FARGO - Brett Johnson normally spends 90% of his time in Eide Bailly’s Fargo office or traveling for work.
Working from home - until now - has been an infrequent thing.
But thanks to businesses and governments changing their operations to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Johnson has joined the ranks of millions now making their homes their office spaces.
“I got my kids at home, so you might hear them in the background,” the senior manager said during a phone call Wednesday, March 18. “My wife is a nurse and she’s on the front lines right now. She has to go to work. So now it’s me at home with the kids all day.”
Johnson’s office is a repurposed bedroom. There’s a monitor on the wall, a small desk, his laptop and a lamp.
If he had known the coronavirus was coming, “I would have bought a better chair,” he joked.
It’s an adjustment, especially with the region’s schools emptied in the name of social distancing. He's set up a curriculum for his kids, including math, reading and playtime.
“I’m probably a little less efficient. The nice part is I’m not getting as dressed up and leaving the house. Pretty much in sweats,” Johnson said.
- F-M area internet providers ramping up services for growing number of employees, students, working from home
Isolation is safer, but isn't easy. Johnson already misses his co-workers.
“It’s still early in the process. If you ask me in two weeks, I might be going a little bit crazy. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it is going to get,” Johnson said.
Remote work has been advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote social distancing and slow the transmission of the coronavirus, which causes a flu-like illness called COVID-19 that can be deadly for some people.
Eide Bailly has 327 staff and 37 interns in its Fargo office, Corporate Communications Manager Clinton Larson said Wednesday. March 18. The local office started emptying Monday and is now staffed by 15 to 20.
Working from home is a company-wide initiative, involving 2,500 people in 43 offices in 14 states, Fargo partner-in-charge Chad Flanagan said.
Most Eide Bailly employees have done some remote work, Flanagan said. Connection software such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype “will be critical” to maintaining good communication, he said.
“We’ve been very pleased with the flexibility and positive attitude of the staff," Flanagan said. "It’s a change - and change can be difficult - but people are doing very well with it."
At Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, about 10% of the organization’s 1,000 employees regularly work remotely, said Jon Bogenreif, senior vice president of operations. The Fargo campus holds 600 of those employees.
Jessica Mattison is one of BCBS’s “rock star” remote employees. She started with BCBS in Valley City, N.D., and continued working for BCBS after moving to New Richland, Wisc., last year.
She has a dedicated work space and takes her allotted breaks. She’s not a fan of having the radio or TV on, though.
“For the most part, it’s keeping your head in it as if you’re working in the office,” Mattison said.
Bogenreif wants most BCBS employees to work from home by early next week.
“We’re just trying to do our part with our employees to work through that social distancing aspect of their work. We have a lot of people that work near each other in the office. We’re just trying to mitigate some of that risk,” he said.
It may also help staffers with children.
“Our goal is to hopefully give people the adequate flexibility to handle the personal things they’re dealing with with kids being out of school and sports and those things being cancelled,” he said.
Bogenreif said BCBS plans to do most of its operations remotely at least through April 3. However, the offices in Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck. Dickinson, Williston, Minot, Devils Lake, Jamestown and Valley City, will be open.
It’s not just businesses that must adjust to life in the age of COVID-19.
For churches, big worship gatherings are great for fellowship, lousy for preventing virus transmission.
“We made the hard decision not having in-house worship” for Lenten services “for the next few weeks, until further notice,” according to Jon B. Olson, interim pastor for Zion Lutheran Church on Franklin Lake, near Pelican Rapids, Minn.
Olson uses social media to connect with Zion Lutheran’s members and he’ll lead Lenten worship from his home using Facebook Live and his laptop's webcam.
“It will be less formal. No music. We won’t be able to celebrate the sacrament of communion, because we won’t be physically together,” Olson said.
There are some things that can’t be done well online. It’s harder to visit nursing homes or shut-ins, and he can’t visit parishioners in the area’s hospital unless he is needed in an end-of-life situation, he said.
“They’re advising you stay away, and we don’t want to jeopardize those who are vulnerable,” he said.
He said he'll miss the companionship of worship.
“This Sunday, when we do worship online, it’s going to feel very different, compared to being present with people in the same place,” Olson said. “And not being able to visit shut-ins and folks in nursing homes, like I normally would, I feel there will be a disconnect that will be felt deep inside those folks.”
The congregation understands that the situation isn’t ideal.
“I think since this is so new, we don’t know what this all means. I think we’ll learn what it means to be socially isolated,” Olson said.
In the meantime, he’s preparing for Sunday’s Facebook Live service.
“It will be brand new,” Olson said. “Hopefully, it will connect us with each other during our regular time to worship.”
Tips for working from home
Keep the same schedule. Treat your workday just like you were going to the office. Set a timer for lunchtime. Keep normal work hours, and shut things down when it’s quitting time.
Set up a work space. Pick a spot to do your work that is away from distraction. A door is nice, but not absolutely necessary. Set up boundaries or ground rules with other people in your home.
Get your tech in order. Take your laptop and charger home, as well as the mouse and keyboard. Having the right software to communicate is important. Lots of remote workers use Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom or GoToMeeting.
Got bandwidth? Is your home internet access robust enough to allow you to video conference? Consider increasing your bandwidth through your internet supplier. If children or other family members are at home, set ground rules for the times you need bandwidth for conferencing.
Plan for the kids. Make a plan for education and entertainment, including books, puzzles and streaming services.
Manage expectations. Talk with your boss about what can actually be accomplished from home.
Take a break! You don't work eight hours straight in the office, so take some breathers and lunch.
Stay connected. A real loss of working from home is the "water cooler" conversation that connects us to others. Try scheduling online social time.