down the hall, but the ritual of having breakfast, showering and getting dressed before going to the office helps me get into a productive disposition.
During the first few workdays at home, access to the office computer network was hampered by the number of colleagues trying to access the virtual private network (VPN) at the same time. This led to a few failed attempts at saving my work and frustrating experiences getting information. Having a reliable network both at home and at work is an important prerequisite for working remotely.
Meetings have changed dramatically too. Almost everyone spent the first few minutes trying to enable their computer’s microphone. Now that the basics have been established, we are all trying to spruce up our home offices for more professional and unique settings during video calls. A nice way to make personal connections when so far away is to ask about that painting on the wall or inquire about someone’s favourite musician when they’re working next to their record collection. So far, my cat has tried only once to make a cameo during a video conference call. I forgive her as she is used to having the house to herself.
There are many positives in this new arrangement. Working at home is a lot like going into the office on those quiet days between Christmas and New Year’s. While not everyone I normally work with is around, this arrangement provides a lot of time to focus on tasks that are hard to do with interruptions.
Under these emergency circumstances, I am grateful to be able to continue to work and to provide a public service. Hats off to my colleagues in other city departments who are out on the frontlines, like transit operators and emergency services.
It has been an interesting experience, but I am looking forward to returning to my office when it becomes safe to do so.
Alex Stecky-Efantis is a Glebe resident and professional urban planner for the City of Ottawa who is new to working at home full-time.