Overcoming the Disorientation of Telecommuting

Photo of cat on messy home office desk

By Jenny Faust, Associate Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Director, Office of Strategic Consulting

The definition of telecommuting—“working from home, making use of the Internet, email, and the telephone”—is deceptively simple, concealing the profound ways in which this complete and sudden move from office to home has disrupted our lives. When campus announced that all non-essential staff would begin telecommuting as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, for many of us, our initial focus was on the immediate challenge of making sure we had the technological tools we’d need, as well as some ability to use those tools. My first week of telecommuting reinforced these priorities—and also raised a few more.

Learning the Basics of New Technology

Of course, there is a big difference between having the right tools and knowing how to use them. Like many, I learn best in real-life contexts. I jumped into using Webex and Microsoft Teams after a brief review of some online resources. Here’s what I learned on day one:

  • What all (well, most) of the buttons on my screen did (muting audio is critically important, and that screen sharing function is incredibly useful!).
  • What to do when the audio goes out mid-meeting (phone in, and use the chat function to tell others to do the same if their audio is out).
  • How to schedule more meetings using the tools at hand.

On day two, I had a check-in with my supervisor via Webex. With one day of “expertise,” I taught him how to use some of the functions in Webex. And, when the audio went out, we were quickly back up and running via phone. I finished that meeting with the real sense that we could do this!

Competing for “Bandwidth” at Home

Some of my colleagues have run into their own technological challenges—mostly due to Internet bandwidth. Many are at home with their partners and children who are also trying to work and learn from home. This puts a strain on the available bandwidth. I appreciated a couple of the ideas they shared for addressing the issue:

  1. Increase your service agreement to add bandwidth, if that is an option.
  2. Make family schedules for shared resources and spaces, allocating high bandwidth to critical times (e.g., if someone is teaching a synchronous online course).

Maintaining a Schedule

My first week of telecommuting was off to a rocky start when I slept through an 8 a.m. meeting! I had relaxed my usual schedule and not set my alarm (assuming my dogs would wake me; they didn’t). I learned a valuable lesson about sticking to your usual schedule and practices (like setting an alarm!) while telecommuting.

After talking with other colleagues about how they’re keeping their schedules, I’m now setting an alarm, getting up at the same time I normally would, working out (in the basement now, not at the gym), and then getting ready to “go” to work in my home office.

Making Time for “Virtual” Socializing

Telecommuting brings some non-technological challenges as well. I work in a vibrant office where we engage in all sorts of dialogue, from spontaneous project-related conversations and personal check-ins to philosophical and political discussions. I like to stop in to my colleagues’ offices and talk face-to-face. I even like meetings, gathering around a conference table, sharing work needs, triumphs, challenges, and personal milestones.

So the move to exclusively interacting virtually has been challenging on a social level. For many of us, our colleagues are important as social contacts, even (if we are lucky) as friends. How can we maintain this connection while we telecommute?

One way to mitigate the lack of in-person contact is to build social time into our telecommuting lives. Some of my colleagues are scheduling virtual community breakroom lunches. I’ve scheduled and attended “quarantini” video social hours, where we check in with each other while enjoying a beverage of choice from behind our own computers. The conversations are usually a mixture of personal and work topics, just as they were when we met at local bars. This social contact has been extremely uplifting.

Admittedly, my first week of telecommuting was rough. The word ‘disorienting’ came up each time I was asked how it was going. Disorientation is the condition of having lost one’s direction. That seems an apt description of what I was feeling. But I learned a lot that first week, and have started to re-orient to this new way of working—however long it lasts. And, I appreciate the opportunity to muddle through it with some amazing colleagues!