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Unexpectedly Working from Home … Courtesy of COVID-19

| April 7, 2020

by Jim Bruce

[Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. He may be reached at [email protected].]

“On December 31, 2019, China reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in people associated with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, Hubei Province. On January 7, 2020, Chinese health authorities confirmed that this cluster was associated with a novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV. Although cases were originally reported to be associated with exposure to the seafood market in Wuhan, current epidemiologic data indicate that person-to-person transmission of 2019-nCoV was occurring. As of January 30, 2020, a total of 9976 cases had been reported in at least 21 countries, including the first confirmed case of 2019-nCoV infection in the United States, reported on January 20, 2020. …

“On January 19, 2020, a 35-year-old man presented to an urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, Washington, with a 4-day history of cough and subjective fever. On checking into the clinic, the patient put on a mask in the waiting room. After waiting approximately 20 minutes, he was taken into an examination room and underwent evaluation by a provider. He disclosed that he had returned to Washington State on January 15 after traveling to visit family in Wuhan, China. The patient stated that he had seen a health alert from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about the novel coronavirus outbreak in China and, because of his symptoms and recent travel, decided to see a health care provider.”1

The number of cases of what has become known as COVID-19 has grown exponentially to the point where on April 6 there were 367,507 confirmed cases in the U.S. This compares to the 62 (that’s correct, sixty-two) cases on March 1 (and 1678 cases on March 15), almost 6,000 times the number of cases about a month earlier. This is approximately a doubling of the cases every three days.

University leaders across the country took drastic action. As the presidents of Harvard, M.I.T. and Stanford wrote2 on March 17, 2020 in the New York Times,  “…we quickly came to understand in recent weeks that if we wanted to help protect the health of our nation, we had to take drastic action.

“Experts advised us that to slow the spread of the virus, we must reduce population density and increase social distancing on our campuses. This meant turning university life upside down: suddenly sending virtually all of our undergraduates home; asking faculty to swiftly bring all instruction online; cancelling academic, athletic, artistic and cultural events, and nearly all in-person meetings; shutting our libraries; and asking everyone who could work remotely to do so right away.”

And, this all leads to the situation almost all of us find ourselves in today, working unexpectedly from home. During the recent past weeks, much has been written about working remotely, providing helpful best practices, words of wisdom and caution, etc. In the paragraphs that follow, I’ve tried to outline some of these practices, which, in reality, are potential new habits, that I think will be most helpful to you.

1. Create “your” workspace. Identify a room, even an unused corner of a room, that can be “your office,” the place where you will do your regular work. (As an example, I once used a table in an overly large entrance hallway as my office.) Having such a place will help you become and stay organized. It will also help you separate your work life from your home life. One writer suggested that it was helpful to have a physical barrier, even a bedsheet hung around the area, to define the “office.”

2. On “workdays,” get started early. Create a mental association between your work and your “new” office. Set your alarm for the usual time and when it goes off do all the usual things you do when going to your office. Wear the type of clothes you would wear. All of this mentally conditions you for work. (And, as you do this, you can also mentally celebrate the time saved by your very short commute.)

3. I’ve argued in a number of previous Tuesday Readings, that you should plan your day. This is even more important when working from your home “office.” Schedule your work for the day. Don’t just work off your “To-Do” list. Include breaks that will take you away from your desk.

4. Don’t forget to eat. Schedule a video meeting with some of your team members and have lunch together.

5. Don’t neglect your colleagues, your manager, and those you lead. In the pre-social distancing world, some groups had a practice of having stand-up meetings each morning as a way to check-in, to learn what each other is working on, to ask for help, etc. And, there were always opportunities to run into a colleague in the hallway or the office kitchen. In the work-from-home world, some now have this meeting as a video conference to make sure the team stays in touch. Some project teams even leave a video conference live throughout the day to enable more spontaneous interactions.

6. A manager whose door is normally open to encourage spontaneous discussions might choose to have a video conference session live whenever he or she is available to enable drop-ins much like an open door This can go a long way toward continuing the open conversations that continuously flow in and around offices.

7. Individual team members should use tools like text messaging and Slack, along with email to keep others informed of their work and to schedule telephone or video calls. Take the initiative and don’t allow yourself to become isolated.

8. Address directly how you and your spouse, partner or roommate, and any children home from school, will organize work times so that you each can do some work and your children, if in school, can continue any schoolwork they have.

9. And, when the curious child comes into your “office,” smile and wave. You don’t have to hide the kids. Give them their moment with you. Some groups have also had, via video conferencing, a lunch gathering or a coffee-break, inviting everyone in the several households to participate.

10. Take care of your body. Yes, be responsible by keeping your physical distance, and get outside. Even just hanging out on your porch or in a park, getting some fresh air and sunshine is good. And, if you are able, get some exercise. If you are challenged and can’t remember how to exercise your body, you’ll find lots of exercise routines online, for example here. Research has shown that this will improve your energy and productivity.

11. Just as you had a routine to start your day in your “home” office, have a routine to close out your day. You might take some time at the end of the day to tentatively plan your next day and to close-out the current one. This is very important to keep your office work from continuing unrestrained into the whole of your life. So, have a process — e.g., turn your computer off, put your office phone away, turn off your office light — to end the work in your office and to move to your home life.

Working from home is likely to be the new normal, at least for the next months and maybe longer. I’m sure it has presented any number of challenges – tight spaces, distractions, interruptions, etc. – for you and those who live with you, as you’ve transitioned to this new way of working. I trust that these suggestions here will help you as you continue to make that transition. Who knows, as this crisis continues and you evolve how you work, you may discover that you are working at least as effectively in your home office, connecting with your colleagues wherever they are working, and meeting your goals as you previously were. I certainly hope that will be the case!

I trust that you will make this a great week for you and your team.  .  .   jim


P.S. And, if you have some additional helpful practices, I’d welcome learning about them.



1.   Washington State 2019-nCov Case Investigation Team, First Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States, The New England Journal of Medicine, March 5, 2020.

2.   Lawrence S. Bacow, L. Rafael Reif and Marc Tessier-Lavigne, We Lead Three Universities. It’s Time for Drastic Action, The New York Times.


Other helpful references

1.   Ana Borray, Transitioning to Remote Work, EDUCAUSE, The Professional Development Commons, March 2020.

2.   Erik Devaney, How to Work From Home: 20 Tips From People Who do It Successfully,

3.   Tsedal Neeley, 15 Questions About Remote Work, Answered, Harvard Business Review, March 2020.

4.   Talkroute Content Team, Working from home? Here’s how to separate the ‘work’ from the ‘home’, Talkroute blog (undated).

5.   Raphael Bick, Michael Chang, Kevin Wei Wang, and Tianwen Yu, A blueprint for remote working: Lessons from China, McKinsey & Company, McKinsey Digital, March 2020.