Working from Wherever

This post is about how to do a work-from-anywhere job during times when you don’t actually know where you’re going to be from one day to the next. I didn’t expect to be writing this post until Oregon’s wildfires thrust me into the middle of that experience one week ago today; now, I am finding it difficult to imagine writing about anything else.

See, here’s the sad part. After three months of a rather strict lockdown, we Oregonians were even more excited than usual for the arrival of summer because we knew we could congregate outdoors at greatly reduced risk. Sure enough, June ushered in a bunch of socially distant backyard hangs, and they really were a soothing tonic. We got to see our friends’ actual faces, scratching that ancient itch for immediate social contact that we’d tried to ignore all spring. Never mind that we still had to constantly maintain six feet of distance, refrain from sharing food or drinks, undertake rigorous and convoluted bathroom access protocols, and put up with the thousands of mosquitoes that didn’t get the Covid memo; it was all worth it! We knew that fall would bring an end to this blissful phase before too terribly long, but being that September is typically the nicest month of the year in Oregon, my wife and I had booked thirst-quenching social activity of this kind for every weekend through the end of the month. We could make plans again! Things were looking up.

As Deadwood’s Al Swearingen once said, “announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh.”

On the evening of Labor Day, we briefly emerged from our basement den — where we had been holed up watching movies to escape the day’s 90-degree heat — and my wife noticed the sky was the hazy orange color that only wildfires can bring, a color with which Oregon has become intimately familiar in the past five years. Tuesday, we started hearing that the fires were dotting the whole west coast, nearly a hundred of them, burning untold acres following a few days of high winds, the weekend’s “nice breezes” that in hindsight we felt sad for having enjoyed. By the end of that day, words like “historic” and “unprecedented” were starting to spill from our state’s official channels. Then, Wednesday morning, I woke up to this sky (this was 9:00 AM, hours past sunrise):

Then, around 1:00 pm Thursday, after my town’s evacuation warning was raised from Level 1 (“get ready”) to Level 2 (“be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice”), we stuffed our overnight bags, shut off our gas main, grabbed our two cats, and split. We didn’t feel like waiting around for Level 3 (“leave immediately”), given the possibility of that last escalation coming in the middle of the night. And so it is that I write this post from the comfortable basement of my wife’s aunt and uncle’s mid-70s split-level in a Seattle suburb, acutely aware that most other displaced Oregonians are not as lucky as we are to have a place like this to flee to.

The last time I found myself reaffirming my good fortune on an hourly basis was when the pandemic began back in March, and I realized, with new feeling, what a huge blessing it was to have a job that I already did from home and that could carry on through this uncertain stretch without any particular disruption. So now I’m counting myself doubly lucky, in that I’ve been spared the worst effects of two layered crises. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to close down your home and utterly relocate your life on 15 minutes’ notice, then pick your job back up the very next day and continue delivering top-quality work as though nothing happened. So should you find yourself in a position like mine — working from home, then one day displaced from that home for an indeterminate period of time — I hope these tips will help see you through. Let me state up front that these tips presuppose you have a laptop you can take with you, and a wifi connection waiting for you wherever you go. So count those two blessings and whatever else you can claim, and then let’s help you get back to work.

Tip #1: Tell everyone what’s going on

There’s a perfect balance to be found between acting as though absolutely nothing out of the ordinary is happening, and unburdening your soul to your clients and co-workers. That balance is achieved when you contact the people you work closely with, letting them know that you have been displaced from your home (and therefore from your usual workspace and routine), but you’re safe, and that you’re prepared to work, but there might be further delays and disturbances in your schedule as you navigate the slippery future. This is the response that best matches the situation: 1) your life has been shaken up, so you don’t need to pretend as though it hasn’t been; 2) you’re safe, so your colleagues don’t need to worry; and 3) the work doesn’t stop, and you are capable of doing it, so you will. Set the tone with a complete description of your circumstances, and then keep everyone in your network updated on changes to those circumstances, and on project progress

Tip #2: Carve out a workstation

There’s something reassuring and conducive to productivity about having a designated workspace that you use for nothing else. Arriving there helps to switch your brain into work mode, stepping away switches it back, and staying there helps keep your focus sharp (this is arguably now the one remaining universal benefit to the concept of the office). If you work from home, you’ve likely discovered these forces on your own and oriented your schedule around them. And chances are you can do much the same in your current haven. If you’re in this situation in the first place, you haven’t got the luxury of being choosy about your accommodations, so there’s certainly no guarantee of a desk or any such obvious work trappings. But I’d bet there’s a seat on the couch, or an armchair, or, failing all else, a corner of the room that you could call your office while sitting on the floor. Find that spot, claim it, and use it exclusively for work.

Tip #3: Cut yourself some slack

There is just no way you’re going to be firing on all cylinders under these conditions. You’re very likely not only displaced from your comforts and your routine, but — if it was a natural disaster that displaced you — mentally preoccupied with concerns about friends and family who fled the same area, and possibly with the state of your property as well. So the least you can do for yourself is lower your expectations of productivity. You would hardly be recognizable as a human if this kind of disruption — compounded in many cases by trauma — had no diminishing effect on your capacity for work. And since you’ve presumably already followed Tip #1, your colleagues are holding space for you to go through what you’re going through as you work. You can do the same for yourself.

Tip #4: Designate breaks for checking in

The aforementioned mental preoccupation here might be the single biggest demon you have to wrestle during this period of heightened confusion and anxiety. I know it has been for me. I realized by the second day that the texts I was exchanging with friends, and the browser windows I was keeping open to conduct frequent checks on my town’s evacuation map and Air Quality Index, and on my state government’s communiques, were going to keep hold of 90% of my attention or more if I were to leave them open while I worked. So I started using a second browser altogether purely for this purpose, opening it every hour or so to check for updates, and then quitting it when it was time to focus up again. I also started keeping my phone on Do Not Disturb so that I could catch up on texts and calls during the same designated breaks. We so often forget that this is OK to do!

Since I started writing this post, I have come to learn that these fires have spared our town. We’re now out of the evacuation warning zone, the AQI has dropped below 200 (the threshold between “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy”) for the first time in about nine days, and accordingly, we are plotting our return for this weekend. Had we gotten worse news, I’m not sure how we would have taken it, except to say that we’d certainly be displaced for longer, and this post would likely become more valuable as a reference for me to use over time (I might even have considered a second version with tips for long-term displacement added, given that I would have had the time to discover them). But with remote work at an all-time high, and displacement from residences increasing in frequency and diversity of causes, I have to imagine that the need for these kinds of flexible work strategies is going to grow. If this post helped you get through a tough time, and especially if you have more advice to add to the list, please let me know in the comments. The internet is perhaps the one place we can’t be easily displaced from, so let’s use it to help each other out.

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