Practicing Productivity in the time of Pandemic

At this point, you are either somewhat adjusted to working from home (likely taking on new roles and responsibilities while juggling your kids, dog, and spouse), battling COVID on the front lines (caring for patients, providing us with food, or keeping the lights on), or unemployed (yet another victim among a whole host of victims during this extremely trying time). Regardless of where you fall, you have likely been on at least one video conference since January and you will likely be on many more over the next six months. As live, in person meetings of 2500 to 5000 people that we are so used to have come to a screeching halt, the world of associations such as ASCP are carefully and artfully creating virtual experiences that you can be assured will enhance and improve your life but will most definitely be in a virtual format. But the whole world is now experiencing online happy hours, teaching sessions, work meetings, telehealth visits, group therapy sessions, and kid’s birthday parties. Step back from your current situation and ask, “Have I seen MORE or LESS of my friends and peers in the last six months than in the prior year?” That answer is different for each person and carries different emotional baggage. For the constant extrovert who needs that human interaction fuel to spur them on, video conferences may not be hitting the mark. For the ever-quiet introvert who happily recharges among their books and cats and knitting, constantly being required to video chat with people for hours on end may be pushing them toward a steep cliff of insanity. For the “mover and shaker” that loves a problem a minute, thrives in crisis, and gets utter joy out of solving a problem and moving on, facing a day filled with 8 pre-scheduled video conferences or, worse, a day with an empty calendar can be demoralizing. For anyone who had a rhythm to their email usage which involved key time points to check during the day and an internal list of priorities of how to deal with emails on a rolling basis, the extreme uptick in volume of email because everyone is working remotely in the same office (“where is the water cooler chat?”) is dizzying.

It is now July 2020 and we face the uncertainly of what working from home will mean or be or even when it will end (or will we choose this as a permanent solution?). For those of us who have been and continue to report to our work place using social distancing, masks, shift rotations, and the inability to touch anything around us, how can we make this sustainable long-term, do we need to do so, and how do we know when we can end it? For the hundreds of millions of non-laboratorians who are asking, “When will there be a test so we can go back to work?”, the job of the laboratory has long been a mystery but is now suddenly thought to be a miraculous answer to a complex problem of politics, public health, and capitalism. Amidst all of the uncertainty of COVID-19 that we are facing on a continuous basis, the country was already immersed into a “fake news” war between rival political factions that already had the bulk of America either fed up with all new sources, only trusting one “news” source (the bulk of which was political agenda opinion), or simply burying heads in the sand in hopes that this was all just a bad dream. We are halfway through 2020 and the optimists are saying, “It can only get better” and the pessimists are sighing, “what comes next?”. The only people who aren’t complaining are the myriad of investors who didn’t even need a crystal ball to predict the March stock market crash, sold short, and raked in billions—which they then returned to the market buying blue chips at rock bottom (relative) prices to now be showing a 20% return. If only we could all be so lucky?

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel and the sun will come up tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever and this virus will run its course—whether we fight it tooth and nail or ignore it—to a natural conclusion which is harmony within our population. Over the next 6 months, enormous amounts of data on epidemiology, biology, virology, and treatment will emerge. We will learn from our colleagues in Africa what the impacts of early, sustained interventions can do to thwart the virus. Over the next year, vaccines will appear and be available for the population at large. The myriad of tests will have settled around a handful of reliable “winners” that have the sensitivity and specificity we need for each of the valued applications in our systems. The stock markets (and your retirement funds) will have recovered and exceeded pre-COVID-19 levels. However, one aspect of our lives will be permanently changed and that is our dependence and use of video conferencing for the special, the everyday, and the mundane. To that end, let me conclude with some of my (hard earned) lessons from both the last 6 months and the last 20 years of working in global health.

  1. Video conferencing etiquette is a “thing”. Seriously. Tools available to the host can get you so far but nothing says, “we are all in this together” like a team on a video call that is following the rules. Mute yourself when you are not talking. Turn off your computer’s sounds or software that makes frequent sounds. Do not leave your cellphone on your desk on vibrate (computers have great microphones!). If your internet connection is bad, switch off your video. When you are listening, look directly into your webcam (then others feel you are looking directly at them and they feel more connected). Use a virtual background if possible so we do not see your kids making breakfast in the background. Brush your hair (you can totally get away with no pants and not showering but “bed head” is a dead giveaway). Sit within 3 feet of your computer. Rename yourself on the screen if possible, with your full name and organization. Do not take a video call while walking outside.
  2. Your workstation is your productivity cockpit. Make sure it has what you need. In today’s world of multitasking and conferencing, two screens are almost a must. You can use a laptop while traveling but for a home office, having two screens creates a much cleaner canvas to spread out your work, keep resources at your fingertips, take notes while conferencing, etc. Treat your digital workspace like your physical desktop. Keep only what you need on the desktop. File your files in folders you understand and can follow. If your virtual desktop is covered in hundreds of files and icons, your brain is not mentally able to process or prioritize. Use a background picture that sends you to your happy place so that, when you need a break, all windows can be closed, and you can zip to your happy place immediately.
  3. Develop a personal system for communications. Maybe you are a texter, a snapchatter, an emailer, a phone-call-aholic, an instant messenger fiend… Whatever you are comfortable with, the other dozen people you interact with are comfortable with something else. Your team lead may say, “We are using Teams!” or “We are using Basecamp!” or “We are using Sharepoint!” but, let’s face it, it may not fit your style or your work flow. The important thing is to develop a system for whatever communication type you feel most comfortable and work that system to be productive. I have seen the inboxes of people who have 85,000 unopened emails (both personally and professionally) to which I reply, “Delete them!”. If something in those emails was so important, the person will have found another way to contact you. You are never going to read them and, honestly, email just does not work for you. Pick another channel. Texting can work for many people but the organization of texts on a phone and the archiving eventually becomes a challenge such that screen captures or lots of copy/pastes must occur. Whatsapp is a good solution with its archiving function but can still present a permanence problem. Your chosen communication channel is important because it will dictate your productivity style. For example, one of my colleagues takes extensive notes on paper (extensive!) but sometimes takes extensive notes on a tablet. Their work stack (i.e., the collection of items they work through daily) is a combination of pieces of paper and digital notes, but it is disconnected from a communication system. The time required for note translation into understanding and then moving those thoughts to an email, for example, for me would be wasted time. But they remain one of the most productive people I know so this system works for them! Each person must decide what makes them most productive and what keeps them informed and connected; however, a good approach if you are feeling overwhelmed is to use a single system (digital) that moves with you. Microsoft Outlook, Gmail (and calendar), and iCloud all have cross functionality that allow seamless notetaking, email and calendar creation, and file connectivity. Outlooks category function for email can be a massive time saver for the adept user where a preliminary read through of email can allow for classification (for example, I use “Urgent”, “To do – Non-Urgent”, and “Waiting on Reply”) and then priority follow up. At the writing of this blog, I have less than 30 emails in my inbox, all are categorized, and all are calendared for completion.
  4. Go outside and breath. The single most important thing that we can achieve as a society as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is an appreciation for life, freedom, and health and that is difficult to do if you stay in front of your computer for 12 hours a day. More than half a million people have died of COVID-19 and we could have been one of them. Unemployment spike from a flat 4% to more than 14% with many companies, restaurants, and small businesses never planning to reopen. The unfortunate tragedies that continue to befall our black brothers and sisters led to peaceful protests which were then corrupted by riot and ruin across many major cities. Even now, racial and ethnic disparities, especially our Navajo neighbors in the Southwest along with our black communities, cause disproportionately suffering from COVID-19. It is not a time to think, “I’ve been lucky!”. It is a time to say, “What can I do to help today?”And where the help is needed is outside, in your community. Yes, you should wear a mask if you can’t social distance. Be sure to wash your hands frequently. But get out there and be part of the change for the better!
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-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

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