It has been exactly one year to the day, as I write this, that COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. From a practice perspective, while some things have stayed the same, others have changed—quite a bit.
One year ago, when we are directed to work from home until further notice
I think to myself, “This will be great!”
Assuming it will be months at worst, I plan to make the most of it. I will sleep in for the extra minutes saved on the commute or make myself leisurely breakfasts: omelettes with freshly ground coffee and even frothed milk. I may even have time to sneak in a lunchtime workout.
Late summer 2020, several months in with no end in sight
My treasure trove of software approved by IT has exponentially increased, as has my hardware. I get approval to purchase a contraption that allows me to elevate my screen and keyboard, so I have the option of standing while I work (after many failed attempts to do so at my kitchen counter). I also buy fancy wireless headphones that cut out ambient noise, so I can focus on my calls. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Lync video calls are now part of my normal day.
For many of us, the pandemic has really crystalized how open and adaptable we are with respect to technology, as circumstances have forced most of us to adopt new tech. Some have fared better than they thought they would, and some have fared far worse than they would have imagined. I am part of the both the former and latter camps.
The gaps in tech savviness go viral on social media. You might recall some of them: a toilet being flushed during a Supreme Court hearing, a picture of a cat instead of the lawyer during a live court hearing and a lawyer who appeared as an upside-down floating head in a committee meeting. Collective mortification from all of us!
Closer to home, calls I have been on have not been without incident either. From kids photobombing the meeting on purpose to listening to a colleague remonstrate with what I thought was a young child only to realize it was her dog, the only solution is to laugh.
Early winter 2020, settled into this new—though temporary, right?—normal
I have had a peek into many people’s houses. I wonder where they sit on the range from easygoing to perfectionist when they have very fancy-looking spaces with the perfect book or item placed just so in the background and whether they are detail-oriented enough in their work when they haven’t bothered to hide some not-so-picturesque items behind them.
A business partner mentioned the bland grey wall behind me on a call. I couldn’t tell whether it was with approval or pity. Now there is a brightly coloured image of someone playing the trumpet adorning part of the greyness behind me in the video call.
On a more practical side, doing bilateral or multilateral negotiations via video can be tricky. From how to properly space myself in front of the camera to whether I prefer headphones on or just using my phone to call in, I am never sure of the correct answer. I read somewhere that the best distance is one that shows the upper half of your torso, as a lot of our communication is body language, so I aim for that. However, because not everyone has the same level of connectivity, in many cases, the decision must be to turn off the camera to save on bandwidth—so much for nonverbal communication!
One year later, getting to know myself
Having my office just a few steps from my sleeping area and working alone in that space every day for a year now has resulted in some self-realizations that have surprised me.
Pre-pandemic, at the office, I didn’t care much for “drive-bys”—people swinging by my desk with a “quick” question, oblivious to the fact that I was in the middle of something. I used to envy my colleagues in the engineering group with their red stop sign style signs that read “Concentration Required – Do Not Disturb.”
However, still in the midst of winter along the shores of Lake Huron and not venturing out much these days, I sometimes wonder whether I am speaking aloud or just hearing my own thoughts more vociferously. At this point, I would happily take a drive-by, even multiple ones a day! The last time I was at the grocery store, I had a 10-minute, socially distanced conversation with a neighbour—more than the sum total of our conversations in five years pre-pandemic.
Apparently, productivity has gone up in many companies thanks to remote working. While that may be true, I realize I am working much longer hours—keeping my eye on my laptop while I make my lunch, responding to a couple emails over dinner—and I am dreaming more about work than I used to. I am working on that: pick one spot as my workspace and keep it only there, no food in the workspace, shut off my computer at the end of the day (and actually do it), leave my work phone in that workspace.
As the weather continues to improve, I am managing to get out for more walks. As I run into people, I get the sense that everyone is trying to be nicer, trying to interact more. A smile, a nod, even a howdy! Maybe this is true or maybe it is my more people-oriented behaviour being mirrored back to me. At any rate, it’s a good feeling and worth the extra several thousand steps I add to my Fitbit counter. (Of course I track my exercise. What self-respecting lawyer wouldn’t want to outdo their colleagues at least on the step count?)
Theodore Dela Avle is Senior Legal Counsel at Bruce Power, where he will now generally interrupt his work to say hello. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.