Close Talkers (Video Conference Version)

I’d say that I have participated in more video conference calls over the past three weeks than in the rest of my extended work life, combined.  And, as I participate in the calls, I realize I’ve got a lot to figure out.  Other people do, too.

forehead man wrinkles before and afterRecently I was on a multi-party video call with one of those split screen set-ups.  One of the participants was positioned too close to his camera.  His oversized eyes and forehead, positioned in the upper left corner of my computer screen, loomed over the other talking heads like he was Gulliver among the Lilliputians.  It made me think that, if there was a Seinfeld about life during the coronavirus pandemic, one episode probably would be about close video conference talkers.  (And I expect that, in the COVID-19 Seinfeld world, Kramer would undoubtedly violate all social distancing requirements and still barge into Jerry’s apartment to eat his cereal.)

The gigantic forehead incident made me realize that I need to think carefully about my  video conference presence.  Am I too close to the little glowing dot at the top of my computer screen, or too far away?  Is your video conference head supposed to pretty much fill the screen, or is the proper dimension three-quarters of the screen, or one half?

And the position of the head is important, too — especially for the older guys like me.  If your head is tilted forward, you’re giving the unfortunate viewer a huge dose of your forehead, receding hairline, and thinning scalp.  If you lean back, on the other hand, you’re forcing the viewer to focus on the multiple chins and the vibrating neck wattles.  Either way, it’s not exactly a pretty picture.

There’s also the issue of what kind of attitude you’re projecting with your video position.  If you’re leaning in, you look earnest and engaged, but also perhaps hard of hearing.  If you lean back, your look “cooler,” but maybe uninterested.  And if you’re somebody who uses his hands to accentuate the point you are making, as I do, how can you be sure that the screen is capturing those carefully calibrated gestures?

It’s all pretty confusing for the novice video conferencer who doesn’t want to assume the Gulliver position in the upcoming conference calls.  It makes me think that the picture element adds a really significant dimension to the communication that requires you to give some careful thought to these issues before the calls start, and position yourself accordingly — and deliberately.

Retirement Training

There’s a secret issue lurking deep within the many layers of this coronavirus episode and the “work from home” restrictions imposed by governmental entities, like Ohio, in response to the pandemic.  It’s a delicate, explosive, almost taboo subject that isn’t really being addressed by the people who are directly affected.

retired-couple-riding-bikesThe secret issue is this:  in “boomer” households where one spouse works outside the home and the other doesn’t, the forced “shelter in place” requirements are seen as a kind of trial run for the retirement period that is coming down the road in the near future.  And neither spouse really knows, for sure, how it’s going to work when the one spouse stops trotting off to work on weekdays and ends up hanging around the house with the other spouse all day.  To be sure, they hope that the retirement years will be the golden period of bike-riding and pottery-making togetherness that the commercials depict, but they wonder if the reality is going to be more difficult . . . and darker.

To put it plainly:  is constant togetherness, without the “down time” created when one spouse is off at work, going to drive the stay-at-home spouse nuts?  And is the mere presence of the working spouse during the daytime period going to noticeably interfere with the habits and routines of the spouse who is used to having the run of the home, to do whatever s/he wants, without having the still-working spouse getting in the way or following him/her around like a lost puppy or a bored child who demands attention every waking hour of the freaking day?

Of course, this stay-at-home period isn’t a true trial run for retirement, because the working spouses are supposed to be working from home and, therefore, presumably have things to do that will occupy their time and command their attention.  Still, the need for adjustment is the same.  You might call this shutdown period a kind of partial dry run.  And, in a sense, that makes the situation even more delicate — because if the presence of the working spouse is getting on the stay-at-home spouse’s last nerve even under these circumstances, what’s it going to be like when true retirement comes and there is no work to serve as a distraction?

In households across America, spouses are walking on eggshells.  And if they aren’t, perhaps they should be.

Rethinking “Essential”

As of midnight last night, the State of Ohio has gone under a “shelter in place” order.  That means all residents, like us, are supposed to stay home for the most part, except for designated exceptions like seeking medical care, shopping for necessary supplies, and going out to get fresh air and exercise by walking, biking, or jogging, so long as you maintain that “social distance.”  The order will be in effect until April 6.

Old tools on a wooden tableOne of the more interesting things about the Ohio order is that it designates specific businesses and jobs that are considered “essential” for purposes of operations during the brief shutdown period.  The Ohio list is based on a list prepared by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and you can read about it here.   In a society as complex as ours, with an economy as varied and multi-faceted as ours, you’d expect the list to be an extensive one, and it is.  (And I’m happy to report that lawyers made the list, incidentally.)

The list should get us all thinking, however, about the concept of “essentialness” when a crisis arises.  Obviously, people who provide medical care — doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and the like — and people whose jobs involve facilitating the delivery of medical care, like pharmacists and emergency medical technicians, are at the top of the list.  We should all be grateful for the health care professionals who are truly on the front lines as we deal with COVID-19.  And, of course, police officers and fire fighters are essential in times of crisis, just as they are in more normal times.

But many of the other jobs that are crucially important might be a bit under the radar — and, until now at least, perhaps underappreciated as well.   Like truck drivers who are hauling and delivering needed supplies and driving incredibly long hours to do so.  Like the people at the grocery stores repeatedly stocking the shelves, arranging for new deliveries, and checking out the worried consumers who want the reassurance of ample supplies at home.  Like the postal service and delivery truck drivers who are continuing to bring messages and products to our doorsteps.  Like plumbers, and electricians, and roofers and repairmen who can fix our appliances and keep our homes in working order.

The long and short of it is that many of the truly essential jobs when we get into a pinch are traditional blue-collar-type trades that don’t require a four-year liberal arts college degree.  Those are the people who keep the food supply chain working and the toilets flushing and the lights turned on.  We should all be thankful to them for their hard work and their unrelenting efforts during this period, but when this episode passes — and it will — perhaps we should also rethink the prevailing view that everyone should go to college and go deeply in debt to do so.  Perhaps we should focus, instead, on the concept of “essentialness” and making sure that we’ve got an ample supply of those truly essential tradespeople on hand and ready to serve when the need is critical.

Degrees in comparative philosophy are nice, but in a crisis you just can’t have too many plumbers.

Letting Your Resiliency Roar

If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s that most people are pretty resilient and adaptable.  Bad things happen to us all, for sure, but generally people cheerfully bounce back — and, more importantly, they consciously find a way to bounce back.

1940s-two-women-office-workers-standing-by-office-water-news-photo-1580932806I thought about this yesterday when the B.A. Jersey Girl started a text message chain for those of us who are working together on a particular matter.  With the B.A.J.G. kicking things off, we all shared pictures of our home office set-ups to be used during this work from home period.  There was a wide variance in the home office work spaces shown in the photos, with some people rigging up impressively elaborate arrangements with multiple monitors and printers.  (My kitchen counter arrangement is decidedly at the spartan end of the spectrum, I might add.)  And we got a peek at some dogs and cats that were intrigued that their human friends were home at times that they usually weren’t, and apparently decided to just check things out.  It was funny and fun at the same time.

There’s a social element to work, whether it’s somebody ducking their head into your office to chat about the latest news or family developments, casual greetings in hallways. or friendly banter in the elevator or around the coffee station.  When you work from home, obviously, you’re not getting those in-person encounters — but people are resilient and will find a way to make up for that.  And with technology offering various alternatives, there are work arounds for just about everything.

My guess is that cell phone providers are seeing a real surge in text messaging, face timing, and phone calling to establish that element of human interaction during this period of social distancing.  For office colleagues, it’s a way to make up for lost time around the proverbial water cooler.

Blessed Be The Laptop Makers

For many of us, the primary impact of COVID-19 has been to move our place of work from an office building to home territory.  The coronavirus has really driven home the message that modern technology allows white collar workers to enjoy a flexibility that prior generations just didn’t have.

Think, for a minute, about the impact of the kind of closure measures that were imposed during the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” pandemic, or what the effect of workplace closures being imposed now would have had even 30 years ago when computer networks were in their infancy.  The vast majority of people in those eras would have been thrown out of work because there was no option to work remotely.  But now, thanks to the invention and proliferation of laptops, wireless technology, cellphones, and the internet, a considerable chunk of the American work force can turn off the lights in their offices, remove their laptops from their docking stations, go home, turn on the lights in their kitchens, studies, or dining rooms, log in, enter a password or two, and get right back to work.  We’ve come to take this technology for granted, but it’s really pretty amazing when you stop and think about it.

When something as disruptive as the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 hits, you wonder whether it will have long-term impacts on work habits, social interaction, and other aspects of American culture.  Did the 1918-1919 flu — which was far more pervasive and impactful than the coronavirus, and which led to many closings in an effort to stop the spread of the infection — have such an effect?  I’m not aware of any fundamental social changes that occurred.  But I suspect that what we are doing now will simply spur a trend that was well underway before anyone heard of coronavirus:  working remotely, without being tied to an office building.

Of course, not everyone has the ability to work remotely, and we should all be thinking about what we can do to help those businesses and workers who have been most affected by the closures imposed by authorities.  Kish and I are going to be sure to get carry-out over the next few days, for example, to help support the restaurants and bars that have been shuttered and allow them to maintain some cash flow until things reopen down the road.   

But now, it’s back to work.

Home Cup

I think many of us feel a real urge to try to get the world back to normal as quickly as possible — which for us working stiffs means going to the office and rolling up our sleeves to do our jobs.  At the same time, however, attempts to stop the spread of COVID-19 are only going to work if we take steps to make sure that “social distancing” has a chance to be implemented.  That means we need to listen to our inner Moe Howard, of Three Stooges fame, and “spread out” a bit.  I’m doing my part in that effort by working from home today. 

For me, at least, a key part of the work at home process is to set up a proper work space.  The best spot in my view is our kitchen island, which has a good, wide surface with plenty of room for my laptop and papers, good lighting, and a hard wooden chair to keep my posture in line. 

It’s also important to pick the right accoutrements for the home workspace — the things that signal that you’re really on the job and ready to dig in.  Picking the right coffee cup is a crucial decision, for example.  At the office I’ve got the same stoneware coffee cup that I’ve had since, literally, since I first started law school in 1982 and that has been my dependable office mug ever since I started working at the firm in 1986.  Pouring a steaming hot river of joe into that mug tells me immediately that the work day has begun. 

So, what to do for my home office cup?  I can’t pretend to pick a cup from the motley assortment in our kitchen cabinet that will have the same storied history and workplace kinship as my office mug, but it’s still important to select something that will send the same knuckle-down message.  I’ve decided to eschew the beagle cup and the cups with the southwestern designs in favor of a plain white cup with a row of dots near the rim.  It’s got a solid, no-nonsense feel to it, and also carries a significant volume, which is important when you regulate your coffee intake by trying to remember how many cups you’ve already had during the day.  It’s also got a big surface area, to allow the hot java to cool promptly.

With my coffee cup carefully selected, and the coffee pot charged and brewing, I’m ready to face the work day.  Of course, there will be one key difference between my home workspace and the office — I won’t be allowed to dispose of leftover candies and other goodies by leaving them near the coffee pot.     

Ringing The (Taco) Bell

This year, Taco Bell is going to be experimenting with a new approach to recruiting qualified restaurant managers:  in certain labor markets, it has announced it is willing to pay an annual salary of $100,000 to managers of company-owned Taco Bell stores.

taco-bell-kiosks-digital-strategy-qsrThe Taco Bell initiative is a response to a very difficult labor market for employers.  With the current unemployment rate at historic lows — the product of a strong job market and lots of aging Baby Boomers moving into retirement, among other circumstances — there just aren’t many good candidates out there.  So Taco Bell is going to test, in certain markets in the Midwest and Northeast, whether paying a $100,000 salary brings in a better crop of candidates.  That represents a significant increase over the current starting salary for Taco Bell store managers, which ranges from $50,000 to $80,000.

The Taco Bell manager initiative isn’t the only evidence of a tight job market and wage pressure.  The article linked above notes that other companies operating in the fast-food restaurant market — typically the classic source of low-paying, entry-level jobs — are reporting wage pressure affecting their margins.  Just this week the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in the fourth quarter of 2019, “median weekly earnings of the nation’s 118.3 million full-time wage and salary workers were $936, an increase of 4.0 percent from a year earlier ($900).”  The BLS statistics show wage growth in 2019 above the rate of inflation (which was about 2 percent) in all age categories except workers between 55 and 64, with workers in the 25 to 34 age range showing especially strong wage increases.  And the BLS wage statistics indicate the labor market is particularly good for women, with median weekly earnings for women in 2019 up by 6.2 percent.

Imagine — making a six-figure income as the manager of a Taco Bell!  Your parents never would have thought it was possible.