Spotty Internet, neck pain, needy pets: The weirdness of working from home in the Covid-19 age

Tens of thousands of people are working from home with no idea of how long it will be. — Bloomberg

After one day working from home, Diana Zaslaw's neck hurt. She started Monday in her Outer Richmond house standing at the kitchen counter. Then sitting at the table. Next the couch. And finally, lying on her bed.

"I can barely turn my head right now," she said Tuesday. "I've had this before, I know it doesn't end well."

The director of production for a small ad agency in the Presidio made the call to not go in to work to limit the spread of the coronavirus for the foreseeable future. It wasn't as much for herself as for people more vulnerable: her immune-compromised mother, sister and uncle – the last quarantined in his apartment in a Santa Cruz retirement community.

But Zaslaw said she sees it as the future with coronavirus cases rising: "I feel ahead of the curve."

She's far from alone. Last week, a wave of tech companies urged employees to work from home, clearing out offices around the Bay Area. Tens of thousands of people are working from home with no idea of how long it will be.

The result is living mates jostling for workspace. Virtual "going out for lunch" on three-way conference calls. Tech employees used to office perks now buying their own coffee. Pets trying to climb on the keyboard.

Working from home is not possible for everyone – low-income, gig or contract workers who don't have that option are hurting the most from the coronavirus' economic impact, although some tech companies are still paying them. It's also a public health measure intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus. And for employees suddenly confined to their homes, complete with roommates, pets and perhaps not enough desks, it involves navigating plenty of quirks.

Joseph Ansanelli, CEO of Gladly, a San Francisco customer service software firm, has had bad luck working from home so far: his three-year-old laptop started smoking in the middle of a Zoom call. He put it in his backyard and is using his iPad now.

Ansanelli told his 130 employees on Friday to begin working remotely Monday. He didn't lock the office down, he said, because some people may have roommates and can't stay home. He doesn't know how long – or how disruptive – it will be. If schools close, the husband and father of two young kids said there will be a whole other level of complexity on people's lives.

Jake Rushing, an Android app developer with startup ZeeMee in Redwood City, was surprised when his company told him to work from home.

"It's surreal. It's a global pandemic that's hitting home," Rushing said.

The San Jose resident cleared space on a desk he usually uses to play video games to set up his laptop. With pizza to get him through lunches for the week, he sometimes isn't stopping work until as late as 7pm or leaving the house during the day. He lives with his fiancee and cats; if she has to work from home, too, he said, they'll make it work at separate desks.

Not everyone is so lucky. Alyssa Chen, who works in event planning for Facebook's business operations, started working from her apartment in San Francisco last week – along with two other roommates. The three are taking turns on calls or cooking in the common space; when she can't find a corner of the apartment to work from, she sits on the floor of her bedroom. On top of that, the Internet's been spotty.

"I think we're trying to figure out together, it's not too horrible," she said, although she could imagine other roommates who aren't as close struggling in that situation. She's trying to make the most of it: her team showed up on their video conference call in themed outfits – animal print Tuesday and boho Wednesday. And she and her friends have considered renting an Airbnb in a remote location near the beach to work from home.

Steven Buss, a software engineer at Google's Embarcadero office, has been working alone from his rented Tenderloin condo. He propped up a new desktop computer he got serendipitously just before the coronavirus outbreak on a desk barely big enough and bought a cheap office chair. He's been wearing sleep clothes and didn't shower before his first remote call (he didn't turn on the video, he added). His cat Amy is constantly vying for affection and curling up on his lap, but he's grateful to spend more time with her.

Buss bought coffee beans for the first time in a while instead of heading straight to the office to get his first cup. He usually has lunch at the office and dinner in the city before or after an event, but said it's nice to be able to cook again. He made stew one day, carnitas over the weekend, and was baking bread Tuesday.

It's not new for Buss, who used to work from home for a startup.

"By the end of the two years working from home, I was completely sick of it," he said. "It's a difficult thing to do long term. It's really isolating, you get demotivated and it's hard to reliably keep yourself on task and doing the thing you know you're supposed to be doing," he said.

Maria Fernandez Guajardo, a senior director of product management at Facebook focusing on remote work tool development using virtual reality, has been putting her projects into practice for the past week.

She's set a routine for herself: Wake up, meditate, shower, get dressed, help her husband get the kids off to school, then walk to her neighbourhood Starbucks for a cup of coffee that tells her brain it's time to work. Then she holes up in the office in her Sunnyvale home where she covered up the window with a curtain to not distract herself (because she has so many meetings, she kicked out her husband who usually works there part-time to the couch). Around 6pm she closes her laptop and announces to her family, "I'm done working."

"It was an issue because it was endless hours, it was too much," she said about why she sticks to her schedule. "You just keep going."

On Tuesday, Guajardo had lunch with two team members – via video call in their homes. She said Facebook's teams are working on products to make virtual brainstorming easier and foster community to overcome isolation.

She sees the future of work in Silicon Valley, with its congested roadways and skyrocketing housing prices, as remote.

"I don't think it will go away," she said.

Others are more sceptical. San Francisco resident Sunder Sarangan has been working part-time from home since he started a new job as a tech consultant for Sahaj Software Solutions last fall. He goes into the office in Fremont a couple of days a week and still wants to, despite the coronavirus outbreak, because he likes socialising.

"The hope for work from home needs to be tempered," he said, "because if it's only a privilege for a minority, it's unfair to extrapolate." – The San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service

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