Douglas Fischer

Working from home in a coronavirus world? We can help.

Long before Zoom, Slack and 'social distancing' became the new lexicon, we were here.

Our expertise is science and environmental health reporting. But we also have deep experience in something suddenly everyone worldwide is coping with: Working from home, often alone, sometimes with kids running loose.


It's not easy. If you have kids at home because schools are closed, your life has gotten doubly, quintuply, exponentially harder.

We understand. We've been working out of spare bedrooms and from our kitchen tables for some two decades. We moved to Slack in 2015; we've had a daily Zoom call since 2017. We thought we'd share some tips, if only to let you know you're not alone.

Autumn Spanne, researcher: The view from Barcelona

Autumn Spanne working by a window in Barcelona

Autumn Spanne

As a freelance journalist, I've been working from home — and from the road — for years. Over time, I've distilled some fundamental practices that make the experience efficient and enjoyable:

  • I don't work in pajamas.
  • I make an hour-by-hour schedule and try to stick to it.
  • My schedule includes time for healthy food prep, brief social media breaks, and stretching/exercise, because sitting for hours in front of a screen is bad, and I find that a bit of movement restores focus and creativity.

I try to keep my immediate workspace clear of distractions and clutter. Apart from my laptop and phone (usually placed face down in silent mode), I just keep a notepad nearby to capture both ideas and random to-dos that pop into my head at inopportune moments. Later, I can add those to-dos to my calendar, but while I'm working, the notepad is a place to quickly empty my brain without going down unproductive rabbit holes that impede my progress.

Here in Barcelona, we've been in coronavirus lockdown for a week now, and working from home presents new challenges. My partner, whose office hours have been reduced, is suddenly home a lot more during the day, so we have to renegotiate space in our small apartment. The sought-after real estate is the sofa by a panoramic window, the closest thing we have to being outside right now. Neither of us wants to be at our respective desks in the darkness of the interior spare rooms. But I work best in silence, while he enjoys listening to music. Negotiating your work environment with family under these new and stressful conditions means making time for deliberate conversations, hopefully before conflict arises.

Finally, I'm realizing how much I need my friends and co-workers right now. I've started scheduling regular calls with friends, both for emotional support and to talk about our future goals and passion projects, which keeps us hopeful and motivated at a moment when our lives feel very limited and uncertain. I'm also fortunate to work with wonderful remote teams, both of which are doing more frequent check-ins and video conferencing to share tips and ideas, and to support each other through this challenging time.

Brian Bienkowski, editor: Whistle while you work

Time works differently when you're not punching a clock at an office. Start times and end times tend to blur.

I've found myself in ruts — and staring at a screen for hours on end is no good for anyone.

If you're trying to problem solve or be creative and feel stuck, step away.

For me that means walking a dog, seeing what birds are hanging around, or, most often, picking up an instrument. It stimulates my brain, gets my hands moving and makes me happy.

If you're like me, you're used to getting together with a band or friends to play music as well. In this time of isolation, check out BandLab — a place where you can collaborate on tunes from afar. I just received an invite from some music pals so I haven't fully dived in yet, but it looks promising.

Don't play an instrument? Now seems as good a time as any to pick up that ol' guitar (or banjo, mandolin, ukulele, piano or kazoo!) gathering dust and figure it out.

I also enjoy the company of other people's music while I work. I won't even get started on artist or band recommendations because my tastes range from fiddler Tommy Jarrell to the Wu Tang Clan.

However, lately I've been making time each week to listen to Fall Line Radio—a weekly two-hour radio show published by WHUP out of North Carolina. It's pretty eclectic. You could hear "1908 cylinder recording of a Muskogee garfish dance" or a homemade YouTube video of a Lumbee rap group.

I've found it a great way to get introduced to all kinds of cool stuff.

Megan McLaughlin, researcher: Blessing, or curse?

Megan McLaughlin works out a compromise with her kitties

Megan McLaughlin

Blessing, definitely. With some caveats.

I've worked remotely on a full-time basis since 2016 and on a part-time basis since 2007, and I've never been more productive.

As an introvert, I love the peace and quiet working from home affords me.

Did I say peace and quiet? That was pre-Coronavirus.

COVID-19 has forced many of us to transition to remote work – with the added distractions of partners or children in the house.

As I consider what I love – and what I've struggled with – in relation to online work, here are my recommendations if you find yourself wondering how you'll survive our new reality.

Find your spot

Working from home can be a difficult transition in the best of times. When we're also dealing with partners and kids in the house during work hours, it's imperative that you find someplace you can work without (many) distractions.

I will be honest: I spend 95% of my work life on the sofa when the house is empty – but since I'm now sharing the house (and my rarely-used home office!) with my partner and two kids, I know I can retreat to the main bedroom and work propped up on pillows with my laptop and a mouse. The key is to find a spot and claim it; be sure to communicate your need for quiet.

Speaking of which...

Get your tunes on

Headphones are a great way to muffle the noise of your kids fighting over the last waffle.

Chunk it

Don't try to spend the focused time in front of the computer or on the phone that you may have done in the office. You'll likely be more distracted working from home, so roll with it. Give yourself 30 minutes to an hour to focus on work, then take a break to walk the dog, delegate chores to the kids, or take a shower. Allow yourself to be distracted for a short period of time, and you'll find it easier to regain focus when you need to.

Reward yourself

When I was in graduate school, I had an HGTV addiction that often got in the way of reading and writing assignments. I eventually created a reward system; if I studied for an hour, I could watch 30 minutes of HGTV. I do the same thing now when I'm working remotely: these days it's often social media time or a fresh pot of coffee that motivates me to get stuff done.

So how can you reward yourself for the [insert mind-numbing work project] you're procrastinating on?

Make peace with other inhabitants of the house

You may need to engage in negotiations with other living beings in your home, whether human or canine or feline, to ensure that everyone understands your needs as you transition to remote work. This is a process, so don't expect success on day one.

Over the years, my two elderly, heat-seeking cats and I have found a way to coexist while I'm working. They refrain from walking across my keyboard if I make a heated pad (with auto-shutoff) and my actual lap available at all times.

Kristina Marusic, reporter: Set your schedule. And get out of your PJs.

Mochi takes a break

Mochi takes a break

Kristina Marusic

In many ways, working from home means being your own boss. We'd all rather have a nice boss than a jerk boss, so it's important—and way harder than you'd think—to learn to be as nice of a boss for yourself as you'd be to someone else.

Here are some tips on how to do that:

1. ​Set a routine and stick to it.

This means allowing yourself to take planned breaks and putting work away (for real though) when it's time to stop for the day.

I also usually work from my couch in the morning, my dining room table midday, and my standing desk in the afternoon so I'm not stuck in one position all day.

I start and stop around the same time, eat my meals around the same time, and take a break to workout around the same time every day.

Of course there will be days where a wrench (or several) get thrown into the works and your whole routine goes out the window, but having an established schedule to default to on normal days goes a long way toward preserving sanity.

2. ​Change your clothes.

It's fine to work in sweatpants, PJs or yoga pants all day, but don't let them be the same clothes you sleep in or you'll start to feel schlubby and your days will feel unending.

3. ​Do some meal planning and prep

This way you don't have to spend time figuring out what to prepare every time you get hungry.

This also saves you from realizing at 5pm that you've only consumed coffee and trail mix all day. Eating healthy, nutrient-dense meals boosts focus and helps prevent burnout.

4. Exercise

I find that after a workout, my mind is clear and I have a burst in productivity.

For some people, working from home opens up the possibility of getting in a quick midday workout.

If the weather is bad or you can't get outside to exercise, there are tons of free workout videos on YouTube, or if you're looking for something more structured, paid, subscription-based online workout programs also abound (My personal fave is Daily Burn).

5. ​Go outside.

Breathe fresh air and look at some trees and birds, even if it's only for a few minutes.

Stop stressing about whether you're being productive enough.

Studies have shown that people work more hours and are more productive when they work from home than they are in an office.If you were in an office, you'd be spending time on a commute and taking small breaks from your own work to consult with colleagues, get coffee refills and chit-chat between meetings. You're getting all that time back at home, so it's ok if instead you take a short break to step outside for some fresh air, empty the dishwasher, or go change the laundry. Be kind to yourself.

6. Find opportunities to socialize.

Normally for me this means getting myself out of the house a few nights a week.

Right now, it means having mini daily dance parties via Zoom with one group of friends, sending video chat messages back and forth via Marco Polo with another friend group, checking up on my neighbors and finding opportunities to support people in my immediate community via NextDoor, and staying active on my family text thread.

Even though we can't physically come together, we need each other more now than ever.

Douglas Fischer, director: Leave the laundry.

Ignore the laundry. Leave the breakfast dishes. Do NOT open the fridge. And yes, sometimes you have to let the kids sit in front of a screen so you can get something done.

Distractions at home are innumerable. Like a writer, you need to carve out time and hold it inviolable. For me, that means getting up at 5a, when the house is quiet and the coffee maker is all mine. Those hours before everyone stirs are golden.

It also means getting outside. I'm lucky in Bozeman, Montana, where the lockdown isn't as severe and I can get out easily. However you can, please protect your health and well-being. New York Times columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan reminds of Proverbs 4:23: "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it."

Marty Kearns, board member: Some real help

Environmental Health Sciences friend and board member Marty Kearns has spent as long as us working with remote teams. Founder of Netcentric Campaigns, he just published four lessons learned. His first one is oh-so-true: Be human.

"Humor, empathy, gossip, and chit-chat serve as important socializing and syncing functions among any group of people."

Let conversations go off the rails, he suggests. Pause for celebrations. Make room for chatter. Read Marty's advice here.

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