It’s back to usual this week, as I try to create a healthy work-life balance while working from home indefinitely. This week’s articles focus on impacts of coronavirus and distributed / remote work.

Work in the Time of Corona

Author: Alice Goldfuss

This is a blog post giving advice on maintaining one’s mental health while working remotely. The highlight is that it’s okay to feel bad: switching to full remote is challenging to begin with, and the reality of the current situation is unusual stressful on top of that. Goldfuss writes “if you are feeling bad, reconnect with the world,” suggesting that going for walks and observing the world can help to overcome feelings of isolation.

If you’re having a terrible time right now, that’s completely fair. But please keep in mind that you are abruptly working from home under stressful circumstances.

Other suggestions:

  • Recreate your rhythm: in an office, you get dressed in the morning, commute to work, and have a dedicated desk. Maintaining these, by putting on “work clothes” and starting your day with a walk, can help to ramp up into a work mindset.
  • Keep your workspace clean; clutter impacts mental health.
  • Have a secondary work area (the kitchen, living room, etc.), especially if you move from your desk in an office.
  • Have snacks and drinks, and eat lunch (again, just like work)
  • Stop working! At the end of the day, put your computer away, take another walk, change into different clothes, and do other things to signal the shift away from work.

The author also suggests to create social spaces, which is the hardest challenge of working remotely; the lack of spontaneous interactions and idle chit-chat is often understated. She suggests scheduling time for unstructured conversations—even 15 minutes—or having a weekly social hour with people you are close to.

Above all, please monitor your general mental health and make adjustments as needed. Be kind to yourself and others. We are in this together.

Thoughts: this was great. I shared it with my coworkers and many of them appreciated it. I think the most important piece to remember is that this isn’t normal: that remote work doesn’t usually come with the increased anxiety from COVID-19. While Nielsen already had a strong remote culture, we weren’t remote-first; many of us still relied on office chit-chat, or casual updates on each other’s work.

Creativity in Academia

Author Tim Dettmers

This is a reflection on what it means to be creative, and how to foster creativity in research contexts. “Not coming up with good ideas” is an essential part of creativity, the author writes, suggesting that only after you’ve seen what doesn’t work can you come up with solutions that nobody else is seeing. Perhaps counterintuitively, abandoning ideas can also be an element of creativity: not thinking about an idea actively can help your unconscious mind to process it.

The author also suggests working on many ideas at once. This can help to create connections between seemingly unrelated work items, while also giving your mind a break from thinking about the same thing repeatedly.

Thoughts: I’ve experienced all of this myself on countless occasions. Working on two or three things at once is definitely good for my overall idea generation and productivity; it feels easy to get trapped in a creativity slump when focusing on one particular problem for a long time.

I’ve found meditation and journaling to help me with creativity. Meditation helps to clear my head and focus my thoughts, and short of full meditations the skill of being able to center myself is helpful too. Journaling, meanwhile, helps me to be more deliberate: the act of putting pencil to paper forces me to slow down my brain.

We’re not going back to normal

Author: Gideon Lichfield

In this article, the MIT Technology Review claims that social distancing is here to stay for more than a few weeks. To stop coronavirus, he writes, we will have to accept radical, long-term changes. The core idea is that as long as the virus exists, breakouts can, and will, still happen. The Imperial College COVID-19 response team proposed (PDF) a way of doing this that imposes extreme social distancing when ICU admissions spike.

I agree with this. It’s not likely that this will be over soon. Many companies, including mine, are fully remote until April 3 at the earliest; but at the end of our first full week like this, the situation has gotten worse, not better.

But even that isn’t enough; nothing is. The author suggests that we will be living in a state of pandemic for months, and that we will be forced to adapt to a new, shut-in lifestyle. He predicts that we will develop ways of predicting who is a disease risk, and “discriminating—legally—against those who are.” Israel has started using cell phone location data, and Singapore publishes contact tracing; in his view, this will continue to expand.

One can imagine a world, he writes, where airlines would be able to see if you’d been near infected people or disease hotspots via location data. Clubs asking for proof of age might also ask for proof of immunity or testing. Importantly, Lichfield doesn’t advocate for such a system. Instead, he merely predicts that it will soon come to be, with all of the associated negative effects:

As usual, however, the true cost will be borne by the poorest and weakest. People with less access to health care, or who live in more disease-prone areas, will now also be more frequently shut out of places and opportunities open to everyone else. Gig workers—from drivers to plumbers to freelance yoga instructors—will see their jobs become even more precarious. Immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and ex-convicts will face yet another obstacle to gaining a foothold in society.

That’s … dystopian. Oh man.

Other, shorter articles

Journey into observability: Glitch’s journey is a discussion about how Glitch started investing into observability and what they have or haven’t done. They started investing in observability because their logs and traces weren’t useful for debugging production incidents, nor for answering sophisticated questions. They suggest that one of the benefits is being able to disprove hypotheses more quickly, which usually results in faster solutions. This is interesting, but it doesn’t sound like observability will be a focus of my reading in the near term.

The Turing Way by Dr. Kristie Whitaker (and others) is not something that I can summmarize, so it goes in this section.. Rather, it’s a “lightly opinionated” guide to reproducible data science. Its contents include open research, version control, data management, environment management, testing, reviewing, and more. This looks like a great reference to point people to, though perhaps a little overwhelming at first.

Of particular interest is a section on Makefiles, which I’ve found in other guides to reproducible data science and software engineering, and started using more myself. I use Make to build this website, and look forward to incorporating it into more of my workflows.

Transitioning from offices to distributed teams during a crisis by John O’Duinn writes “one of the hidden costs of a company office is office closures,” meaning that the office is often a single point of failure for a company. The article gives a set of instructions for companies interested in transitioning to more distributed teams. This advice is unhelpful during the current crisis, as (surprise!) this isn’t a process that can really be rushed. The general idea, however, is to do it gradually with a slowly increasing number of volunteers, and to pay close attention to the issues that arise to be able to solve them quickly.

Working from home tips from our experienced remote employees is a StackOverflow blog post giving advice for now-remote employees. I’ve heard most of it before—have a separate space, have work clothes, keep a schedule and a routine, go for walks, etc. The advice I like the most is to overcommunicate—to write much more than what you would naturally think to do, otherwise things will be missed.