The Quarantine Diaries

These recent times have been atypical for everyone. Empty streets, closed stores and stay-at-home campaigns have changed our routines, with everything and everyone compelling us to stay home and prevent the spread of COVID-19 .

When speaking with a friend who works as a teacher about this new “home office” routine, and how we’re both trying to adapt to it, she inquired: “But… How is this any different to your normal days? You only need your computer to work, and online meetings are part of everyday routine, right? Isn’t this the same?”

That simple question prompted me to analyze my experience and to write it down. Because it’s not the same. And it’s not just because my office has the best coffee maker in the world, and now I’m settling for instant coffee (send help!). It’s not even because I miss my office friends and lunchtime jokes. I simply miss that feeling of “being at work”, of hearing someone type aggressively when there’s a frustrating bug, or that cheer when that rebellious test finally passes. I miss laughing when one of my friends shouts “shoot, I had a meeting five minutes ago!”, or having someone to duck test my code. I’ve built a work life that I enjoy. I simply love my day to day, and I feel homesick… or should I say officesick?

Since a lot has been said and written about best practices when working from home, I don’t think I can add anything new. However I’d like to add the perspective of having two people working from home in a small apartment. Santiago and I are both software engineers who work at the same company, for two different customers, so I’d like to share some of our tips (and mistakes!) from the time spent so far in confinement. 

Create a comfortable and distraction free place, and try to use it only while working

Often, we feel tempted to say: I’m working from home, I’ll work from the bed, or sofa. Trust me on this one: not the greatest idea. Two hours after I started typing from the couch, my lower back reminded me that I’m no longer twenty (and I’ve never been flexible).

So now,  I’m working at the dining room table (that has been reconverted into my personal desk). I use an extra screen, keyboard and trackpad, so I take up half of the table. I love working with natural light, so this setting is ideal for me, since I have a nice view and lots of light. One disadvantage is that our dining room chairs aren’t ergonomic, but I’ve solved it with a pillow and occasional stretches.  

Santiago prefers his desk chair, so he set up camp in the flat’s office, where he has created an “office vibe”. He doesn’t need as many gadgets as I do, and needs to be able to close his door, since his normal day includes a million meetings (or so it seems from the outside).

So, find a spot where you can be the least distracted and that you can “take over” (for example, not in front of the TV!).

Regarding the computer and screen arrangements, try to position your screens in a way that doesn’t hurt your back. Some recommendations are:

  • Position your monitor so that the top of the screen is at eye level.
  • Your eyes should be looking slightly downward when you’re viewing the middle of the screen.
  • The screen should be about an arm’s length distance.
  • Adjust the tilt to reduce the glare

Divide up the tasks evenly

We usually try to share the chores, but during the day it can be difficult with meetings and calls. So, if one has some extra time before lunch, that person can prepare the meal or set the table, but then the other should clean (if meetings and schedules allow). It’s good for everyone, because both get the chance of having an “active pause” and a break from sitting in front of the computer. Also, as an extra bonus, nobody carries the full weight of chores.

Try to cook before/after work

A fresh cooked meal is always tempting. However, cooking takes time, and even if you have flexible hours, it’s very likely that your teammates are counting on you to be online and available during office hours. What we’re trying to do is to plan the weekly meals ahead, go to the supermarket once a week – early in the morning to avoid long queues – and cook in the evenings. That way, we only need to heat up lunch, and we can enjoy some sofa time before going back to work. 

It’s also a good time to try and hone some skills.  For instance, when cooking, I usually avoid cutting meat because I’m obsessed with cleaning it perfectly, and I take forever. Now, I can try and do it, while he chops the vegetables. His chopping skills have improved greatly, and we have lots of fun (and I no longer cry over onions!). Another plus, I’m getting to overcome my disgust when handling raw chicken, which is usually his task. We’re nowhere near MasterChef, but we still haven’t gotten ourselves poisoned. Yet. 

Know what works for you

In spite of what mainstream media tells us, not all software engineers work with their headphones on from 9 to 5. I, for instance, find it uncomfortable to isolate completely from the world around. So, I play some background music using a small speaker, while still hearing noises around me. I’m considering it implementing this for our small pod back at work! 

Another myth to debunk; not everyone is an early bird, not everyone is a night owl, but everyone has their preferences. If you work with people in other timezones, you can try and find a compromise. For instance, you can start working a couple of hours before the rest, and clock out some hours earlier than the rest. 

I prefer to sit at my desk around 9.00 a.m., before my Slack starts getting notifications. I’m an early bird, and having an hour or two by myself allows me to focus. However, since Santiago enjoys afternoon work, we’re usually working until 6:30 or 7.00 p.m., so logging in before 9.00 would mean working longer hours, which isn’t always the best. 

Disconnect your head when you log out

Not having other plans in the day (no gym, no meeting friends, no family get-togethers) can make us forget about the time. Also, since your desk is just steps away, it can be tempting to continue working “after hours”, especially if there’s a task that we’re craving to finish, or that is highly engrossing. However, try to resist. Taking breaks from work actually boosts your creativity, and helps you tackle the issue with a fresh mind the following day.

We usually try to do something active when we close our laptops (some gym, stretching or going for a quick walk). It usually clears our minds, and lets our minds unwind in an easy way. There are lots of exercise routines online that you can do inside without annoying your neighbors. I personally like Nike’s NTC, which has a wide variety of small routines and it has built in timers. 

Look for shared activities, but also value “selfish time” 

It’s great to create a list of movies to watch, or series to binge on together after work, but it’s also really healthy to do something that you enjoy on your own. It can be reading, gaming, exercising, or watching a show that the other person doesn’t love. It’s fun, and it can give you some interesting conversation topics for dinner! We’re not sure how long this quarantine is going to last, so we should try to take advantage of this time to do those things we never find the time for.

For instance, I’m finishing an online course that I always postponed, and at nights, I sometimes watch an episode of “This is us”. Santiago likes joining his friends for some gaming sessions, and he has some books that have been collecting dust since our holidays finished. I’m thinking of going back to my yoga days. It doesn’t matter what you do; but do something on your own for a little while. 

All in all, we should try and see this crisis as an opportunity to have some nice family time, to slow down and appreciate all the things we usually take for granted. There’s an interesting reflection going around the internet, that says that this disease will teach us to be more selfless, more generous and more caring. I certainly hope it does. Meanwhile, stay safe!