Questions to ask of employers transitioning to supporting permanent telecommuting

Some employers are beginning to announce transitions to remote-friendly or all-remote workforces even after office work is judged safe again. This has a lot of potential upsides in reducing commutes, in increasing job opportunities outside of established tech centres, in giving people access to their preferred working styles.

But there’s also a lot of potential downsides where employees personally pay to recreate the parts of the office experience they need and nevertheless find that their career tops out early or that they’re summoned or semi-summoned back to a tech centre just as they’ve started to realise the benefits of remote work.

Thus, just as I’ve written before about questions you should ask when hired into an existing remote position, you should ask a similar set for a company or position transitioning to remote work, to make sure that it is invested for the long term and is clear about any career or financial sacrifices you will be required to make to be remote.

Are there limits on where employees can be located? It’s quite common for remote employees to be required to be based in certain timezones, countries, or states/provinces where the employer already has some kind of established presence.

Is this transition in fact permanent, or is there a review date? Moving away from a city is a very large investment, often in direct costs but definitely in opportunity costs. Best to make such a decision on a strong commitment from an employer to a long time frame.

Will compensation be adjusted downwards for employers who relocate to an area with lower cost of living (or lower market salaries)? There are some remote-first or remote-friendly employers who pay the same salary no matter where employees are located, but also many which pay against local cost of living or local market conditions.

Will all remote compensation be adjusted downwards on the assumption that everyone will leave high cost of living areas? Hopefully not! Because some people have substantial investments in their current area of residence, eg commitments to their partner’s career or to their local family or friends, or to the cultural scene or their hobbies, or to retaining the option to leave their current employer for another that will require them to be office-based.

Will employees who move to an area with less generous minimum benefits have their benefits cut? Eg, will they lose days of vacation or carer’s leave? Will their insurance be revised in line with their new residence’s minumums?

Will there be formal limits on which positions are available remotely?

Even in the software, creative, and research positions that can be done remotely, it’s common for companies to not allow all positions to be remote. Here’s some possibilities for what this might look like:

  • you can’t become an executive if you’re remote
  • you can’t become a people manager at all if you’re remote
  • you can’t do security-sensitive or personnel-sensitive work if you’re remote
  • you can’t achieve a certain job level if you’re remote

Best to know!

If the company is indeed open to all positions being remote, how are they going to ensure equality of opportunity?

If there are going to still be offices, it may in theory be possible to become an executive or a high level staff member while remote… but it eventually emerges that no one is actually doing those jobs remotely, that those folks are all office-based.

What does the employers plan for developing remote staff careers look like and how will they audit its success?

Will there be training and resources for workers transitioning to remote, for managers who are remote or managing remote workers, etc?

There are specific skills required to manage and be part of both all-remote teams and mixed-remote-office teams. Will these be taught to employees? Will there be trained support for specific situations that may arise (eg, it may be more difficult to reach remote employees in a suspected emergency)?

Will there be financial support for the costs of remote working?

Remote working passes the office maintenance costs onto employees, eg substantial extra energy costs (particularly in areas with very cold winters or very hot summers), additional space, need for office furnishings, higher Internet bills and larger mobile plans, IT equipment, etc. Will the employer reimburse these costs and to what extent?

Ideally this support isn’t too specific. Eg, “we’ll pay for a co-working space”: co-working spaces usually have open office plans and quite a few involve hotdesking (especially if you’re part-time). They’re thus generally not suitable for people who have a lot of sensitive meetings (ie most managers or HR staff), some people who need physical accommodations, or people who are unable to work well in open plan offices.

Conversely, “we’ll pay to fit out your home office”: establishing a home office requires that people have or can afford to move to a place with an extra room, and usually that there are only one or at most two people in the home who need a home office.

Flexibility is better.

Will business travel be mandatory or strongly encouraged?

Quite a lot of remote teams rely on an mandatory or near-mandatory all-hands in-person get together once or twice a year for team building purposes. This may be an easy trade for some to get the benefits of remote work, but it may not be for others, especially for primary carers.

This question may be especially relevant for people who are going to be one of the few remotes on their team and may be expected to travel to the office regularly; and also for managers, who are occasionally expected to travel out to each of their remote reports periodically.

Will there be allowed to be children/dependants in the house during working hours and are there restrictions on their care arrangements? At least when schools and daycares are open, it’s common for employers to insist that if there are children/dependants living with a remote worker, they must have a carer who isn’t the worker. It’s possible (jurisdiction dependent) for them to insist that the house must not have dependants present in work hours at all.

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Questions to ask of employers transitioning to supporting permanent telecommuting by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Conscientiousness in a pandemic: a howto guide

Rachel Miller writes for Vox:

my guess is that if you are experiencing the sort of emergency or unique circumstances where the only solution involves leaving your home or interacting with others, you wouldn’t be asking for permission.

The Answer to All of Your Social Distancing Loophole Questions Is No

Captain Awkward picks this up and adds:

Every time I say [not to call the police on neighbours if it’s avoidable] somewhere publicly, someone tells me about how they had to call 911 b/c of a fire or accident or some emergency, which goes back to the original point: If you needed to, then you needed to, it was an emergency, so why are you telling me about it, Edge-Case Bob?

Link: The Answer To All Your Social Distancing Loophole Questions is “No.”

Here’s the thing: Miller is wrong to guess that everyone knows what emergencies and unique circumstances trump public health right now. We know this, both because people are not seeking hospital care for life-threatening emergencies and because abusers are successfully telling their victims that one of them for sure has the virus, or that they will surely die if they go outside, etc.

I have a bunch of experience with being conscientious to a degree that is sometimes dysfunctional. (Hot tip by the way: never phrase something this way to your boss, because while you may think you’re helping them understand you better, they are thinking “wow, ‘conscientious to a degree that is sometimes dysfunctional’ is such a neat way of phrasing things in a performance review!”)

I’m fine making rules. I’m fine following rules.

What I’m not good at is breaking rules. I definitely do not personally come equipped with good intuitions about which emergencies or unique circumstances should cause me to break rules and if someone finally talks me into following their intuitions I have a huge struggle with it.

Chidi Anagonye is having a really hard time right now.

I have a specific and dramatic illustration of this. One day several years ago, in fact the 1st September 2012, I was starting to feel “fluey” while trying to fit my toddler son for shoes (he kept running away screaming and I was soooo tired). I asked my husband to walk home, I admired the new baby spring leaves on the trees in the park as I walked past them and said suddenly “you know, I think I’m about to get really sick, let’s get home now.”

Reader, I did indeed get really sick. I spent the next week in bed drinking apple juice and watching the shadows of leaves dance on my windows. I didn’t bathe because I was too tired and sore. I cried all the time because my all muscles hurt so much.

And there was this spot on my inner left thigh that was especially painful to the touch, like a really bad bruise. Weird.

We didn’t have a thermometer, but if we had, we probably would have found that my temperature was stable at around 40°C for much of that week.

I get ill fairly often, and had a kid in daycare so it was especially true at that time. The preceding year, I’d gone to the doctor to report that I’d been dry coughing until I vomited and that I couldn’t breathe for coughing.

It’s interesting that COVID survivors often call this out as a really abnormal and alarming thing, because my GP told me that day that “it’s just a widdle viwwwwwus, Mama!” and that it was really normal and I should wait it out. (Doctors often address mothers accompanied by young children as “Mum”, or “Mama”, and often baby talk to them.) After that, I inferred that, among my many existing rules about not bothering people, that “coughing until you’re choking” and any symptoms of similar severity are not a sufficient reason to bother doctors.

So, I wasn’t coughing, but I was similarly uncomfortable. Every day on the phone, my mother begged me to see a doctor. Every few hours, my husband begged me, increasingly in tears, to see a doctor. But I didn’t, because that was my rule: doctors don’t like viruses and don’t want to hear about them (Mama).

To be clear I’m not normally remotely that dysfunctional about rules. I assume being in terrible pain and running a fever that was much higher than we realised had pushed me to my absolutely most irrational degree of rule following. But these are the emergencies and unique situations that people will need to navigate.

Finally I reluctantly agreed to call a triage line, and they told me that high fevers and muscle aches are non-specific signs of severe illness, are not specific to viral infections, and also that having a really tender spot on my leg did not suggest influenza. They very strongly recommended I find out more specifically what severe illness it was that I had.

And so I went to the GP at around the point where the spot on my leg became so painful I couldn’t stand to walk far. I had an ultrasound that showed that it was a massively swollen lymph node, and also that my entire left leg was filled with other swollen lymph nodes. I went to another GP the following day to review the results, I asked if I could maybe lie down to talk to her, and she told me to immediately go to hospital. By that point my leg hurt so much I needed a wheelchair and I was so dehydrated that they ran an IV immediately.

I spent 6 days in hospital running a fever that was closer to 41°C while a couple of layers of skin peeled off my entire inner thigh due to the incredibly aggressive bacterial skin infection that it turned out I had. (It was never cultured, they assumed it was staph.) I refused to eat for almost all that time and for several days I also refused to drink at all and needed IV fluids and painkillers (along with antibiotics).

When my temperature finally went down, the infectious diseases specialist, who tended to address me at all times as a rather dim medical student, dropped by (on a Sunday, in his civvies) and said conversationally “it’s cases like this that really remind us that, even with antibiotics, these things can be very serious, and sometimes even fatal!”

So, it’s indeed safe to say that I’m in the group of people who need to do some work around identifying the emergencies and unique situations where we should take care of ourselves! It is not safe to rely on me recognising my needs and not asking for permission.

But I do have some tips for being slightly safer about this.

Are you a conscientious person? The first step is know this about yourself. Do you:

  • believe that rules usually have a good reason for existing?
  • feel safer knowing and following the rules?
  • tend to reduce ambiguity or make yourself or others feel secure by making rules or otherwise systematising things?
  • prefer to be led by rules?
  • prefer to lead other people with rules?
  • have at least one dramatic story in your personal history that goes something like “and that’s why I didn’t call a doctor for a week” or “and so I was the one who ended up pleading guilty” or “and then I paid back her debt for her” where you’re still sort of slightly proud that you followed the rules right into hell?

You might be a conscientious person! And it might not always be an entirely helpful way to be.

Understand that not everyone is like you. Quite a lot of people don’t like doing what they’re told, don’t believe that rules are generally a good idea or that rules are usually abusive, believe that they are a smart person who does the right thing naturally and that rules are only for those other losers, or use rules as means of having power over other people.

Many of those folks have their own excellent reasons for being that way; if you’ve been abused by rule-making a lot, you likely won’t end up in the “rules make me safer” camp, for example. (I think it’s also worth noting that conscientious types aren’t all good people either.)

Rules are often written to allow for all these responses. Rules are thus often very absolute and strict, because the framers assume that everyone will do 50% more than the rules allow (often recursively so). Rules are backed by the power of the state both because some people won’t respond to anything less, and because the state loves power. Etc.

And so if you’re highly conscientious, statements along the lines of “you wouldn’t be asking for permission [if this was actually bad]” may not apply to you. Those statements are aimed at another group of people. If you always need to ask for permission to take care of yourself, that won’t have suddenly changed since February.

Reflect on the purpose of rules. Pandemic rules are a tool for public health and safety. Know that there are other serious threats to health and safety and they may also happen to you.

If you’re a conscientious type, it could be a good time to engage with civil liberties organisations to make sure framing of the rules is proportionate to risk, and makes clear exemptions for, eg, escaping abuse, seeking treatment for other medical conditions, and getting fed. Help your community out against the abusive or unimaginative conscientious or power-hungry types!

Make a plan. Depending on your relationship with anxiety, extensive worst-case scenarios can be a bit risky to play with. But you can cover the major bases and use your affinity for rules to save yourself some decisions later on:

  • if you’re in an endemic COVID area, familiarise yourself with
    • the typical onset symptoms
    • the current testing criteria in your area, and where you would go for a test if eligible
    • the difference between “care at home” and “go to hospital” symptoms
  • have a plan for spending 14 days entirely inside your front door, eg an appropriate stock of food and painkillers, in Australia learn about Woolworths Priority Assistance and Basics Box etc
  • if you have a known health condition (including mental health!), have a guide to when you are sick enough that you need medical attention for it, and know where you would get such medical attention
  • find an authority you trust (in the best case some level of your government, but perhaps your personal doctor, a different country with a better government, etc) and follow their public health guidelines, not the strictest intersection of every guideline posited by every single epidemiologist, infectious disease physician, and random individual on Twitter
  • if you’re required to work outside the house, see previous point for specific precautions and also remember that physical distancing is a societal measure to slow disease spread that does not require the same thing of every individual person
  • consider #StayAtHome an excellent rule for most people for current circumstances (hopefully eventually in specific regions, very widespread at present!), not the new official way to be a good person forever

Be generous to others. You can’t save the entire world by calling the cops on folks’ parties. Captain Awkward’s post, for all that I’m using it as a jumping off point for “it’s not about you”, has some great tips for more sustainable interventions.

There’s plenty of stories about of people screaming “I see you out there every day! Stay at home! Murderer!” out their windows to people who are on their way to work, at a hospital, because they are a nurse, in a COVID ward. Make a rule to not be that person!

Do something good. Many conscientious people struggle with beliefs they are a bad person. Some of the policing is because people want to actively be good and the only way they can think of is to yell out their window at nurses.

Do some real good: donate some money, or become a civil liberties activist, or let nurses stay in your AirBnb for free, or start working on your plan to go to med school, or send a thank you postcard to hospitals, or join a mutual aid group, or phone a friend.

Work on your dysfunctions. Some of these patterns revolve around overfunctioning and anxiety disorders. Consider therapy or other management techniques.

Manage your own conscience. This is some of where Captain Awkward’s “why are you telling me about it, Edge-Case Bob?” comes from. Some Bobs: “haha, I trumped you in an argument, alleged Internet expert, gotcha!” Other Bobs: “please please, apparent authority figure, reassure me that I’m a good person even though I did a bad thing that was against the rules.”

You have to have better boundaries than this, and a more functional conscience. The rules can’t tell you if you’re a good person or did a good thing, and neither can advice columnists. (I guess I just outed myself as not a deontologist, huh?)

You need to figure it out case by case, and stand by it, and manage your own guilt. Much rule-following is about outsourcing your conscience and self-esteem and you need to stop doing that.

5×2: more news from the organisations

I spoke to several more 5×2 organisations about what they’re working on (several of them, by waiting to call me, had the advantage of discovering the blog series):

UNICEF (day 4) is working to make sure that children receive other vaccines: measles vaccination campaigns have been (hopefully) temporarily interrupted and without good tracking and catch-up campaigns, they risk cohorts of children who go unvaccinated for other diseases.

The Haymarket Foundation (day 2) have worked to move many people who were sleeping rough in Sydney into hotels. They’ve also secured PPE so that they can visit these folks rather than have them staying all alone in hotel rooms indefinitely and have been able to distribute some to other agencies too. They’re working on supplying devices too so that people can access telehealth services. They’re not accustomed to donor outreach or publicity and are working on a way to connect with donors without compromising the privacy and safety of their community.

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and ACON (both day 5) are both working to transition a very in-person based and community-centred service model to a one-on-one, low contact model, while working with community members who have previous traumatic experiences of confinement (asylum seekers) and pandemics (LGBTQ people).

The ASRC writes:

People seeking asylum are often denied the right to work and simultaneously denied the right to safety nets such as Centrelink and Medicare. Right now this means that thousands of people seeking asylum in Australia are being left stranded and forgotten by cruel Government policies. It is clear that people seeking asylum will be among the hardest hit by the impacts of COVID-19.

We are still open and this is why

ACON has a clearinghouse of resources for LGBTQ people during COVID and is providing information on drug and alcohol use in this context at their Pivot Point site.

If you have the capacity to support your community by finding frontline organisations working with Indigenous people, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, homeless people, people without food, disabled people, chronically ill people, children, elderly people, and other vulnerable and at-risk groups, please support them today.

Things you’re allowed to be sad about, an incomplete list

  • getting seriously ill, or having someone close to you become seriously ill or die
  • not being able to see them while they’re ill or before they die
  • choosing between two of your patients’ lives because you only have one ventilator
  • being unable to hold or attend a funeral for a loved one
  • needing urgent medical attention at a time when it’s less available or when you risk catching COVID-19 while receiving it
  • being trapped in a house with your abuser
  • losing your job in the middle of an enormous economic crash
  • losing your home or your possessions likewise
  • shutting down your business you sunk all your savings and time and dreams into
  • having all your savings evaporate
  • living in another country from your loved ones in a time of closed borders
  • planning labour, delivery, and early parenting without the guarenteed access to pain relief, Caesearean sections, midwives, or home support you’d been relying on
  • not being able to care for close friends or relatives in need of help
  • cancelling or postponing your wedding
  • getting uncomfortably ill, particularly if you don’t have good access to sick leave and medical care
  • living alone and dealing with the prospect of not seeing anyone face to face for weeks and weeks
  • not being able to see close friends or relatives for an indefinite period
  • needing to look after your children while holding down a full time job
  • needing to lay other people off and knowing that they face long-term poverty
  • listening to a bunch of people you trusted opine about how “only” sick people (like you) or elderly people (like you) are at serious risk
  • watching news reports about people who were happy and prosperous weeks ago dying alone in hospital corridors
  • being cooped up in your teeny, dark, noisy house for months
  • not being able to fix up problems with your house because handypeople aren’t essential services
  • cancelling your holidays, and telling your kids you cancelled your holidays
  • explaining to your kids that the new normal is that most days there will be bad news about schools, jobs, friends, holidays and you don’t know when the news will stop getting worse
  • cancelling your birthday party or regular board games night
  • liking Milan, or Rome, or New York, and not being sure whether or when you’ll be able to visit them again or what you’ll find if you do
  • liking cruising, and not being sure it is a thing that will exist in the world after this year
  • not being able to hook up with strangers
  • not being able to go to the beach during some of the best weather you’ve seen lately
  • being subjected to people on social media wanting to take whips to “juveniles” seen outside their houses, or wondering why you even bothered to have children if you aren’t thrilled to be locked in a house with them for a few months at a time at short notice

Yes, not all these things are created equal, the list is loosely ordered and of course you don’t want to complain about taking time off from surfing to someone who just missed their mother’s funeral.

But, at the same time, they’re all sad. You have the right to acknowledge if only to yourself and hopefully to fellow less affected friends that it sucks that your holiday is canceled and that you liked your regular board game night a whole lot actually.

This is important for two reasons, one is simply for peace of mind, insofar as such a thing exists right now. A whole lot has changed in the world in the last four weeks. You’re struggling to keep up and you’re grieving. It benefits no one, especially you, for you to pretend to yourself you’re suddenly all cool with anything short of imminent death.

The other reason is that eventually we want it all back. We want to be mostly free of the looming threat of infectious disease, and for hospitals to be safe, and to be allowed to leave our houses whenever we damn well please, and to have jobs (even if we have children!), and to be able to retire, and to see our friends, and to have new sex partners, and for people on social media to stop hating children so much.

Being deprived of all this is a really serious imposition on civil liberties and while we’re certainly called upon to go along with it for the sake of our communities, and it’s useless to be angry or sad about it non-stop or to heap stress on politicians and public health officials in difficult times, it’s also not a good idea to convince ourselves that we like it this way.

We don’t like it this way, and we’re not supposed to. It’s really really really sad.

5×2: Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and ACON

Today is our final day of 5 days of donations to support charities working with vulnerable communities during a health and economic crisis.

Our second last charity is the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre which provides a foodbank, legal aid, healthcare, and other services to refugees and people seeking asylum in Victoria. Their COVID-19 statement.

Many refugees and people seeking asylum are affected by poverty and lack of access to government resources (eg, some of ASRC’s community don’t have access to publicly funded healthcare). In addition, refugees and people seeking asylum often have experience of being detained (frequently by the Australian government) or having limited freedom of movement, and sometimes of infectious diseases spreading through their communities due to lack of healthcare or crowding or neglect. Social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, widespread illness, etc, are things many are familiar with, often deliberately and cruelly inflicted, and this time is re-traumatising for them.

Founded 18 years ago, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) is Australia’s largest human rights organisation providing support to people seeking asylum.

We are an independent not-for-profit organisation whose programs support and empower people seeking asylum to maximise their own physical, mental and social well being.

We champion the rights of people seeking asylum and mobilise a community of compassion to create lasting social and policy change.

Take a tour of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre | ASRC

You can donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre online.

Our last charity is ACON, an Australian health organisation for LGBTQ people, founded for and focussing on people with HIV.

There have been other terrible global pandemics in our lifetime: 32 million people are thought to have died of AIDS to date, with hopes that only 500,000 people will die in 2020. That’s right, half a million deaths from AIDS in 2020 is the hoped for outcome.

And of course, since it’s an immunodeficiency disease, people with HIV are at higher risk from COVID-19, so the two collide. Here’s ACON’s COVID-19 statement, the impact of COVID-19 on people living with HIV in Australia does not yet seem well understood.

We are a fiercely proud community organisation. For our entire history, the work of ACON has been designed by and for our communities.

Established in 1985, our early years were defined by community coming together to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in NSW, and we remain committed to ending HIV for everyone in our communities. We do this by delivering campaigns and programs to eliminate new HIV transmissions. Supporting people living with HIV to live healthy and connected lives remains core to our work.

As we have grown, we have been proud to work with a diverse range of people to ensure their voice and health needs are represented in the work we do.

Who We Are — ACON

You can donate to ACON online.

I’ve shared my family’s donations this week in order to inspire you to think about the hardest hit people in your communities, and in the world, as COVID-19’s health and economic implications bite. If you’re inspired to support one of these ten organisations they can all use a great deal of additional help, but I also encourage you to look around your own community, and around the world for organisations at the frontline of providing services to vulnerable people, and to support them.

5×2: news from the organisations

Several 5×2 organisations have been in touch to share their stories about what they and their communities are going through at this time:

We talked with folks from Médecins Sans Frontières Australia (MSF) (day 1) and YoungCare (day 3) on the phone yesterday. Both organisations are very very scared for their communities. MSF is in Italy and Greece right now assisting with COVID-19 care, and particularly advocating for the evacuation of refugee camps on the Greek Islands. They are having a lot of trouble moving their staff between countries to where they are needed. YoungCare is naturally deeply concerned for disabled Australians with high needs in coming weeks.

Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi Aboriginal Corporation (day 3) wrote:

Everyone here is worried about the impact on our vulnerable clients, many who have multiple health problems and are living in overcrowded inadequate housing or are homeless. Today we are arranging transport back home to Communities for some of our elderly and disabled clients and board members. There is a lot of fear so we are also doing as much as we can to source and create information in local languages, as well as personally keep key senior people up to date.

FoodCare Orange (day 2) wrote:

… such an unsure and concerning time for our community… As FoodCare receives no recurrent Government funding, this will certainly assist us to continue providing what we believe is a very needed service to those experiencing financial hardship.

5×2: UNICEF and Aboriginal Health & Medical Research Council

Today is our fourth of 5 days of donations to support charities working with vulnerable communities during a health and economic crisis.

Today’s two charities are again driven by the interests of our children.

Our first child was keen to support children who are left without stable homes, or possibly families, by COVID-19. For this one we chose a large and well-known charity with a global footprint: UNICEF. They have a COVID-19 overview page.

UNICEF is the world’s leading organisation working to protect and improve the lives of every child in over 190 countries.

Promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. We protect and advocate for the rights of every child in Australia and overseas. We provide life-saving support and protection for children during emergencies and crises.

UNICEF Australia – United Nation’s Children’s Fund

You can donate to UNICEF’s Australian arm or donate to your local arm.

Our second child wanted to help Indigenous Australians, so in addition to yesterday’s donation to Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi Aboriginal Corporation, we have made a donation to The Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council, which is an Indigenous governed peak body for Aboriginal health services. They already have COVID-19 resources in place.

The Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) assists the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHSs) across NSW to ensure they have access to an adequately resourced and skilled workforce to provide high-quality health care services for Aboriginal communities.

Who we are » Aboriginal Health & Medical Research Council of NSW

You can donate to AH&MRC online.

What groups around you are scared of the impacts of COVID-19 and associated economic shocks? Can you help them?

PSA: very few businesses can afford to keep paying their staff without revenue

Apologies for treading into a space where I’m just another tech worker writing a public service announcement in a field I’m not an expert in (economists, either ignore me or hit me with your best links), but for people imploring small and medium-sized businesses to continue paying their staff while closed for lockdowns (or while those staff are out caring for children): they almost certainly can’t afford to.

In stable-ish economic situations, you can regard employers as having a huge amount of economic power relative to workers, although it can collapse very quickly even then (Enron was a house of cards, but they went from being one of the most valuable companies in America to bankrupt in under a month).

But here’s the thing: most businesses, especially small ones, do not keep months of cash around. They keep weeks of cash, or in some cases (more than you’d think), days of cash around, and rely on a mixture of revenue and loans to make their outgoing payments. Even many very large businesses rely on short term loans to make payroll (this is actually one place where Enron got into trouble, when they couldn’t renew the lines of credit they used for things like payroll). Being able to afford to make payroll, even once, without revenue is very much the exception even for what you think of as a successful, enviable, business.

Similarly, with regards to “pay your cleaner!”, people will only keep paying their household staff to stay home until they themselves are laid off, and then they will need to stop doing that, because like businesses, most individuals, even very well paid ones, also do not keep months of cash on hand. And likewise at the point where layoffs reach wealthy individuals, they will stop being able to support their local cafes or artesans or small businesses and so on, in fact a lot of them will be in bad trouble immediately (because their mortgages are sized to their incomes).

I don’t have a good solution to this, we will need to trust in the economic and public health advisers to governments to draw the right lines between short term economic shocks to save lives from COVID-19, and major economic collapses. Definitely pay your cleaner and support charities if you can afford to. But businesses aren’t going to save us for more than a week or so: many businesses will need to initiate major layoffs or go into bankruptcy without either renewed revenues or a bailout in the next few weeks.

Edited to add: it’s also not very intuitive if your usual model of a business is that it is venture-backed, ie, it has access to a bunch of cash that it does not have to repay in the short term, but a large number of businesses use debt and lines of credit instead. In these cases, inability to meet interest payments may result in creditors immediately sending your business into bankruptcy or administration even if you did make payroll. Layoffs are almost certain to follow swiftly. Yes, creditors could be generous here, but they are themselves hurting and have upstream pressure from their own lenders, etc.

5×2: Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi and YoungCare

Today is our third of 5 days of donations to support charities working with vulnerable communities during a health and economic crisis. Today’s two charities are focused on two different communities in Australia.

Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi Aboriginal Corporation is an Indigenous women led organisation that works with people in the Central Desert region of Australia. They work with youth at risk of homelessness; with new families on basic supplies, nutrition and money management; and with elders on disability support. They facilitate art and culture traditions being passed between generations.

Waltja is a community based organisation that works with families from Central Desert indigenous communities to address major issues affecting their communities. Waltja’s work focuses on addressing the many gaps in service delivery for children, youth, elders and people with disabilities in the remote communities of Central Australia.

WALTJA | The Waltja Way

You can donate to Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi Aboriginal Corporation online.

Our second donation is to YoungCare, which provides housing for young people with high care needs including especially constructed housing, funding to live at home, and return to home funding. They’ve just had to postpone a major fundraising event due to COVID-19 risk.

Suitable and appropriate supported housing is one of the greatest areas of unmet need for people with disabilities in Australia. Currently, there are 12,000 young people being left behind in inappropriate housing simply because there is nowhere else for them to go.

The Issue – YoungCare

You can donate to YoungCare online.

In a global crisis, people without stable or suitable housing are hugely at risk: consider supporting these or other groups supporting particular communities at risk today.

Working In Stressful Times

The world-wide flowering of work from home tips is great, but I think what we might all benefit from, now, is working-while-under-extreme-stress tips. These are highly person specific, but for what it’s worth:

Think to yourself “what’s the next thing?” and do that thing, rather than making huge todo lists.

Sometimes the next thing might be stepping away from work for an hour. Really.

Sometimes work is a great distraction. Really.

It’s OK to have meetings that are mostly for the sake of social contact! It’s common for workers to talk about meetings as if they’re at best a necessary evil. For some folks right now, they’re actively a good thing. Virtual coffees and all that, they’re not just for regular work from home isolation, they’re also for pandemic lockdown isolation.

It’s not your job to save the world and also you don’t have the right training. Politicians, public health authorities, and medical professionals have years of experience and/or study in an entirely different field that you don’t have (mostly, I bet there’s someone reading with an MPH or MD or parliamentary experience). Yes they’re confused, contradictory and making mistakes right now because no one is actually good at this. Nevertheless. Social distance and washing your hands and adhering to any lockdowns is basically your contribution, right now. It’s OK to do what you’re told and not feel the need to become a public health expert.

Consider why you’re consuming news. Unfortunately, there are plenty of good reasons for it (eg it’s where you find out what the current public health advice is, you’re tracking family or friends or neighbourhoods, you’re planning to cross an international border or even leave your city any time in the next month) but at least keep your goal in mind. “I need to know whether or not I’m allowed to fly” is different from “I need to know whether I can leave my house” and they’re both different from “I need to know the death toll today in [place I have few ties to].”

Under stress, you might revert to patterns of behaviour you have outgrown or even have done a lot of work to get rid of. You won’t know yourself or be able to predict your own behaviour as well as you usually can. Be kind to yourself if you find yourself doing things that are reactive or defensive.

A lot of people are under extreme stress right now. Likewise, be generous in how you interpret their behaviour. You don’t need to put up with abuse or nastiness, but for things like “you’re repeating yourself a lot” or “you’re planning for the worst case for this project” or “that was one too many tiny critiques in a code review” just keep in mind they’re likely having an extremely bad week too.