When remote workers get sick

Steven Kurutz, writing in the New York Times:

Working from home may sound relaxing, but the “working” part of that phrase underscores the expectations that accompany it: being available to check and respond to email, hop on a conference call and generally be productive, even if you feel lousy.

Last week, a colleague caught a nasty bug. It wasn’t hard to tell he was sick; we may live and work five states apart, but conference calls have a way of exposing congestion and coughs. His symptoms grew more severe, hour after hour, and it became clear that he should close his laptop, brew some tea, and crawl into bed.

Even in the most accommodating remote work environments, telecommuters may hesitate to call in sick. Consider the unique factors at play:

  • Online meetings are hard to cancel. After all, I can’t just pop my head over the cubicle wall the next day and get caught up. So instead of allowing the flu to wreck my agenda, I’m more likely to suck it up and just dial in. That avoids the nightmare of finding another time slot that’s open on everyone’s calendar.
  • Workers who commute to a traditional office sometimes call in sick solely out of courtesy—i.e., not because they feel particularly ill but rather to avoid infecting their colleagues. There’s no such social more at work for the remote worker; rhinovirus can’t be transmitted through Skype.
  • Even when my symptoms are miserable, working from home makes it easier to slog through and save those precious PTO hours. With a few simple adjustments, I can dial back the energy required to endure the workday. For example, just stepping off the treadmill desk eases the effort level. When you’re curled up on the couch, triaging email feels far less draining. ◾

Could you remote-work from Starbucks full-time?

A month or two ago, we trekked up to Pennsylvania to visit family. My wife took some time off from work, but I decided to save my vacation days, which had run short after a recent beach trip.

That meant I needed to find somewhere to get my work done. Hoping to avoid the dining room table or kitchen counter, I settled on the closest Starbucks. Here’s what I learned about remote work, the “third place” office, and myself:

Starbucks is loud.

Starbucks uses canned music, like most other restaurants. I don’t begrudge them that. If I were meeting a friend for lattes, I probably wouldn’t even notice. But when I’m trying to be productive, it’s not ideal.

Mad dude at Starbucks

It’s not that I hate Starbucks’ musical selections. Their catalog of singer-songwriters is fairly benign. No, the real problem is that any music with discernible lyrics distracts me. The performers’ sung words get jumbled up in my brain with my own. That’s why, at home, I prefer tracks without lyrics: movie soundtracks and classical pieces dominate my playlists.

It’s not just the piped-in music that makes Starbucks noisy. A dozen customer conversations strain to rise over the din. Behind the counter, there’s this constant cacophony of clanking dishes, steaming milk, order-taking, and whipped-cream-spraying. Even the best noise-cancelling headphones would struggle to filter out all that.

My solution? I blast white noise (or more technically, lower-frequency “brown” noise) through my headset. That manages to drown out most of Starbucks’ “atmosphere.” This approach has its drawbacks (e.g. I can’t play my own music), but the constant thrum of static creates an aural bubble that lets me concentrate.

Starbucks’ “food”

Technically, Starbucks no longer requires you to buy something to claim a seat. Visitors can hang out (or work!) without even visiting the register. But I would feel guilty if I occupied a table without a Starbucks cup in hand—especially if others customers couldn’t find a seat. That meant I always ordered a drink.

In a “real” coffeehouse (i.e. a locally owned shop that takes its coffee more seriously), a latte or even a café mocha are reasonable treats—not “healthy,” per se, but not awful, either.

Starbucks is a different animal. I was hard-pressed to find anything on the Starbucks’ menu that qualified as “healthy.” The franchise’s path to ubiquity was paved with sugar. Your drink is pumped full of syrup. Whipped cream comes standard. Expect chocolate drizzled on top (even if you didn’t request it).

The non-liquid options aren’t much better. Starbucks’ checkout counter is surrounded by piles of processed calorie bombs: mass-produced pastries, prepackaged brownies and organic (but still unhealthy) candy.

So, yeah, visiting Starbucks may sabotage your diet. It will also significantly lighten your wallet. Even if you limited yourself to one drink, you’re looking at at least $6 or $7 to claim a workspace. Buying lunch there? That’s $10 more. And a few snacks? Another fiver. Long story short: if you spent a month remote-working from Starbucks, you could easily drop $500 on food and drinks alone.

To be fair, that compares favorably to renting an office or a coworking desk. But you’d save significant cash by working from home, brewing your own coffee, and nuking last night’s leftovers.

The pee dilemma

At a traditional workplace or a home office, you never have to think twice about a five-minute bathroom break. Just lock your workstation and leave.

But at Starbucks, every twinge of your bladder presents a problem. Do you you risk leaving your $2,000 laptop (plus any accessories) lying there on the table? Should you ask a nearby neighbor to serve as your (unpaid and disinterested) security guard? Or do you wind up your cables, stow away your gear, and haul everything to the potty, hoping you can find a seat when you return? Even if you do, all that packing and repacking eats up precious work time.

Cramped footprint

Designers, developers, and even productivity gurus often prefer multiple monitors and the real estate they offer. In my home office, I have four monitors (three external screens plus the native laptop display), and even that often feels inadequate.

At Starbucks, I’m constrained to my laptop’s relatively tiny work space. It feels like working with one arm tied behind my back, no matter how much I practice the multitasking shortcuts and swipe gestures. Yes, there’s something to be said for the increased focus of viewing a single app, but many tasks are far easier when you can set two or three app windows side-by-side. 1

Home, sweet home (office)

After a few days working at Starbucks, I gave up. I borrowed a folding table from neighbors and set up a makeshift workspace in our hosts’ laundry room. What it lacked in ambience, it made up for in quiet, convenience, and cost. When we returned home, I was eager to return to my dedicated home office.

I still do make work pilgrimages to my local coffeeshop. Every Friday afternoon, you’ll find me there, winding up my work week and sipping on a mocha. But those visits last just a few hours. I’m just not suited for days-long work sojourns at Starbucks. ■

  1. Some creative types, facing the same issue, have resorted to hauling their iMac back and forth to the coffeeshop each day. No, thanks.
culture TV

Me and Mister Rogers

Neighborhood watch

As a kid, I loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I had reasons to like the star; I was a quiet, gentle kid from southwestern Pennsylvania, and Fred Rogers was a quiet, gentle man from the same area. More importantly, I had precious few male role models in my family life, and Rogers modeled a warm-hearted, happy, self-assured masculinity that didn’t rely on mustering bravado or projecting toughness. Instead, he expressed his feelings, smiled and laughed, and freely shared his vulnerabilities. That gave me hope, as an insecure kid.

Of course, I eventually outgrew the show. Mister Rogers was geared for the five-and-under crowd, and I moved on to other series: Square One, Carmen Sandiego, Batman: the Animated Series.

Still, I retained an affection for Mister Rogers, and I would check in on his show from time to time, even as a teenager. It was reassuring to see his program continue, largely unchanged. Oh, his hair was whiter and his posture more stooped, but he was that same happy neighbor, beaming as he stepped into that familiar, dingy little sound stage.

The trolley, but bigger

My reentry into Fred Rogers’ orbit came from an unexpected angle: a summer job.

In spring of 1999, as my high school graduation neared, I needed to earn cash for college, but I dreaded the thought of another summer spent mowing lawns or slinging quarter pounders at McDonald’s. Fortunately, I had another option: the family-friendly amusement park near my house.

At the brief screening interview, I expressed interest in a “character” role—a park job that that involved performing a script, rather than pushing a sequence of buttons. I secretly hoped to land a job leading tours at the Wild West illusion house, where I’d get to create an over-the-top, old-timey character. (More importantly, I’d spend the summer working with my then-girlfriend, who was returning to that same role.)

To my dismay, there were no open positions at the illusion house. Instead, I was offered a job as the only male trolley driver on the park’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe” ride.

Yes, this was a real thing. The thirteen-minute experience piled thirty park guests into a life-size replica of the trolley from Mister Rogers’ show. This electric train trundled through a plywood tunnel and emerged into a humid, sun-dappled patch of forest. The track wound its way through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe, stopping at King Friday’s castle, the tree house of X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchild’s Museum-Go-Round, and Daniel Striped Tiger’s clock house.

My job was to “drive” the trolley through the Neighborhood and encourage passengers to engage with its animatronic residents. As our trolley neared, each character would emerge from its set and “talk” (i.e., play back a recording of Fred Rogers himself, in character). Pauses in their delivery were my cue to recite a well-memorized script.

The plot wasn’t exactly Shakespearean; at the first station, King Friday commanded us to invite every character we met to attend an imminent “Hug and Song” party. At each stop along the way, I would dutifully lead the passengers in the prescribed mantra: “Come along, come along, to the castle Hug and Song.”

I spent two full summers driving the trolley, and this routine grew very familiar.

For example, by my calculations, I recited that “Hug and Song” line tens of thousands of time. By the end of my second season, I could have performed the script in my sleep and knew precisely where there was room for improvisation.

By sheer repetition, I had also mastered the skill of trolley-driving: I could stop the massive train on a dime and could tell by feel when the tracks had been recently greased. I knew exactly how each scene was likely to malfunction, too: the Merry-Go-Round would fail to spin open, leaving Lady Elaine to squawk at us from inside. X the Owl’s door would get stuck. Daniel Tiger, true to his shy reputation, would stay hidden away inside his clock. I had even invented ways of explaining away these problems, satisfying curious kids and amusing parents with a knowing wink.

It was a good job, as park jobs go, and it kept me entertained far better than working the carousel or the roller coaster ever could have. Still, the work eventually grew tiresome, and as my second summer drew to a close, I was eager to disembark the trolley—permanently.

Meeting the man himself

There was one perk of trolley-driving I haven’t yet mentioned: we were treated to visits from the show’s stars. For example, more than once, Mr. McFeely (the Neighborhood mailman) dropped by. All fine and good, but that paled in comparison to the time that Mr. Rogers himself visited.

We spent the better part of a week sprucing up the ride for Rogers’ arrival. We swept and re-swept the loading deck, scrubbed down the trolleys, and washed the scene platforms along the track. Park maintenance repaired animatronic malfunctions that hadn’t worked properly for ages. Everything was well-oiled, crisp, and shiny when an elderly Mr. Rogers showed up, slim and hunched but not particularly frail.

There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers himself that others haven’t written more eloquently. But it’s true what they say: his real-life personality was very similar to the one he projected for the TV audience. I remember that he smiled a lot and that he seemed genuinely interested in each of us college kids working the ride.

We lined up for photos (I still have that snapshot, somewhere) and accompanied Mr. Rogers to a nearby pavilion, where we shared a picnic lunch and said our goodbyes. It was a wonderful way to bookend my summer—and my twenty-year relationship with Mr. Rogers as his “television neighbor.”

Last thoughts

A few years later, I was heartbroken to learn that Fred Rogers had passed away. He had kept his stomach cancer a secret from the public and died soon after his diagnosis, at the age of 74.

Reading through his obituaries, I was astonished to learn that Rogers and I had shared a birthday. That’s a coincidence, of course. But it felt significant to me—one more thread linking me to a remarkable man. ■

apple TV

Thoughts on Apple’s fired engineer

Apple has fired a radio frequency engineer who allowed his daughter (vlogger Brooke Peterson) to record a prerelease iPhone X, then post the result to YouTube. The offending video has since been pulled (at Apple’s request), but it’s not difficult to find it online.

A few random thoughts:

  • First, let me say up front that I’m sorry that this happened. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for Peterson and her family to deal with the aftermath of this episode, particularly since it all happened in such a public-facing way.
  • Turning to the offending video itself (and on a lighter note), those inside Apple are struggling with the flagship phone’s name, too. Just before the 3:00 mark, the engineer calls it the “iPhone Ex” (i.e., not the “iPhone Ten”).
  • The Caffè Macs pizza looks delicious.
  • Halfway through the video, the engineer reveals that his team is scheduled to move into Apple Park (the company’s spaceship-like new headquarters) in December. I wonder whether he was authorized to announce this, given the level of public interest in the campus. If not, that revelation may have factored into his dismissal, as well.
  • The Petersons unknowingly mirrored Apple’s actual prerelease marketing strategy for the iPhone X: invite little-known YouTuber to Apple’s home turf, give them an exclusive hands-on with the iPhone X, and invite them to publish their thoughts ahead of major press outlets. One blogger even argues that Peterson’s video is more interesting than the officially-sanctioned takes.
  • You would think that the engineer’s internal alarm would have gone off the instant his daughter whipped out her dSLR on campus. Apple’s commitment to secrecy is infamous at this point, and in the past few years, the company has clamped down even harder on employee leaks. It would be difficult for Apple leadership to overlook the (very public) violation without undermining their authority inside the company. So why didn’t the engineer stop her—either mid-recording or before she uploaded?
  • Brooke Peterson has since posted her reflections on the incident. She claims that she was shocked that her “little, innocent video” garnered so much attention, when there were so many other hands-ons already posted online. It’s true that Peterson’s video didn’t reveal much about the iPhone X that we didn’t already know. But at the time it hit YouTube, precious few recordings of the X “in the wild” had leaked—and none of them came from inside Apple. It’s not surprising that this content went viral.

In Peterson’s defense, I doubt that she aimed to sacrifice her dad’s job to boost her YouTube subscriber count. But, whether intentionally or not, that’s what happened. Before her iPhone X hands-on, Peterson had just 87 subscribers; now, barely a week later, she has over 12,000.

That’s a solid base on which to build an internet personality brand, if Peterson goes that direction. At the very least, she plans to continue posting Youtube videos; as she states in her follow-up, “I’ll see you guys at my next vlog.” ■

Life Uncategorized

Confessions of a McDonald’s employee

Soon after my sixteenth birthday, I took a job at a McDonald’s restaurant near my house. All that summer, I grilled quarter pounders and wrapped Big Macs at the Golden Arches.

And… I saw things, man. Bad things.

Below, I clear the air. Here are some behind-the-scenes insights from my time at Mickey D’s.

  1. Your burger sits out for hours before it’s served. Once the beef is cooked, grill workers stack the patties in a plastic tray, then slide the tray into a warming machine. That’s the “fast” in “fast food”—McDonald’s can deliver your burger instantly because it’s been pre-cooked. Each warmer tray slot has its own timer; when the alarm sounds, the beef must be discarded so that it doesn’t spoil. But here’s a nasty secret: the grill staff ignores the timers. When the warmer beeps, workers often reset the timer and return to whatever they were doing. When a tray runs low, its contents are recombined into another tray and the process starts all over again. In short, no one’s keeping track of how long each patty sits there. Often, the grill sends out dry, congealed burgers, hoping that no one notices.
  2. The staff desperately wants to work more. Throughout that long summer, my manager scheduled me for just a few dozen shifts. Often, I’d work just one or two days per week. Back then, my local franchise probably hired extra workers to cover for flaky employees. These days, underscheduling workers probably helps McDonald’s avoid federal insurance mandates, since part-time workers are exempt. In any case, between these infrequent shifts and my minimum wage, I made very little money that summer.
  3. McDonald’s can be dangerous. One afternoon, I was assigned to clean the back of house, rather than cook. I wandered around the grill area, wiping down random greasy surfaces. At one point, without thinking, I leaned on the grill itself, then immediately yanked my hand away in pain. The 350-degree surface had instantly seared my palm. Somehow, I managed to finish my shift without revealing the injury (thankfully, a first-aid kit near the drive-thru booth included burn cream). I gritted my teeth and endured the throbbing ache until I clocked out. Why not tell my manager? First, I was embarrassed. Second, I would’ve be sent home—and I was already short on hours (see #2 above).
  4. Individual workers may suffer from the division of labor. I worked at McDonald’s for an entire summer, but I spent nearly every shift manning the grill and the re-warming trays. Rarely did I handle the actual bun assembly. Only once did I get assigned to cleaning detail (and that ended badly; see above). The drive-thru was assigned to more experienced workers. The cash register and delivery truck were foreign territory. And I never worked the breakfast shift, which required separate training than the burger-and-fries detail.
  5. Not every worker prizes hygiene. Like any restaurant chain, McDonald’s has high cleanliness standards. Employees are instructed to wash their hands when there’s any chance of contamination. But during the lunch rush, when two dozen customers have queued out front, and the drive-thru traffic loops around the building, cleanliness falls to the wayside. An employee who scratches his nose or touches his hair should drop everything and re-wash his hands. That rarely, if ever, happens.

These aren’t exactly horror stories; nothing here is scandalous enough to make the local news. No, during my McDonald’s summer, I witnessed more of a low-grade grossness. Not enough to hurt anyone—but enough to make me feel queasy every time I stoop to eating fast food.

Life Uncategorized

Eighteen months on a treadmill desk

Since April of 2014, I’ve owned a treadmill desk. Each day, I plod along at a glacial pace—just active enough to keep my metabolism simmering. Meanwhile, I’m typing, mousing and taking calls—all the little tasks you’d typically do at the computer. After walking 4,500+ miles, sitting down to work feels wrong, somehow.

Here are some observations and recommendations from my eighteen months “on the tread.”

  • Your feet will hurt—at least at first. During my first few weeks, I leapt into treading full-tilt, powering through fifteen determined miles each day. My feet protested, but I ignored “hot spots” and developed some ugly blisters. My advice? Treat any irritation as a warning sign so that it doesn’t fester into something worse. A little duct-tape, skillfully applied, makes a big difference. Before long, you’ll build up some blister-proof callouses.
  • Along these lines, proper footwear is key. Don’t expect to wear typical work or office shoes. You’re better off lacing up an old pair of running sneakers. If your workplace allows, consider trying sandals—or even going barefoot. But, again, whatever you wear, listen to your feet!
  • A treadmill desk can help you lose weight, if your expectations are realistic. In the first few months of treading, I lost thirty pounds, give or take. But then the weight loss flatlined. Since then, I’ve had trouble shedding (and keeping off) the ten extra pounds that lie between me and a healthy BMI. Eventually, it seems, my body adjusted to the enormous extra calorie burn that an all-day tread provides. Or, more to the point, I ate more. So, as with any other weight loss regime, be prepared to count calories and feel hungry at day’s end. The treadmill raises your calorie ceiling, but you’ll still need to exercise some dietary self-discipline.
  • Treadmills are noisy. Although I bought one of the quietest walking treadmills available, it’s far from silent. There’s the whir as the belt makes its endless rotation. The whine-whine-whine of the motor under strain. The rhythmic thud-thud-thud as footsteps hit the deck. Of course, my home office sits in a quiet patch of woods, far from the nearest thoroughfare. That makes the slightest sound seem loud. At your busy workplace, you may hardly notice the treadmill’s steady noise. Still, respect the ears of those nearby—whether fellow office drones or your sleeping spouse. Also, if you’re on a conference call, be aware that others can probably hear your pacing. Make judicious use of that self-mute button!
  • Vary your speed. Different work tasks require different paces. For me, 2 miles per hour works well for light emailing and web browsing. Fine design work demands a slower speed—something in the range of 1.5 MPH. Conversely, you can move faster when consuming content; I’ve pushed the treadmill up to 3 MPH when watching training videos or listening in on conference calls. Anything faster, though, and you’ll stray dangerously close to exercise. It’s hard to concentrate on work when you’re panting and dripping with sweat.
  • Static electricity can be nasty. Dragging your feet across a treadmill belt, you quickly build up a charge, especially in drier weather. Last winter, my earbuds (plugged into my grounded PC) would shock me every few steps. If this happens to you, find a way to discharge the electricity more steadily. It doesn’t take much to ground yourself; I simply connect a spare USB cable to my PC and tuck it into my belt line. No static build-up—and no more painful shocks.
  • Get the extended warranty. I’ve had issues with my LifeSpan treadmill ever since it arrived. Their regional technician has visited my house at least four separate times; they’ve replaced the motor twice. Fortunately, the problems have been covered under warranty; I’ve paid nothing extra. In fact, LifeSpan agreed to foot the bill for a five-year extended warranty. There’s little doubt that I’ll need it again.
Life Uncategorized

Human puzzle

Yesterday, my work colleagues and I trekked to downtown Seattle for a team-building exercise called “Puzzle Break.” After arriving at street level, we were led down a long-unused car ramp and into a dimly-lit conference space. An enthusiastic staff member then prebriefed us on the experience to come. We would be locked in a room chock-full of clues, and we’d have one hour to solve the puzzles and (hopefully) find our way out.

We entered the puzzle room, the clock started counting down, and we scoured the space for clues. Every cranny and cupboard hid seemingly-unrelated items: slips of paper, stuffed animals, knickknacks. But as we laid them side-by-side, we realized that some items belonged with others. Smaller groups splintered off to solve these individual puzzles, and each small victory eventually contributed to our overall progress.

Of course, the real point of games like this isn’t the game itself, but the group dynamics that emerge in that context. Corporate culture frequently demands that employees become “leaders” to advance in their careers. That expectation bleeds into an unstructured event like this. What if multiple team members try to assume that “leader” mantle? Who backs off? I’m always fascinated to see who emerges as a “general,” who embraces the “footsoldier” role, and who wanders around cluelessly.

I was definitely a clueless wanderer. While I wanted to contribute, I just wasn’t sure how. I flitted back and forth between puzzles, looking over my teammates’ shoulders timidly. I hadn’t met these colleagues until a few hours earlier, and I felt self-conscious about inserting myself into their well-worn patterns of cooperation.

A more outgoing, energetic personality probably would have overcome such hurdles. For my part, I hoped that others wouldn’t notice my limited involvement. When I had something to add, I piped up. When someone asked for my help, I pitched in. Mostly, though, I watched quietly and scoured the room for clues that others might have missed.

We didn’t escape from “Puzzle Break.” In fact, we weren’t even close, despite the staff’s positive debrief afterwards. Consensus among our team was that we would have needed at least another half hour to finish the puzzles and get out. But we weren’t too discouraged; apparently less than 20% of teams escape this particular room. And, chances are, they had their nervous wallflowers, too.