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Three months working from home: Brookings communicators reflect on challenges and opportunities

On March 12, Brookings Institution President John R. Allen announced to the staff that our mandatory telework protocol would commence at the end of the day on Friday, March 13. This determination followed weeks of internal planning as the novel coronavirus began to spread throughout the United States in late February and early March, and as we watched with anxiety and empathy as COVID-19 swept through many countries, including China, Italy, Iran, and Spain.

Now, three months into a telework plan that has Brookings staff working remotely through at least Labor Day, I am reflecting on how I and my colleagues in the Office of Communications at Brookings transitioned from an office suite near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., to our individual homes across the region—from Virginia, to D.C., to Maryland, and even to Pennsylvania. So, I asked my colleagues about their experiences in working from home. What have been the challenges? Have there been unexpected benefits? Will we ever go back to the way things used to be?

Preparing to work from home

Brookings began to implement significant changes to its public activities in early March. On March 9, President Allen determined that all in-person public events—which are managed by Office of Communications staff—would no longer be open to the general public, and that our cafeteria—well-known up and down Massachusetts Avenue—would be restricted to Brookings employees only. Also, business travel was cancelled through the end of the month. We started to hear about other organizations cancelling events; talk about working from home became common. I wondered how much longer I should still ride the Metro train into the city. We knew a work-from-home announcement was coming any day, but we didn’t know when, or how long it would last. I noted in my personal “coronavirus diary” on Wednesday, March 11: “Sky leaden. Feeling of deep foreboding.”

“We all knew it was coming, but we didn’t know when it would end and what the centralized response would be.”

Throughout those weeks, my colleagues and I prepared work plans with our supervisors, began a protocol of thoroughly cleaning our offices and public spaces, and identified and tested tools and applications that we might need to work remotely. Paula Kostiuk, special assistant to the vice president of communications and the department’s representative on the institution’s COVID-19 Task Force, explained to me that, “As the situation progressed, I was tasked with helping prepare the team for a telework transition with an unknown end date. Quickly auditing our technology capabilities, compiling digitally accessible resources and coordinating video conferencing platform trainings were a key part of our preparations.”

Despite our intensive preparations, the official announcement that mandatory telework would commence as of March 13. brought the situation into sharp relief. Now it would be time to stop planning and start working from home full-time, not just occasionally when the need arose.

Camilo Ramirez, senior director for external relations (and, as director of the Brookings Podcast Network, my supervisor), said that he anticipated we’d be working from home for an extended period, so he cleared out his office that day. “This included my laptop, keyboard, mouse, speakers, second monitor, etc.,” Ramirez said. “I remember a colleague seeing me leaving the building and jokingly said ‘are you planning to come back?’”

Kostiuk was looking out for the whole office suite (an entire building floor): “We all knew it was coming, but we didn’t know when it would end and what the centralized response would be,” she said. Recalling the 2018–19 federal government shutdown that furloughed thousands of employees for 35 days, she added that “I was hyper aware of the experiences of my peers returning to offices with dead plants and smelly kitchens. After quickly going through a mental check list of my needs (a laptop, the folder of loose papers I frequently reference), I started thinking of all the things that got left behind during the shutdown. I now have five adopted office plants in my one-bedroom apartment.”

“It’s quite a unique experience to be working from home during a global pandemic with mass shutdowns.”

I’ve never been able to keep a plant alive in an office, but I made sure to extract all food products from my desk drawers and took home a stack of papers and folders related to current projects. I and most of my colleagues chose to start teleworking that Friday, but Kostiuk and a couple of other colleagues were the last to leave on Friday afternoon, plants in hand, kitchen refrigerator cleaned out, lights turned off.

The couch, or a home office?

And so, we went home to work. Ed Berkey, director for A/V and studio services, whose team manages the TV/radio studio and runs webcasts for events, said that “Luckily, my home office was in pretty good shape.” Andrea Risotto, associate vice president for communications (and at present the acting VP while our VP is on leave), explained that “I have a lot of experience working from home from years of doing international climate and environment work with colleagues and projects based around the globe. But,” she added, “it’s quite a unique experience to be working from home during a global pandemic with mass shutdowns.”

I started my own work-from-home journey on the couch in our library, but soon occupied my wife’s office. Being the family member who had an external office to go to, we never thought I’d need an in-house office. Since the initial guidance from Brookings leadership was that we would be teleworking for three weeks, I felt comfortable sitting on a cozy chair with an ottoman, with my pile of papers in a box next to me, and a lap desk for my laptop.

But as day folded into day, the need for more permanent solutions to our home work environments became apparent. Near the end of March, based on consideration of conditions in the D.C. region, as well as a number of health and safety factors, President Allen determined that telework would extend through at least April 24 (this was later extended to June 1, and then through Labor Day). We were going to be working from home for months, not weeks.

My wife and I invested in an office-quality chair (you know, the kind that moves up and down, tilts, and swivels) and a little desk on wheels that we might repurpose in the future. Kostiuk described how at her home “the challenge has been finding that perfect spot to work from. Not having a dedicated space has blurred the work life balance, and the allure of working from the couch wore off quickly. It’s been difficult to create a routine when I use the same table for dining, work and leisure time.” Berkey described how he “had to re-wire our home network to provide hard-wired connections to the two laptops needed to run Zoom public events,” and that “we realized quickly we needed to provide laptops and second displays to all the A/V-Studio team members to facilitate remote production of public events.” Risotto said she has just moved to a new home, and thus “one of my biggest priorities is creating a dedicated office space.” Ramirez shared that he has had a functioning home office since March.

The things we miss

But, working from home successfully is not just about having a dedicated space, or a comfortable chair. Part of our work now is developing brand-new routines, finding substitutes for all of our old practices in ways that lead to success and avoid burnout. The coffeeshops were we went for an afternoon break are out of reach; the office kitchen where we chatted about that last meeting—or the last episode of The Mandalorian—is unavailable; the gyms where we started or ended our days have been closed. “The most important thing for my teleworking success,” Risotto told me, “has been creating a strong routine, particularly at the start of the day. It’s easy to run into the trap of working crazy hours when there are minimal boundaries between work and home. I don’t begin answering emails until I am sitting down at my computer and I make sure to take breaks during the day, including for lunch.”

“Everyone is balancing different personal and professional challenges and it’s critical that staff attend to their personal well-being in addition to their professional responsibilities.”

Ramirez, whose job is literally building and maintaining relationships, offered that “I am an extrovert who gets energy and ideas from the people I interact with. Zoom is a great tool, but it does not replace the genuine interaction I used to have daily with colleagues.” Similarly, Berkey noted the challenge of “lack of direct communication to staff during public events” via webinar, and instead having to use landlines, texting, and intercom apps. Kostiuk, who in her role as assistant to the VP contributes project management expertise to a wide-range of endeavors, explained that “as someone in a support role, I’ve found it challenging to ‘feel the pulse’ of my team. In the office it’s easy to figure out what the needs of the teams are through pre-meeting small talk and hallway conversations; at home those cues are harder to decipher.”

Keeping up morale and self-care

Part of the experience of working with other people in an office environment is socializing with them—either around the halls, in the terrific Brookings cafeteria, or at happy hours. This engagement contributes to good morale, which contributes to high-quality work. On March 13, these opportunities ended. In our new work-from-home era, we quickly discovered the value of maintaining connections on screen. As Kostiuk put it, “As a team we have made it a point to check in on each other through group chats and virtual happy hours [which, I must point out, she has arranged], and our leadership has done a great job fostering a culture of transparency. We acknowledge that COVID-19 is presenting unique challenges for each of us and that increased communication, grace and assistance have been able to alleviate some of the strain.” She added that tele-meetings allow us to get a “sneak peek” into colleagues’ home lives, “a nice way to see how they express themselves outside of an office setting and I hope we can meld that self-expression into our work lives more in the future.

“Managing two kids who are remote learning and finding time to feed them and myself each day around meeting and events has been a stress.”

Risotto echoed this sentiment, expressing her gratitude that “almost every call with colleagues begins with a few minutes of us checking in on one another. It’s helpful to know that we are all trying to feel our way through this together.”

No matter what our personal situations are—whether or not we are parents, have pets, live alone, have older relatives to care for, etc.—we all have unique challenges in balancing working from home with everything else already on our plates. With the gym closed, I’ve missed my thrice-weekly body-blasting group workout—and my fitness has suffered for it. Our colleagues who are parents of school-aged children (including me) have had to adapt to new, remote learning environments while staying focused on work commitments. And yet, it’s become normal to see or hear colleagues’ children during work and social video calls. Pets, too (mostly cats). Kostiuk’s cat video-bombs every meeting she’s in—“it’s amazing how she can sleep all day and then wake-up at the exact moment it’s my turn to speak.”

One colleague got married in the midst of the pandemic, having a pared-down wedding that she didn’t anticipate four months ago. At least two moved during this time, including Risotto. She shared that her greatest challenge is “actively managing against overwhelming anxiety. I am very mindful of what I consume,” Risotto added, “from food to news to social media. I try to spend free time watching movies and TV shows that make me laugh or leave me inspired. I make sure to exercise every day and take long walks with my dog.”

We are also getting adjusted to spending a lot more time with our loved ones at home, which is great but is … new. As Berkey succinctly put it, “managing two kids who are remote learning and finding time to feed them and myself each day around meeting and events has been a stress.” I enjoy spending more time with my family—and not commuting two hours daily—but I still need to take time for a walk alone to listen to podcasts. Ramirez shared that while his partner used to travel internationally almost every month, COVID-19 has meant he is at home. “While we were nervous about being around one another all the time,” he said, “it has been great to have him around and reconnect.”

Risotto emphasized that “flexibility is key to getting through this time.” Everyone “is balancing different personal and professional challenges and it’s critical that staff attend to their personal well-being in addition to their professional responsibilities.”

Still mission-focused

A key mission of the Office of Communications at Brookings is to distribute, share, and amplify the research and ideas of the over 300 scholars of the institution, and to collaborate with other communications professionals in the organization on projects including interactive data presentations, online events, podcasts, social media campaigns, book publishing, website management, and relations with media, congressional offices, and external partners. As Risotto, our associate VP, described it: “Over the past few months, Brookings experts have been incredibly active analyzing events at home and abroad. To date, our experts have published over 700 pieces of content on COVID-19 alone. The Communications team plays a part in almost all of it and so we are busier than ever.” Berkey expressed it this way: “I’m still amazed at the quality and number of public events Brookings has been able produce remotely. If you had asked me six months ago to produce public events from home, I think my head would have exploded. I’m proud of how well Brookings has adapted and embraced a new paradigm.”

“I don’t really envision office life will ever return to the way it once was,  and staff have proven that working from home can deliver the same results.”

During the last three months, we’ve collaborate with scholars and our fellow communicators and staff throughout Brookings to launch and promote major new initiatives, including: 19A: The Brookings Gender Equality series (celebrating the centenary of the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote); Reopening America and the World, a series of essays on lessons learned from the U.S. and global response to the coronavirus; and How We Rise, a new blog focused on policy solutions to end structural racism and create a more equitable society. The latter project coincides with the widespread protests against police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Looking ahead, with gratitude

As I and my colleagues look ahead to what our summer and fall might look like, we recognize the privilege we have to be able to do our work remotely. The Brookings Institution’s leadership—including our department’s leadership—our information technology department, the human resources staff, and so many others have made it possible to successfully transition from the office to the home environment, and to have the tools needed to do the work. We have homes, food, internet connections, and income, and we recognize that many people in our communities across this nation—and the world—do not enjoy these benefits. In this vein, boosting the work of our scholars on what it means to be an essential worker in this environment is particularly important. I echo what Risotto told me: “I do not take for granted that I am extremely privileged to be able to work from home.”

What changes will fall 2020 bring? At present, our work-from-home situation is scheduled to last through Labor Day, September 7. This could change as our institution’s president and other leaders monitor criteria for reopening safely. But we’re pretty sure we won’t be returning to the way things were before March. “I don’t really envision office life will ever return to the way it once was,” Camilo Ramirez said, “and staff have proven that working from home can deliver the same results. I envision Brookings instituting a much more flexible tele-work schedule for all staff, even if we can physically go in.” Ed Berkey sees the possibility that his A/V-Studio team “will split time between the office and home, maybe rotating weeks on/off site. I hope the remote public event model will open Brookings minds to changing how we stage public events moving forward, enabling new and more creative/engaging event formats.”

Andrea Risotto reflected that “It’s my hope that 2020 is a moment of great catharsis for our country. It’s hard to imagine the world feeling the same after COVID-19 is no longer an immediate risk.” Continuing, she said:

If nothing else, we’ve learned just how connected we all are, even when we are physically in different places. I believe there is an opportunity for more work places to embrace flexibility in work environments. I also hope we see more support broadly for employee well-being and professional and personal balance. At Brookings, I imagine we will emerge from this time with a unique bond and some funny stories to share for years to come.

Paula Kostiuk offered a broad perspective as well, sharing that, in addition to the long-term health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, “I believe it will have a long-term impact on the way we work together as a society.” She continued:

COVID-19 is the hard reset button on what it means to work and live. I feel very fortunate that Brookings has made strong commitments to its employees during these uncertain times, but I often think about those that COVID-19 has left behind. I hope corporations take a hard look at what it means to be essential and how we can increase protections to those individuals who are still on the front lines.

In 21-years on the staff of the central communications team (the longest tenure of any of my colleagues), I have worked with scores of talented professionals and under the leadership of inspiring vice presidents. But at no time did our department—and the institution we serve—face such challenging professional and personal circumstances. In confronting these times—from COVID-19, to justice and equality for, especially, Black Americans, to continuing national and global issues—I can say, from decades of experience, that I could not be in better company as I am now, even though from home.

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