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In-house at Home: Finding Normalcy in Uncertain Times

“In-house at Home” is a new column about working from home, inspired by the coronavirus lockdowns and work from home orders. Greg Stern, author of ACC Docket’s Tech Toolbox in the print magazine, has been working from home for five years steadily and three years intermittently before that. In this column, he offers insights on how to make teleworking work for you and your company.

COVID-19 is turning our familiar world upside down. Working from home and doing it well demands focus and discipline, and those can be hard to come by under the circumstances. Here are some tips for keeping your head in the game. 

Manage anxiety 

First, admit to yourself that these are terrifying times. I think many people are trying to put on a brave front, both for their loved ones and for their colleagues. But not showing others that you are afraid and not acknowledging it to yourself are two very different things. Repressing fear takes up a lot of mental energy and bandwidth while eroding focus.  

[Related: A Lawyer’s Guide to Managing Mental Health] 

I worked my way through law school in a hospital ER and trauma center. I learned from the many amazing people I worked with to make sure that I was honest with myself about the anxiety I often felt when I was in the middle of an emergency so I could keep functioning properly. You need to feel it — really feel it — to let it go. 

Be mindful 

Mindfulness meditation can help manage these emotions. If you haven’t practiced it before, try one of the many free mobile apps that provide instructions and guided meditations. I know you are very busy right now despite (or because of) the sequestering, and taking time to meditate may seem unnecessary or even self-indulgent.  

[Related: How In-house Counsel Can Prevent Burnout]

It isn’t. Meditation can help you become more honest with yourself, get in touch with how you really feel, and release anxiety and tension you may not have realized was there. That will help you focus much better. 

Stay healthy 

So will the healthy triumvirate of a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet, and physical exercise. It‘s easy to fall into irregular sleeping patterns (too much or too little are both harmful), or to start snacking on unhealthy comfort food. Bad sleep and a poor diet are detrimental not only for your focus, but also for your immune system, the latter being especially important these days.  

[Related: How to Fit in a Workout Routine … Without a Gym]

Exercise can be a form of meditation, as it forces you to focus on what your body is feeling. It also reduces anxiety levels by releasing “healthy” cortisol and endorphins. Anything that reduces stress will help you concentrate better. 

Think critically 

Don’t let misinformation make you more (or, for that matter, less) worried than you should be. Be a critical and somewhat skeptical thinker like they taught us to be in law school. Be alert to the fact that in a pandemic, misinformation will become more abundant than ever because many people tend to suspend their critical faculties in emergency situations.  

If you read or see something that seems designed to trigger a change in your approach to the pandemic, verify it with a credible source. A friend of mine recently sent me an article about COVID-19 purporting to be from a Johns Hopkins article that contained “facts” and recommendations inconsistent with things I had been reading from reputable scientific sources. When I checked, it turned out to have been fabricated and was not from Johns Hopkins at all. 

So, I recommended that my friend visit, a website I’ve been using to double-check rumors for more than two decades, but feel free to use the reality-checker of your choice. 

Make a schedule 

Set up your workday to invoke feelings of normalcy. You have more control over how you work than you ever had in an office, and you may be tempted to make big changes in how you do things. Ensure that any changes you make will make you feel like you are doing your job as well as or better than before.  

[Related: Adjusting to the New Normal: Teleworking]

Keep a regular schedule and do your best to make your home office feel like a professional workspace. Get out of your pajamas and, even if you don’t wear what you might wear to the office, dress for the workday with the thought that someone from work might start a video conference with you at any time. Psychologically, dressing for work will help keep you in a work-minded mode. 

Stay connected 

Speaking of conference calls, you may find that you have far fewer scheduled meetings than you did before (and I hope that is true, because we typically have too many). You also may realize that you have more control over the rest of your time because there should be far fewer impromptu encounters and distractions than you may have had before. (Unless you have kids running around, in which case, keep them busy with distance learning and virtual field trips.) 

But the fact that you can be more isolated from your colleagues doesn’t mean that you should be (except physically, of course!). Try to stay in touch with your workmates, both professionally and socially. Maintaining relationships is especially important right now; even if you don’t need the reassurance that those relationships provide, your fellow workers may.  

Be there for them. Use tools like Zoom, Teams, Skype, Slack, or whatever to maintain your work community. Humans are social animals. The less you feel connected to that community, the harder it will be to feel connected to and focused on the work you need to do. 

In my next few installments, I will focus more on practical suggestions for how to set up your home office routines. Take care and stay well.  

For more advice on coping during the quarantine, visit ACC’s COVID-19 Resource Center.

About the Author

Gregory SternGreg Stern is formerly global integration counsel at Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, and is presently ACC Docket’s Tech Toolbox columnist. [email protected]

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.