There was a time, not so long ago, when working from home felt luxurious. Who didn’t experience a certain glee in occasionally skipping the daily commute and ditching office attire? Or marvel at how much more could be done at home without the interruption of idle co-worker chitchat? Throwing in a few extra rounds of laundry in between calls? It sparked joy.
But now? The thrill is gone. And in its place?
Chaos, of all kinds.
Virtual meetings are upended by infants wailing and dogs howling in stereo. Team meetups are disrupted by bloody tooth extractions and baby goat deliveries. Feral toddlers run naked through the backdrop of Zoom calls, or interrupt them entirely to insist it’s time to brush mom’s hair, tell jokes, dump water on a parent’s head, or update the status of their potty training efforts in gory detail.
(Dear reader: These are not made-up examples, but culled from real home offices throughout Massachusetts.)
While working from home is of course a privilege not afforded to essential workers, it’s clear that forcing tens of millions of white-collar workers out of their offices for the foreseeable future has upended the US economy in myriad ways. But the COVID-19 pandemic also changed the dynamics of the workplace — including the virtual one — and may shape how we interact with our colleagues in the years ahead.
The experience has been eye-opening for many executives, who now are able to literally peer into their employees' lives, says Suzanne Bates, who, as an executive coach and CEO of her own communications firm in Wellesley, has both witnessed and experienced this firsthand. “Trying to understand and empathize with what is happening in the lives of the people who you work with is so important,” she says. “But you also have to respect their privacy.”
And that’s far more challenging now than ever. The line between our personal and professional worlds has been deteriorating for decades, and with the constant encroachment of technology, it’s been tough to ever really be “off” from work. But the intrusion of our entire office into our home lives during the pandemic has led to an entirely new level of intimacy. In some cases, at least, it’s injected humor and empathy into high-stress situations.
Steve Boselli learned this firsthand early on during the lockdown, when he started a presentation over Webex for the board members of a multibillion-dollar bank. Boselli, who works at Darling Consulting Group in Newburyport, was reporting for duty from his home office, which just so happens to be located above his garage. His wife was taking his 5- and 8-year-old kids out of the house so he’d have some quiet. But as they got settled into the car, all hell broke loose.
As his wife turned on the car, Boselli’s cellphone, sitting on his desk, connected to his Audi’s Bluetooth speakers below.
Suddenly, Boselli’s voice disappeared and the board members were transported inside the car where the kids were “bouncing off the walls,” Boselli says, still cringing at the thought. His colleagues were waving their arms to signal trouble while Boselli scrambled to disconnect his phone as his wife drove away. “I still refer to it as the day my wife and kids stole my meeting,” Boselli says. Thankfully, everyone on the call was understanding. “They laughed and we still joke about it.”
Michelle Drozdowski spent five years working remotely before she joined the team at Workhuman software in Framingham last October. She had just gotten back into the habit of commuting to an office a few times a week when the pandemic hit, so she thought she knew what to expect back at home. But she had no idea how challenging it would be to work alongside her children. Particularly one morning when her son interrupted a meeting with a colleague to announce his loose tooth.
The colleague, based in Dublin, joked about creating an elaborate extraction mechanism. “What, like this?” Drozdowski’s 9-year-old son asked.
“He opens his mouth and reaches in and rips the tooth out on video,” Drozdowski recalls. “There was blood on his hand and blood coming out of his mouth and he had his face up in the video. It was kind of hilarious and kind of embarrassing.”
Such stories are legion: Take, for example, the team at Rocket Insights, who were on a video call with a client when a child burst into the Zoom window, fresh from bath time, and jumped buck naked into his dad’s lap. At Sarepta Theraputics, another toddler interrupted a call to reveal she had cut off her hair.
Or the poor employee at Envision Bank who turned off her camera to fold laundry during a video call; unbeknownst to her, her kid turned it back on, and everyone watched her fold her skivvies throughout the rest of the meeting.
Work time also being family time may be cringe-worthy now, but it could shape the office of the future, says Bates, of Bates Communications. “No question this is going to be a great awakening for companies to mean that they’re more family-friendly. A lot of times, bosses are of an age when their kids are older and more self-sufficient, and it reminds them of what it was like to be a parent of young children and to navigate all that.”
And the mishaps of the work-from-home period also help make up for the camaraderie we typically cultivate in the office while making coffee or walking to meetings. The team at RE/MAX Executive Realty still joke about the time a co-worker confused her colleagues when her Zoom screen suddenly went dark. She had climbed into a closet to avoid her dog’s barking. At The Village Bank, the barking of one pup inspired another colleague’s to reply; a chorus broke out. And a Rubius Therapeutics employee who lives on a farm abruptly left a call with a colleague about an upcoming board meeting to assist with the birth — or “kidding” — of two baby goats.
“We knew she was close, but I didn’t realize that it was the day she was going to give birth,” says Lori Melancon, vice president of corporate affairs at the Cambridge-based biotech, who raises Swiss dairy goats on her farm in Sonoma, California. “I was on the phone with my colleague and my husband ran in and said ‘Babs is pushing!’ I said ‘I gotta go,’ and hung up on her.”
Melancon texted her colleague a picture of the two kids — a boy and a girl — an hour later. “The running joke is, any time I’m on a call they ask ‘What animal is in Lori’s lap?’ They’re always requesting to see the animals.”
All of these authentic moments will be fond memories to look back on one day when we’re back at the office and the dogs and babies and goats aren’t around. “We’re going to look back on this time as a great gift. We’ve had this opportunity to break down artifice and get to know one another and to have some laughs,” Bates says. “We’re developing a greater understanding and empathy for one another.”