When “Stay At Home” Orders Don’t Change Much

For a lot of people, the last two months have been a big change. Not being able to go out whenever you want, not being able to buy whatever was needed or wanted, not having the usual cacophony of activities that keep everyone bustling and hustling.

All of that was, understandably, a series of major disruptions for many, especially when you add on lots of kids being home while e-learning and parents working from home, many for the first time.

As stay-at-home orders rolled across the country in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, more and more households felt the pain and uncertainty of all those paradigm shifts. Countless articles and guides were published by online media offering tips for navigating these tricky, unprecedented waters, and social media lit up with individuals reacting with frustration, exuberance, disbelief or any of a number of other emotional reactions.

For some, though, the change wasn’t that substantial.

Same Situation, Different Circumstances

Even if the work circumstances for a household didn’t change significantly – if they held some form of “essential” job – the world around them certainly had, in ways that by now should be familiar to everyone. Fewer stores and restaurants were open and if they were they were likely running reduced hours. Sports and other events were cancelled, public spaces like libraries and parks were closed or were restricting foot traffic.

Those who were used to constantly shuttling between events, appointments, outings and get-togethers probably had an experience not unlike a race car driver when the parachute pops, taking them from 250mph to 50mph in a fraction of a second.

Others didn’t feel quite that impact because, for one reason or another, their life already didn’t include that speed and frequency of activity.

That might be because of financial realities. They can’t afford weekly meetups with the guys for beer and darts, or takeout meals five times a week, or any of a number of other consumer-focused options. Shopping is limited because funds are limited, so they are more careful about their spending, making fewer trips and having a clear plan for what’s purchased.

That might be because of lifestyle choices. The kids were just never into sports or music, so those were never on the schedule to begin with. Eating out was a once-monthly treat. Minimalism or other choices have led to fewer, more intentional trips to the store.

Longer On-Ramp

In either circumstance, those individuals and families didn’t have quite the traumatic transition others did. Sure, it’s a bit frustrating to not be able to go to the library whenever you want, and wearing a mask to go to the store is an experience that takes some getting used to.

These folks are already used to finding cheap or free options when looking for ways to spend their Saturday afternoons. The inconvenience they feel when certain stores are closed or unavailable is minimal because they didn’t go out that much anyway. Spending a morning working in the backyard is normal because it’s inexpensive, gets everyone involved and keeps their house in good shape.

If someone in the house has worked from home for years, things changed even less. They probably already have a dedicated space to work from and have an understanding with the rest of the family about what their hours or available are. They’re experienced in dealing with pets while on Google Hangout calls and don’t even notice it when the piano is being practiced in the other room.

All of that is not to say there aren’t still hurdles to overcome or changes to acclimate to. It’s not normal, even in those situations, for everyone to be spending such extended periods of time in the same space. There’s a big psychological difference between “choosing not to go out” and “can’t go out” that can lead to tensions and a bit of stir-craziness. Additional pressures like loss or reduction of income will make this more acute. And even if there’s someone with a history of remote work, kids aren’t going to have that experience and are getting used to their online classes. A spouse who used to work elsewhere but who is now home all day is understandably dealing with their own issues as well as, in addition to all of a sudden being around everyone else 24 hours a day.

So this still isn’t ideal for just about anyone. But for a good segment of the population this may not be as much of a sea change as it is for others because they’ve been doing some variation on what is now being experienced en masse for a while now.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A brief list of opportunities to challenge the societal status quo.

Let’s rethink how we fund public education, decoupling it from something as discriminatory and subject to crashes in the broader economy.

Let’s rethink healthcare – not just insurance – and decouple it from employment since those who are out of work can’t afford the care they need.

Let’s rethink housing, putting safeguards in place to protect people from losing the roof over their head at the same time they’ve lost their income.

Let’s rethink food security, agreeing that access to basic nutrition is a responsibility we owe each other and a fundamental right supported by the government.

Let’s rethink what bailouts should look like, shifting the focus from giving massive amounts to companies to putting people to work on public projects when the private sector abandons them.

Let’s rethink public transportation, devoting more resources to effectively serve low-income populations and doing so in an environmentally-responsible manner.

Let’s rethink the public/private sector divides, realizing that “benefits” like paid sick leave are essential to all workers and should be guaranteed at the national level.

Let’s rethink what essential services really are, ensuring things like mail delivery remain uninterrupted and categorizing internet access under this umbrella as it impacts work connectivity and productivity as well as access to education when schools are closed.

Let’s rethink what financial responsibility means, putting “stop buying lattes” aside and requiring companies to have more than three days of cash on hand.

Let’s rethink workplace expectations, understanding that not only does being present equate with hard at work but that people aren’t stealing from the company by taking a personal phone call or responding to a text from their kids.

Let’s rethink urban design in a manner that makes cars a secondary consideration and pedestrians and bike riders the priority.

What am I missing?

Do What You Must Without Shame

Society’s expectations are kind of misaligned.

There are millions of people who have been laid off in the last few weeks. The job market they’re entering is even more uncertain than the one I faced when I was let go in the middle of 2016, with far fewer options available. If they had retail/service industry jobs, there aren’t available positions because it’s those very companies that have laid off or furloughed workers. If they had other positions, not only are similar companies not hiring but they also don’t have the option of taking a part-time retail job to try and make ends meet.

In more normal times, those who find themselves out of work are sent a message from various sources: Do what you need to both for the sake of yourself/your family and because working *anywhere* is preferable to having a gap on your resume.

It’s not bad advice, especially for those like me who have lost “white collar” jobs. Taking a “blue collar” job might not be ideal, but it keeps some money coming in, keeps you active and out of the house and more. No doubt it can be difficult, both physically and emotionally, to adjust to a drastically different work environment, learn new skills and so on. But, as I found over the three years I’ve been working at Starbucks, it can also be incredibly eye-opening and even rewarding.

A problem emerges when that advice stands in contrast to what you’re told is preferable from a job hunting perspective.

That’s the situation I found myself in several months ago when I received an email from a recruiter asking me about a position she thought I might be a fit for. I responded saying “Yeah, sounds interesting, let’s talk more about this.”

At that point she made an unexpected request: That I remove from LinkedIn my time at Starbucks. Having it there, she said, sent the wrong message and would hurt my chances of getting this job.

I considered it. The request wasn’t difficult. I just needed to click a couple buttons and done, my path might be cleared. Then I started thinking about what that job entry represents.

That I did what I needed to do to continue supporting my family.


That I was willing to leave my comfort zone and let go of my pride.


That I was a self-starter who took action instead of falling into depression.


That I was flexible in my thinking and could adjust to new situations and realities.


That I had gained significant customer support experience that was applicable just about anywhere.


That I had gained valuable leadership skills that were applicable just about anywhere.


That I had worked with younger people and learned a lot from them.


That I could think on my feet and make spur-of-the-moment decisions in high-pressure circumstances.


That I had gained valuable management experience that was applicable just about anywhere.

Why, I asked myself, would I want to erase all of that? Was it really better to give the appearance of having done nothing for those years and months than to show I had embraced reality and moved forward?

With such huge numbers of people about to reenter the job market – not to mention those who are dropping out for various reasons – we all need to consider just where our priorities lie and what attributes will be seen as attractive when considering someone for an open position.

Someone who makes the hard decision that underemployed but still working is better than unemployed completely is someone worth seriously evaluating. They shouldn’t be made to feel as if the experience they gained or the reality of their situation is shameful and must be hidden from public view lest they be judged and found wanting.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” we’re told, frequently by people who are in charge of handing out what they claim is a limited quantity of bootstraps and who will look down on anyone who does so.

Anyone and everyone who is able to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and continue to function despite setbacks should be praised and valued, not viewed as tainted by their experiences.

Employees Working From Home? Time to Invade Their Privacy

Employees can’t be trusted to be productive without monitoring.

With vast swaths of the country in lockdown as a protective measure to fight the Covid-19 outbreak, a much higher percentage of employees working from home, at least those who aren’t in the retail/manufacturing/gig/service industries who are unable to do so. That increase has also led to more and more employers buying and requiring workers to install monitoring software that tracks their digital activity.

The Ad Age story quotes executives who have taken this step because they’re concerned employees are “taking advantage” of their new working situations, fearful it seems that working from home will lead to all kinds of distractions.

These fears are generally focused on one or more of three areas:

  1. That employees are slacking off, essentially “stealing” productivity from the company
  2. That employees are simply being inefficient
  3. That employees are actively looking for other jobs any moment they’re not being watched

Let’s address each one in turn.

Get to Work, Slacker

Many of the main points in this argument were debunked by me two years ago, but the short version is this: It’s a false premise to assume that 1) time is inherently the employer’s, and 2) that it’s reasonable to ask workers to completely put aside their personal lives during work hours.

If someone needs to take a personal call, go for a walk around the block or otherwise stare off into space for a hot minute, that’s *good* for their productivity, not bad. Taking a break improves focus, clears out thinking and has many other benefits. All of those are effectively destroyed by keeping someone chained to their desk and always available.

That’s all true in general but it’s even more true in the current situation. So many people are working from home for the first time and, as an added wrinkle, also might have their young kids at home with them. That means not only are they adjusting to a brand new work environment and setup, but they have to occasionally help with e-learning setups, organize activities to keep young children occupied, answer random questions posed by toddler and even break up the kind of sibling scuffles that frequently pop up.

Monitoring software doesn’t allow for the kind of situational considerations that are part of the human experience.

Finding the Inefficiencies

This is, of the three, the most reasonable. Anything that can help identify where processes are broken or inefficient is a good thing.

The problem, then, is that there are much better ways to achieve this goal than through installing monitoring software on employee machines. Employers could, for example:

  • Listen to their workers when they offer suggestions
  • ….

Nope, that’s the big one. Listen to workers. If someone says it’s a problem that they have to get three unrelated department heads to sign off on a simple request form, delaying the timeline by days or weeks, take what they say seriously. If they tell you that having 28 people try to collaborate on a document is a path solely to insanity, take what they say seriously.

There’s a role for software to play in this, but it’s very limited, mostly because the “ideal” path and the “most efficient” path are rarely the same in an organization. Companies are weighed down by decisions made based on executive preference or lowest bidding vendor, so using those to mark out what an efficient process should look like is objectively an exercise in futility.

Testing the Waters

One of the examples of this situation identified in the story is software that sends up a flag when someone takes a certain combination of actions such as downloading client lists and printing a resume. That one-two-punch indicates a worker might be a flight risk and appropriate action can be taken.


Companies should probably have other mechanisms to identify these kinds of individuals, including plugged-in managers and supervisors as well as a culture that encourages genuine feedback.

It is, at its core, an employee engagement problem. It’s problematic, then, that only 34 percent of employees feel engaged at work, especially when you consider how closely engagement is tied to productivity.

Worrying about employees when they’re actively printing resumes is too late. You need to worry about employees from the moment they walk in the door, making sure that not only are they being compensated adequately but that they are feeling some level of satisfaction from their work, feel they are able to bring their best ideas to their projects and more.

That really is the crux of the situation: Activity/productivity monitoring software is a quick but inadequate solution to problems that could be handled and solved in much more constructive ways. As with most corporate wellness programs, they are one-size-fits-all packages being sold to purchasing managers who can more easily get these costs approved than push through comprehensive and meaningful reforms.

More than that, it’s just not cool to spy on your workers. That’s true in physical environments where cameras, digital keycards and other tools are used, and it’s true in the digital world as well.