Muddy Work

As a native Midwesterner who grew up about as far from oceans as you can get, I’ve still got a lot to learn about life along the coastline. So I was fascinated to watch these two people taking advantage of the low tide to dig for clams, mussels, quahogs, periwinkles, whelks, or some of the other abundant shellfish that can be found in the seaside mudflats of Maine when the tide rolls out. They were toiling away in the basin between the dock and the rocks just below the Greenhead peninsula.

It looked like very hard work. They were wearing rubber boots that came up to their knees and sank into the mud above their ankles as they dug and searched. You could only imagine the sucking sound the mud must have made on their boots as they moved steadily along, and the smells they experienced, being nose down and only a foot or two from the thick, briny mud. And the tide put a definite deadline on their efforts, because it was only a matter of time before the seawater rushed back in to cover the mud again. It’s not work that permits dawdling.

I can only hope that the mudflats rewarded their efforts, which were interesting to watch.

15 Years Of Goldbricking

According to the BBC, an Italian civil servant is being investigated for collecting his salary, but not working . . . for 15 years. If the suspected facts turn out to be true, the public employee at issue has taken goldbricking–the ability to shirk meaningful work on the job while still getting paid–to entirely new, heretofore unexplored levels.

According to the BBC story, the individual “worked” at a hospital in the Italian town of Catanzaro. He stopped showing up in 2005, and nevertheless received full pay for the next 15 years and was reportedly paid more than 500,000 Euros during that period. His case came to light as part of a police investigation into rampant absenteeism and payroll fraud in the Italian public sector. Six managers at the hospital also are subjects of the investigation.

So, how did this happen, exactly? It’s not entirely clear, but the BBC article indicates that the employee was going to be the subject of a disciplinary charge by his manager when he threatened the manager. She didn’t file the report and then retired, and her successor, and the hospital’s HR staff, never noticed the employee’s absence. In the meantime, he kept getting his paychecks.

This impressive goldbricking feat sounds like an episode from Seinfeld or The Sopranos, or the plot for Office Space II. One thing the BBC story doesn’t disclose is what, exactly, the employee’s job was supposed to be. The reader is left to wonder: what paying position could be deemed necessary to create in the first place, but could be so inconsequential that no one would notice it wasn’t being done?

Liquid Normalcy

In normal times, I’m a big office water fountain guy. There’s a water fountain on my floor, only a few steps away from my office. I would twist the little white knob and take a healthy draught of ice cold water at least a dozen times a day, maybe more. It’s refreshing, and my doctor says it’s good for me, and it’s one of the few easy things I can do to comply with those nagging aspirational physician lifestyle suggestions. Walking to the water fountain for a drink is also a good way to take a quick break and think about what I’m working on, away from the glow of the computer screen.

But since the COVID pandemic hit, our office water fountain has been closed down. There’s a sad sign on it saying that it has been deactivated as part of our office pandemic protocols. As a result, if I want to have a drink of water at the office, I need to fill up my coffee cup with tap water at the communal sink, rather than getting a brisk drink directly from the bubbler.

It’s not the same. The water temperature isn’t as frigid and bracing, and in my mind I also intuitively think that I’m just drinking some tap water, rather than water fountain water. (It’s probably exactly the same water, of course, but just try getting your subconscious brain to rationally accept that fact.)

Many places are struggling to figure out how to reopen their work spaces, and many workers like me are looking for signs that we’re finally getting back to whatever is going to be defined as “normal” once the pandemic is over. For me, one of the leading economic indicators of being back to normal will be the removal of that sad sign, and the opportunity to drink some of that cold water fountain water again.

Pandemiflab

When the COVID-19 lockdowns started, I remember getting texts from friends with memes consisting of before and after photos showing people gaining weight during the lockdown period. We chuckled at them then. Now a newly released study cites evidence that people in fact did put on weight during the shutdown–and it’s really no laughing matter.

The study involved adult participants from 37 states and the District of Columbia who were monitored between February 1 and June 1 last year. The study indicates that, once shutdown orders were implemented in their locations, the adults began gaining weight at a rate of 0.6 pound every 10 days, or roughly a pound and a half of body weight a month. Researchers attribute the weight gain to the effect of shelter-in-place and office shutdown orders that curtailed everyday activities like walking from an office desk to a conference room or walking to the subway and standing to wait for a train. Those little snippets of exercise during the day add up, and people working from home and sitting on their behinds all day don’t get them. Add in the fact that people reported eating and drinking more during the shutdown, and you’ve got the recipe for weight gain.

Gaining a pound and a half a month may not sound like much, but multiply 1.5 pounds by the number of months the various shutdowns were imposed in different states, or authorities were encouraging people to stay at home to curb spikes and hot spots, and you’ve got more than the “freshman 10” weight gain that people talked about back in college. That’s a lot of weight for people to add in a country where obesity had already become one of the largest public health challenges. And, as any adult knows, once you’ve put on that extra weight, trying to take it off isn’t easy–particularly if you’ve fallen into bad habits.

Once the pandemic period finally ends, we’ll start to get some perspective and meaningful data on whether the prolonged shutdown orders, including the current recommendations that even fully vaccinated people should stay at home if they can, were sound public policy decisions. That involves balancing the impact of those orders on the incidence of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations against a number of other factors, like depression, suicide, economic disruption and job loss, child development . . . and basic public health issues, like daily exercise, alcohol consumption, and weight gain. We should reserve judgment until all of the meaningful data comes in, but the study noted above shows that there are negative public health consequences to shutdown orders that need to be carefully balanced against the positive effects. It’s pretty clear that the analysis is not going to show a simple, one-sided story.

The Arc Of A Year

This week marked the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of our office and the beginning of the remote work period. I’ve been reflecting on that year and our ever-changing, shifting, constantly morphing reaction to it. We’ve all gone through our own stages during the past 12 months, in a way comparable to the classic notion of the seven successive stages of grief: at first shock and denial, followed by pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, the upward turn, reconstruction and working through, and finally acceptance and hope.

The first stage, for me at least, involved feelings of newness and trepidation; I’d never worked from home before, so the technological and behavioral challenges of doing so were interesting and a bit daunting. And there was a certain giddiness to the idea of not going to the office; I remember sharing photos with colleagues of what we had made for lunch during that first week of remote work, and doing a lot of texting.

Then that constant texting stopped, the interest in making different lunches ended, and there was a creeping realization that what was initially presented as a brief interlude was going to last a lot longer than people thought. Weddings, vacations, sporting events, and other things on the calendar got cancelled or delayed indefinitely, and those developments packed a punch. And we wondered, with an element of deep concern, about what a prolonged shutdown would all mean for the economy, our families, and our friends.

This was followed by a settling-in period, where people accepted that remote working was going to be the rule and the work needed to get done, so we would just have to deal with it. New routines were established and adopted, home working spaces were identified, defined, upgraded and reconfigured, and Amazon got a workout.

Then the sameness or staying inside and working in the same setting, day after day, set in, and people began to think more creatively about the situation and whether they could combine working remotely with a much-needed change of scenery. People moved around to change things up. Some people started going back to the office more frequently, while others changed their base of operations to lake houses, second homes, or rentals just to break up the monotony.

As working remotely went on and on, ultimately we hit the trough. I think it began in later autumn, as the pandemic continued to rage and we were heading into winter with no apparent end in sight. That was followed by a grim realization that we would just have to put our heads down, take it one day at a time, and just soldier on through the bleak winter months.

The current stage seems to be one of vaccine-fueled hope that the true end of the shutdown is coming someday soon, coupled with an uneasy wariness. I think the wariness recognizes that there could be more disappointments and case spikes and the discovery of new coronavirus variations ahead, but also involves an acknowledgement that there might be a different “new normal” lurking ahead that we’ll also have to adjust to, somehow.

Dare we say it? We want this to be the last stage, but this year has trained us not to get our hopes up too high.

That Outdoor Urge

Yesterday the temperatures were still cold, but it was bright and sunny. It’s clear that we are on the cusp of spring, and I felt this irrepressible urge to go outside and do something. Not just take a walk — actually do something that would fall into the “outdoor chore” category.

So I gave in to the impulse, bundled up against the cold breeze, put on my sunglasses, and went outside ready to do just about anything. I swept out the back porch to remove all of the leaves and dirt and dust that had gathered there over the winter, swept the patio stones and the brick walkway, surveyed the trees and shrubs, and picked up leaves and twigs so that the backyard and patio would be free of debris and our little pod of grass would have the best possible spring growth conditions.

Then I moved to the front of the house, swept the front steps and the brickwork, swept the front sidewalk, and collected and disposed of the flotsam and jetsam that had emerged from underneath the accumulated pile of snow in our front beds. I even retrieved a plastic grocery bag that was blowing down the street like a tumbleweed, and then used it as I walked up and down the street to pick up some of the inevitable post-snowmelt litter, so that our neighborhood would be ready for spring, too. At the end of the process I surveyed my efforts and internally pronounced them as good.

I’m a big believer in the notion of human beings reacting, instinctively, to seasonal changes. I certainly feel that I do. The days grow longer, the sun shines, the world grows greener bit by bit, and you can feel a surge of energy after the winter doldrums. It’s a good feeling.

The Pleasures Of Paper

Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.

It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.

Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.

I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.

My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.

Taxing Remote Workers

Many of us have been working remotely since the coronavirus pandemic hit in earnest last March. If your place of work and place of residence are in the same state, there’s no problem. But what if you live in one state and would work in another state — that is, if you were still going into the office? Which state gets to share in the tax revenue on your income?

New Hampshire is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to directly answer that very question, in a challenge to a Massachusetts law that says Massachusetts may tax nonresidents who used to work in the state but now work from home instead. Other states are interested, too — some because they have tax laws similar to Massachusetts (like New York and five other states) and some because they are losing tax revenues as a result of such laws (like New Jersey and Connecticut).

The stakes are high, because the treatment of remote worker taxes can mean big bucks for state budgets. New Jersey, for example, estimates it will credit thousands of New Jersey residents who used to work in New York City, but now work remotely, for about $1.2 billion in income taxes paid to New York starting in March 2020. In an era where COVID shutdowns have cost countless jobs, and many state budgets are dealing with the lower tax revenues generated by the decreased economic activity, the treatment of taxes to remote workers could tip the balance between a balanced state budget and a budget that is in the red.

The Massachusetts law being challenged in the Supreme Court was adopted in April 2020; Massachusetts said the law just maintains the status quo income tax treatment of remote workers so Massachusetts won’t have to determine precisely where they are working during the pandemic. New Hampshire, which doesn’t have an income tax, says that by taxing New Hampshire residents who formerly commuted but now are actually working from home, Massachusetts is invading New Hampshire’s sovereignty and violating the due process and commerce clauses of the Constitution. New Hampshire has invoked the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction, which allows one state to sue another state directly in the high court, without going through lower courts, if the Court gives them permission to do so. The Supreme Court has asked the Biden Administration to weigh in on whether it should take the case. There’s some urgency to this issue, both because of the budget crisis in many states and because tax season is just around the corner.

Taxation of remote workers is just one of the many interesting legal issues that are going to be addressed as a result of the pandemic, the governmental shutdown orders, and the resulting disruption of what used to be normal practices — practices that now may be morphing into a “new normal” where remote work is much more commonplace. And you can be sure of one thing: when a legal issue raises the prospect of shifting billions of dollars of tax revenue, you can expect cash-hungry states with their eyes on their budgets to fight like cats and dogs for every cent.

Back To The Cup

I went back to the office this past week, to make sure I had a sound connection for a videoconference. The office wasn’t the same, of course — the hallways were darkened, there was no one around, and the water fountain on my floor was turned off as part of our COVID-19 protocols. And wearing masks in the common areas is mandatory.

But at least I got to drink some coffee from the stoneware cup that has been a part of every workspace I’ve had since I received it as a gift just before starting law school in the fall of 1982. It felt good to have that familiar, comfortable heft of that specific cup in my hand as I slurped down my coffee. In fact, the deep-seated familiarity of the whole experience made the coffee taste a little bit better.

We’re still a ways away from getting back to normal—whatever “normal” is going to be—but quaffing some hot coffee from my favorite mug helped me to realize that the “normal” is still there, waiting for us to return from this weird period and reengage with our routines. I liked that feeling, too.

Random Pens

This morning the pen I was using ran out of ink. I felt around in the pocket of my work satchel and pulled out a fistful of potential replacements, and realized that my bag carries the most random assortment of cheap pens you can imagine.

I’ve got some unbranded pens that I picked up at the supply closet on my floor at the firm, as well as one branded Vorys pen that was sent out by the firm with some fanfare years ago and that I feel like I should save for a special occasion where using the branded pen would be warranted. (I haven’t quite figured out what that special occasion might be, but perhaps I’ll instinctively know it when It arrives.) Then I’ve somehow acquired a pen from a bank, two pens from hotels, and a pen from a tire and auto parts shop. Other than the pens from the firm supply closet, I have no recollection of how I got any of these pens.

I’ve also got some slightly higher quality pens in the mix, but I have no idea how I got them, either. I’m not a pen snob. I can’t justify laying out the money for a high end fountain pen or weighty Cross Bailey with replaceable cartridges, which in my view should be reserved for people with fine handwriting who write important letters on fine stationery. I don’t fall into that category. I’ll use pretty much any pen that is at hand because my handwriting stinks and the only person who is going to read my scribbled notes on legal pads is me.

I carry around more pens than is necessary, but I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry and I don’t want to find that I’m out of pens when I really need one. And in looking at this motley collection of writing instruments, I realize that the pen pocket of my satchel is the workplace equivalent of my sock drawer. For me, at least, the sock drawer ends up being a repository of one-offs that I keep around in hopes of finding the other sock someday. My pen pocket is the same way because you never know when you might really need a cheap pen.

My Incredible Shrinking World

Yesterday I went to the office. As I prepared to cross Livingston Avenue, which is the boundary between German Village and downtown Columbus, I realized with a start how rare it is for me to leave our neighborhood these days. The sad reality is that my personal world has become awfully small.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I traveled regularly to different cities for business and recreation, stayed in hotels and cared about the points I was racking up on my different hotel rewards programs, and walked through airports without a second thought, trying to figure out the most healthy eating options on Concourse A. We entertained friends and family and were entertained by friends and family and went to their houses or met them at restaurants and talked about whatever. We enjoyed dinners at different eateries, and went to movies and live musical performances. On weekdays, I walked downtown to the office, checked out what was going on in the downtown area, talked to people in the hallways and elevators, and typically ate lunch at different places with friends from work.

None of that happens anymore. All of that interaction, that getting out and about, is pretty much gone. We drove to and from Maine this year, but that’s been it on the travel front. I worked at the dining room table and the kitchen table of our place in Maine and rarely left Little Deer Isle, just as I spend most of my days at our kitchen island or at the dining room table in our German Village home. If you graphed the amount of time I’ve spent sitting at the kitchen island over time, you’d see the biggest, most abrupt upward spike imaginable.

I’m not complaining about this — it’s just the reality of the current circumstances, and there’s no point in complaining about reality. But the way my personal world has narrowed is pretty remarkable. I’m ready to get out there and start experiencing different things and different places again and enjoying some of the mental stimulation that accompanies it. And I’ve decided I’m going to start going to the office from time to time, just to broaden my horizons even a little bit.

A Cookie-Free Christmas

As regular readers of this blog know, my annual tradition is to bake holiday cookies for clients and friends as a humble token of my appreciation. At this time of year, I would normally be scouring the internet baking websites, old cookbooks, and ethnic recipes for new Christmas cookies to bake and add to the mix.

This year, regrettably, I’m going to break the tradition.

There are several reasons for my decision, all of which stem from the coronavirus scourge. Many of my clients’ offices are closed, and people are working remotely. Part of the idea of the tradition is to send a batch of cookies that can be put out at the office coffee station that everyone could share and enjoy as a small pleasure and little taste of the holiday spirit. Thanks to COVID-19, those office gathering points simply don’t exist this year.

I also think there are safety questions about baking and then shipping handmade cookies. The health care authorities carefully say there is “no evidence” that coronavirus is spread through cooked food, and I take them at their word. But there’s more to the issue than that. The cookie exercise requires getting the ingredients at the store, buying tins, baking the cookies, and then having them shipped and delivered. In an era where we are being urged to reduce our contacts with people, that’s a lot of points of contact that could be avoided by not baking the cookies in the first place.

And I’ve also come to realize that there is a pretty broad spectrum of personal reactions to the ongoing pandemic. At one end of the spectrum are people who are still largely isolating and won’t go to restaurants, at the other end are fatalists who think we’ve overreacted and are willing to take their chances in doing just about anything, and there are lots of different points of view in between those two poles. I don’t know whether the recipients would feel uncomfortable about getting some home-baked cookies delivered to their door–and potentially causing that kind of reaction would be inconsistent with the whole point of the exercise in the first place.

So, I’ve reluctantly concluded there will be no cookie baking this holiday season. It makes me wistful, but a lot of traditions have been interrupted this year. Next year, the fates and vaccine manufacturers willing, maybe I’ll do a double batch to compensate for the Cookie-Free Christmas of 2020.

The Last Day Of The Four-Day Weekend

There’s a special quality to the last day of the four-day Thanksgiving weekend holiday. Those of us of a certain age remember working on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but those days are long gone for most white-collar workers. Now it’s generally accepted that we’re looking at four solid days off. And frankly, by the time late November rolls around, we can use a four-day holiday — this year especially.

Each day of those four days has its own identity and personality. Thursday is all about The Meal and the excitement surrounding it. Friday is devoted to regretting your Thanksgiving overindulgence and catching up with your guests. Friday is the day for meaningful conversation. By Saturday, everyone has settled in and caught up; Saturday is a day for just enjoying each other’s company. And when Sunday rolls around, the goal is to wring every last drop of enjoyment out of the holiday weekend before it regrettably comes to a close.

This year, the four-day weekend seems to have been quieter and simpler. There may have been some Black Friday shopping sale craziness somewhere, but if so there wasn’t much of it. 2020 has sucked in more ways than we can count, but it least it has discouraged people from going out and engaging in brawls with other shoppers trying to get that last big-screen TV on sale. This year, Thanksgiving seems to have gotten back to its family-oriented roots.

Enjoy Day 4. We won’t see it’s like again until Thanksgiving 2021.

Aspirational Screensavers

Our firm’s computer system recently changed to a new approach to screensavers, taking another quantum leap forward in information technology. When I first got a desktop computer back in the early ’90s, the big screensaver development allowed you to create a message that would scroll from left to right on your screen when your computer went into “sleep” mode. (Mine was “parturient montes, nascetur mus.”) A later upgrade allowed the technologically adept to upload a favorite picture of your kids as your screensaver.

With our firm’s latest advance, we get an ever-changing menu of beautifully framed photographs of evocative faraway places, ancient towns carved into mountainsides, colorful wild animals, and balloons drifting over rugged, exotic scenery under a clear blue sky. I always have two reactions to every one of the screensavers: (1) I wish they would tell me where this picture was taken, so I could try to go there one of these days; and (2) boy, that place looks a heck of a lot more interesting than the scene out my kitchen window.

I’m curious about the psychology (if any) behind the new screensavers. Did anyone do any kind of survey or testing to determine the impact of the wondrous photos on workplace morale and motivation? Did they attempt to determine how many people are just going to stare dreamily at the latest photo to pop up on their laptop, wishing they could be wherever that photo was taken rather than getting ready to start another day of working from home during a pandemic? Or is the thinking that we worker bees will be incentivized by the beautiful photos to work even harder and become more successful in hopes of being able to travel to those fabulous places one of these days?

On balance, I guess I like the screensavers and their depiction of a gorgeous, tranquil world. I wonder, though, whether it wouldn’t be smart to put into the mix some real-world photos of abandoned factories or Chernobyl to remind us that it’s not all puppies and cotton candy out there, and we need to put our noses back to the grindstone.

Back To Kindergarten Rules

We’re all still getting used to video conferencing and Zoom and Teams calls, but I’ve decided there are things I like about them. In a way, they take us back to first principles, and the basic, threshold lessons in interpersonal conduct that we first learned back in kindergarten.

Take the “raise your hand” feature. When was the last time you raised your hand to be called on for anything? But you learned about the importance of raising your hand from your kindergarten teacher — mine was named Mrs. Radick, by the way — who got you to understand that if every kid in the class tried to talk at once it would be chaos, which is why there had to be some mechanism to allow order to prevail. Of course, the same concept applies to a multi-party video call, which would quickly devolve into bedlam and gibberish without a method of organization. That’s why I like the “raise your hand” feature, and the fact that it reminds me of grade school days doesn’t hurt, either.

Other kindergarten concepts apply to video calls, too — like taking your turn, and trying not to interrupt the person who is speaking, which means waiting a decent period after the speaker appears to be done to account for potential technological glitches. These rules are essential to making video technology work, but they also embody core concepts of politeness and civility. I’m sure there are video calls that turn into unfortunate shouting matches, but I’d guess that, on the whole, video calls are more well-mannered and the participants tend to be more deferential and well-behaved than in direct, in-person interaction. The use of the mute button, to make sure that the discussion isn’t interrupted by barking dogs of the garbage truck rolling down the street, is another form of courtesy.

Mrs. Radick would approve of all of this.